THE SAFETY REVOLUTION THAT BEGAN IN THE 1960s CAME FULL CIRCLE, but not before NASCAR lost a legend. On Feb. 18, 2001, seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt perished when his car slammed into the Turn 4 wall on the last lap of the Daytona 500. He was the fourth driver to die in a nine-month span, and the outcry from fans spurred a safety study that changed the sport. NASCAR would soon mandate that all drivers wear head-and-neck support (HANS) devices and would require all oval tracks to install steel and foam energy reduction (SAFER) barriers. In '07 NASCAR introduced the Car of Tomorrow, which featured several more subtle changes designed to protect the driver. To date, the Intimidator's death is the last in a Cup race. � Luckily for fans, NASCAR's emphasis on safety has had little effect on its compelling style of racing. With the '04 debut of the Chase, a 10-race postseason, the circuit has witnessed some of the most exciting Cup battles in years. Kurt Busch won the first Chase by just eight points, and no title has been decided by more than 77. In addition to thrilling fans, the exciting racing has begun to attract the notice of drivers from other racing series. In '07 former Indy 500 champ Juan Pablo Montoya made the jump from Formula One to NASCAR, and this year he will be joined by another Indy star, Dario Franchitti. The little racing series begun on the beach at Daytona has become, arguably, the world's premier motor sports circuit.
DECADE AT A GLANCE
AFTER GETTING body touch-ups and a new fender on race morning because of a crash the day before, Dale Jarrett wins his third 500. "The paint was still wet [three hours before the race]," says crew chief Todd Parrott. "I was worried the decals were going to fly off."
DARRELL WALTRIP'S younger brother, Michael, takes first place at the 500 after 16 winless years of Cup racing. But the race will be remembered for the crash on the final turn of the final lap that claims the life of seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.
DURING A CAUTION period with five laps to go, Sterling Marlin illegally exits his car, handing the lead to Ward Burton, who leads the remaining laps and goes on to win. "We try to be smart," Burton says after the victory. "At the same time, like [crew chief Tommy Baldwin] always says, we try to drive it like we stole it."
MICHAEL WALTRIP wins again to begin the last Winston Cup season after NASCAR and R.J. Reynolds, the tobacco company that has sponsored the sport's top series since 1971, decide to part ways. The Cup goes to Matt Kenseth, who becomes the fourth driver to become champion after winning just one race all season.
NINE MONTHS before being reelected, President George W. Bush acts as the grand marshal, presiding over an emotional victory for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Kurt Busch avoids a crash during the last race of the season (at Miami) and wins the inaugural Chase for the Cup by the narrowest margin of victory in NASCAR history (eight points), over Jimmie Johnson.
TEAM OWNER Rick Hendrick and his top driver, Jeff Gordon, celebrate Gordon's third 500 win, a bittersweet victory that comes four months after Hendrick lost his son and nine other family members and friends in a plane crash. Gordon finishes the season out of the Top 10 for the first time since '93, his rookie year.
JOHNSON takes home $1.5 million for his victory in the 500, then adds $14,395,624 more in winnings on his way to the first of back-to-back Cup titles. His '06 total sets a mark for single-season winnings and surpasses Tony Stewart's 2005 record by more than $2 million.
SINCE THE ADVENT of computerized scoring in '93, no victory at the 500 has been narrower than Kevin Harvick's .020-of-a-second win over Mark Martin. Harvick doesn't win another Cup race but finishes '07 with six checkered flags in Busch Series events, including one at Daytona.