No. 1 most memorable Daytona 500: Losing Dale

2/16/2007 - NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Memorable moments aren't always happy moments. Sometimes, what we remember the most are the darkest of tragedies.

If there is one Daytona 500 that no NASCAR fan will ever forget, it's the day six years ago when Dale Earnhardt lost his life.

That tragic occurrence changed NASCAR forever. The sport's biggest star was gone.

But it also was a catalyst for positive changes, causing a revolution from a safety perspective and bringing a greater national awareness of stock-car racing.

"From that day, NASCAR was transformed," said driver Jeff Burton. "It went from being behind everyone else to being the leader in safety. That's a big change."

The race that Sunday afternoon was an amazing show, a historic day when Michael Waltrip ended his 462-race losing streak by winning NASCAR's premier event in his first race for Dale Earnhardt Inc.

The lead changed 49 times between 15 drivers. Earnhardt led four times for a total of 17 laps. But it also was a destructive day long before Earnhardt's last-lap crash.

With 26 laps to go, a bump between Robby Gordon and Ward Burton started an 18-car pileup. Tony Stewart got the worst of it. His car went sailing through the air and bouncing off other cars like a rubber ball on a racquetball court.

Stewart's car was a mangled piece of crushed sheet metal when it came to rest in Turn 3. It looked horrendous, but Stewart walked away. Luckily, he suffered only a mild concussion.

Late in the race, two things were clear: Sterling Marlin had one of the fastest cars. He led 11 times for a total of 39 laps. And the two drivers for Dale Earnhardt Inc. -- Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- were the duo with the best chance to beat him.

They had something Marlin didn't have -- the DEI owner helping them stay in front at the end.

Some people believe Earnhardt did something that day he never had done before: On the final lap, he didn't try to win. He deliberately tried to help the two men ahead of him -- his friend and employee in Waltrip and his 26-year-old son.

Entering Turn 3 of the final lap, Waltrip had the lead and Earnhardt Jr. was second. Earnhardt was close behind them and Marlin was trying to get by him.

Heading for Turn 4, Earnhardt was in the middle of a three-wide pack and Marlin was trying to get by underneath. As they jostled about, Marlin's car slightly tapped Earnhardt's left-rear quarter panel.

It caused Earnhardt to swerve to the left. He tried to catch it, but the car got on the apron and took an immediate turn to the right and headed up the embankment.

Ken Schrader's car slammed into the right side of Earnhardt's car a split second before the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy made hard contact with the outside wall.

At that point, many people had turned their attention to the two leaders, watching Waltrip take the checkered flag with Earnhardt Jr. directly behind him.

Almost everyone assumed Earnhardt was OK. It was a hard crash, but relatively calm compared to the bashing Stewart took a few minutes earlier.

It just didn't look that bad. But when Earnhardt didn't climb out of the crumbled car, as he had done countless times before, everyone feared the worst.

Three hours later, NASCAR president Mike Helton walked into the media center with the news no one wanted to hear.

"Undoubtedly this is one of the toughest announcements I've personally had to make," he said. "After the accident in Turn 4 at the end of the Daytona 500, we've lost Dale Earnhardt."

NASCAR became the center of national attention. Earnhardt was NASCAR's Elvis, a larger-than-life figure who had an undeniable bond with the working man.

Every newspaper and every broadcast outlet focused on Earnhardt's death. Many important people were asking hard questions.

How could this happen to NASCAR's top driver? Why have four NASCAR drivers died in similar crashes in the last nine months?

Earnhardt's death brought controversy over NASCAR's safety standards. There were legal battles over access to his autopsy photos. His seat belt was torn. He wasn't wearing a head-restraint device. He was one of the few drivers still using an open-face helmet.

The cause of Earnhardt's death was the same as so many others in racing: A basilar skull fracture caused by spiked g-forces from a high-speed impact with an immovable barrier.

At the time, the thought of soft walls was laughable to many in racing. It seemed like an unrealistic proposal. That changed thanks to Dr. Dean Sicking, a visionary engineer at the University of Nebraska.

He was instrumental in building and testing the SAFER barrier, a collapsible wall that greatly reduces the g-forces on impact. All NASCAR tracks now use it.

Drivers also now use head-and-neck restraints and carbon-fiber seats with U-shaped padding around the helmet. This year, the Car of Tomorrow adds additional safety initiatives with a larger driver compartment and energy-absorbing materials in the door panels.

Since Earnhardt's death, no driver has died in a NASCAR race. The only serious injury came in 2003 when Jerry Nadeau hit the wall in Richmond and suffered head trauma, but that happened before the SAFER barrier was installed.

Had all of today's safety advancements been in place at the time of Earnhardt's crash, many experts believe he would have walked away.

It took the death of an icon for those things to change.

It's also possible that many people who hadn't followed NASCAR began to watch it because of the attention generated from Earnhardt's death. Television ratings rose dramatically for three seasons afterward.

Sometimes there is a bright side out of our darkest moments. For those who knew Earnhardt, that's how they like to remember his passing.

"It's bad when anyone of Dale's stature dies unexpectedly," said Bill Elliott, who raced against Earnhardt for 23 seasons. "But look at all the good that came from it."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.