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From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED PRESENTS, February 28, 2001
IT WAS FITTING THAT THE denouement of the Dale Earnhardt story played out at Daytona International Speedway, the site of some of his most triumphant moments and most bitter failures. Earnhardt spent much of the last month of his life at the track, which hosts a slew of races in February, and in every one of those events he loomed as a major player. Who else should hog the spotlight on stock car racing's biggest stage than its biggest star?
Before this year Earnhardt had never raced in the 24 Hours of Daytona, but postholiday doldrums inspired him to finally give it a shot. "A lot of things got me interested in the race," he said. "Christmas and New Year's were over, and I was getting a little bored. And I've always been interested in the 24 Hours of Daytona." His teammates in the number 3 Goodwrench Service Plus Corvette would include veterans Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins, and another newcomer, son Dale Jr.
The endurance race is run in sports cars on a tricky 3.56-mile course that combines sections of the speedway's bankings with a twisting stretch in the infield, and the drivers alternate every few hours—quite a change from turning a set number of laps on an oval in a stock car. "They kind of play by different rules in this series," Junior said. "Coming up on the slower cars is the easiest part. But passing the fast cars worries me because I'm not sure they know which way I'm going, because a lot of times I don't know where I'm going." In other words, said his dad, "It's kind of like driving in New York, New York."
Anyone who has attempted to navigate the streets of Gotham knows it can be enough to intimidate even the Intimidator. "I'll admit I was a little nervous at first," said Dale Sr. But once they got acclimated to their new ride, the Earnhardts helped the team to a fourth-place finish.
Earnhardt was soon back behind the wheel of a more familiar machine, his number 3 Monte Carlo. Practice for the Daytona 500 kicked off on Feb. 9, just five days after the end of the 24 Hours, and the old black Chevy rolled off the transporter strong, giving Earnhardt reason to be optimistic. He was certainly far less grumpy than the previous February, when he spent much of Speedweeks complaining that NASCAR had put the Chevys at a disadvantage by not placing greater restrictions on the more aerodynamic Fords. After last year's virtually pass-free 125-mile qualifying races, he griped, "Mr. Bill France Sr. probably would have rolled over in his grave if he saw that deal."
Though Earnhardt loathed restrictor-plate racing, he excelled at it. The 76th and final win of his career had come in a restrictor-plate race in October, the Winston 500 at Talladega, an event that drew raves from onlookers for its 49 lead changes, which included Earnhardt's moving from 18th to first in the last five laps. Some drivers, however, were less effusive in their praise. Said Jeff Gordon, "It was a little too exciting at times for me."
The excitement came thanks to a rules change that NASCAR made in the wake of three dull restrictor-plate races earlier in 2000. The sanctioning body decided to slow the cars down aerodynamically and to switch to a less restrictive plate, which in turn gave them the power to pass more easily. Not only did the Talladega race feature a breathtaking game of hot potato with the lead, but it also was completed without the big wreck that drivers have come to expect at superspeedways.
Pleased with the Talladega experiment, NASCAR stuck with the new rules for this year's Daytona 500, which left some drivers skittish. "The cars are so stable now that you feel like you are Superman, you can go out there and do anything you want to do with them," Stacey Compton said two days before the race. "There are some awful talented drivers out here, and we have a tendency to put the cars in some places they don't belong and come out of it. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't."
But the Budweiser Shootout, the first race of Speedweeks, went off without a major incident while featuring 19 lead changes. Earnhardt battled Tony Stewart down the stretch, but fresher tires allowed Stewart to take the checkered flag. "It's intimidating when he's back there, but I have to do my job," Stewart said. "He's got more tricks than anybody out there. I had to pay attention to what he was doing. But after the race, realizing you beat Dale Earnhardt at his own game in a restrictor-plate race is really special."