2001 - The Year in Sports 2001 - The Year in Sports


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NASCAR in the Spotlight
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That Dale Earnhardt had walked away from far more horrific crashes spoke to the bizarre karma of Feb. 18 and of the 2001 NASCAR season in general. Typically aggressive while running interference on the final lap at the Daytona 500 for the two leaders, the Earnhardt-owned cars of eventual winner Michael Waltrip and runner-up Dale Jr., Earnhardt slammed headfirst into a wall between the third and fourth turns, dying instantly from head trauma after his seatbelt snapped. Is it hubris to suggest that Earnhardt leading NASCAR to the height of its popularity, then leaving his legacy to his son, Dale Jr., and his signature car, now driven by Kevin Harvick, is vaguely reminiscent of a still-strong Moses dying at the edge of the promised land? Indeed Junior's first win of the season came, whether suspiciously or fatefully, at Daytona's Pepsi 400 in July; he took the final lead in that race at the same spot on the track where his father had died. Harvick, who inherited Earnhardt's black No. 3 Chevy Monte Carlo, won in Atlanta in March in only his third start and finished the season as Winston Cup Rookie of the Year. His ruthless bumping and running drew comparisons to Earnhardt (and, less flatteringly, to Tony Stewart) and led to altercations with Chad Little, Ricky Rudd, Jeff Green and Bobby Hamilton as Harvick became the first driver to finish in the top 10 in both the Winston Cup (ninth) and Busch (first) standings. After a six-month investigation into Earnhardt's death, NASCAR announced that each car will carry a crash recorder next year and that the organization will work to improve track medical facilities, but decided not to require drivers to use a head-and-neck restraint, perhaps demonstrating which -- safety or hard driving -- held the early lead in the race for the Intimidator's enduring legacy.

--Jamal Greene

  • Tribute to Dale Earnhardt
  • Frank Deford: Honorable pastime
  • Life of Reilly: What Drove Dale Earnhardt
  • Video Box: Mike Helton and Johnny Phelps on NASCAR controversy
  • Photographs by George Tiedemann, M. David Leeds/Allsport, Chris Stanford/Allsport