Never before has a sport lost its biggest star on national TV during its defining contest. But that’s exactly what happened ten years ago today when Dale Earnhardt Sr. died during the Daytona 500.
It’s a script that even Hollywood couldn’t come up with. Dale Sr. died after hitting the wall in the final turn of the final lap of his sport’s biggest race. And what’s more, he did it while racing for third, holding back the rest of the pack, thus assuring that Michael Waltrip and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., finished first and second. As the owner of both cars, and the father of one of the drivers, he died the way he lived: winning. Now, 10 years later, everyone wonders if his son can honor his dad with a win.
Today, countless black #3 flags were at half mast at the first sign of light as fans all over the world honor the fallen legend. And it’s for that reason that Dale Earnhardt Sr. may as well be entered in Sunday’s Daytona 500, as his essence will likely define the evening.
Dale Jr had been slated to start on the pole thanks to running the fastest lap time in last week’s qualifying. But a wreck during practice meant Jr. would have to turn to a back up car, and by rule, be required to start at the back of the pack. Though at a fast track like Daytona, starting position doesn’t matter as much as it does at a smaller track like Bristol, Jr. couldn’t have been happy with the development.
Nothing would mean more to him than to win this year’s Daytona 500 to commemorate the tenth year anniversary of the passing of his dad. He’s already won some symbolic races in his dad’s honor before. Like the 2001 Pepsi 400, the first NASCAR race to be held at Daytona since his father’s death. Dale Earnhardt Jr. made up 5 spots in the final 6 laps to go from sixth to first. It was the first NASCAR race he had ever won.
“Y’all know who that’s for,” an emotional Earnhardt Jr. said over his in-car radio.
Indeed, they did. It was for the same guy he’ll be racing for on Sunday.