Earnhardt unselfish at the end

Updated: June 21, 2001, 11:55 PM ET
By Dr. Jerry Punch

It's ironic that people talk about how selfish Dale Earnhardt was on the racetrack. He was a winner and when he buckled that helmet on he was focused on winning. But those of us who knew him off the track know how unselfish he really was.

The irony is that Sunday, for the first time on the track, you saw him be very unselfish in the final laps. In my opinion, he had a car that could have made a move. He could have pulled up in front of Sterling Marlin and maybe Kenny Schrader, probably drafted by and won his second Daytona 500.

NASCAR racing is the safest kind of racing in all of motorsports. There's nothing safer than those race cars and inch-and-three-quarters roll bar tubing. We saw Geoffrey Bodine's horrific tumble at Daytona last year in the truck race and we saw Tony Stewart airborne Sunday. Seventeen drivers walked away from that crash and Stewart was taken to the hospital, but will be fine.

What you can't predict is what happened to Dale Earnhardt, what we saw happen to Neil Bonnett years ago, what happened to Ernie Irvan at Michigan back in 1994 -- the abrupt right-hand turn up into the wall that results in an almost head-on collision.

It's difficult to talk about safety devices when we're talking about the loss of someone we cared about so much and the Hans device is a good one. But, even as safe as these cars are, I'm not sure the Hans device would have made that much difference with the massive deceleration Dale Earnhardt experienced at 185 mph. Typically in these cases, the driver sustains a fracture to the head. That is not a survivable injury. The injuries that are most survivable look the worst. The violent tumbles dissipate energy slowly and result mostly in broken bones and maybe a concussion. But the ones, like Sunday, where the car veers suddenly into the wall are the worst.

What Dale Earnhardt did in those final laps is what a father would do for a son, who was running right in front of him, or a brother would do for a brother. And Michael Waltrip was like a little brother he never had. He stayed in the third spot and ran a 180 mph screen. He kept Marlin and Schrader, and the others who didn't have a chance coming down the stretch, behind him so that his son and his friend could have an opportunity to win.

It was a very unselfish move and one that many of us who have known him for years understood.

Dr. Jerry Punch

Auto Racing and College Football commentator
Dr. Jerry Punch is one of ESPN's most versatile commentators, working an extensive schedule of auto racing and college football. Punch joined ESPN as a pit reporter for Winston Cup races in 1984 and added college football reporting in 1989.