Waltrip says Earnhardt was just doing his thing
Updated: Tuesday February 20, 2001 8:10 AM
By Mike Fish, CNNSI.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A day after his boss, Dale Earnhardt, was killed in a final-lap crash at the Daytona 500, Michael Waltrip went out of his way to stress it was just hard racing.
Nobody was at fault, he said.
Not NASCAR officials, who some suggested went too far in efforts to slow speeds and produce tighter racing.
Certainly not Sterling Marlin, whose Dodge nudged the driver-side rear corner of Earnhardt's black No. 3 Chevy Monte Carlo, launching it into a spin that ended with it slamming into the concrete outer wall.
"It's my opinion that was just a racing incident," said Waltrip, winner of the accident-marred race. "Sterling didn't do anything wrong. Sterling was simply racing. And when the checkered [flag] is waving nobody is going to let off. When they rubbed, I'm sure Sterling didn't think Dale would wreck, or he would not have rubbed him.
"I don't think that wreck looks like anything other than guys just wanting to get to the checkered. I believe that in my heart. They made contact, no denying that, but I didn't see that being anyone's fault."
It may also have been a case of Earnhardt looking out for his team, as he blocked Marlin's car for several laps before the accident. Just ahead were two cars owned by his North Carolina-based company, the DEI Monte Carlos of Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
When Marlin tried to slip down to pass heading into the final turn, Earnhardt went even lower on the track. Earnhardt's car shot up towards the wall and into the path of an oncoming car driven by Kenny Schrader.
"I think Dale was doing what he loved to do," Waltrip said. "And he was coming for the checkered, and his two cars were winning the race. I thought Dale Jr. was pushing me along to help me out. I didn't know the thunderstorms that Dale was fighting back there with all the other cars.
"You know, he was just doing his job. And close races sometimes make contact happen. When contact happens you hit the wall. Schrader did and Schrader walked. And Dale didn't."
The business-as-usual approach was the theme in one of the sport's darkest hours.
Bill France Jr., NASCAR chairman of the board, offered his condolences to the 37-year-old Waltrip, and then thought better of his word choice for the cloud overshadowing his first Winston Cup victory. Waltrip, the younger brother of driving great Darrell Waltrip, hadn't won a points race in 462 previous starts.
Then, he took the checkered flag in the sport's biggest race.
"And in the last minute of the race he had a lot of water thrown on his win," France said. "Michael, I can't apologize for that. You'll win some more. There'll be plenty and you won't have a problem associated with it."
Like many at the Speedway, Waltrip had no clue as to the seriousness of Earnhardt's condition after the race. He had become a close friend of Earnhardt and his wife, Teresa. And so, with his racing career on the rocks, Earnhardt hired him before this season to drive the third and last car for his team.
That's what made his trip to victory lane so bizarre.
"I just couldn't wait till I got that big grab on the neck, that big hug," Waltrip said. "I just knew any minute Dale was going to join me in Victory Lane, and say, 'That's what I'm talking about, right there.' That wasn't to be. My belief is in a twinkle of an eye you're in presence of the Lord. And that's where I think Dale is."