Commentary

Norris recalls 2001 Daytona last lap

Updated: February 17, 2011, 10:54 AM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

The White Flag Of The Daytona 500, Feb. 18, 2001

The last lap is a dream scenario for Dale Earnhardt Inc. Two of the team's drivers are running in the top two spots -- Michael Waltrip in front of Dale Earnhardt Jr. And right behind them is Dale Earnhardt Sr., driving for Richard Childress Racing, but directing his DEI racers from the driver's seat.

"The whole time he is coordinating things," said Ty Norris, then DEI's vice president and Junior's spotter that day. "Dale [Sr.] keeps telling Danny [Culler, his spotter] to tell us to stay in line. But every time Dale moves down on the track, Junior gets nervous and tries to move with him.

"No one in their right mind ever thought about Dale not making it to the finish line," Norris added. "Why would you?"

Norris vividly remembers that final lap, almost second by second. He probably wishes he could forget, but no one can.

That lap changed everything in NASCAR when Earnhardt, a seven-time champion and the sport's biggest star, lost his life.

Norris -- now the executive vice president and general manager of Michael Waltrip Racing -- was high above the frontstretch, spotting Earnhardt Jr., who was starting his second Cup season driving for his famous father's team.

Heading Through Turns 1 And 2

Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. are nose-to-tail in the top two spots. A large pack of cars is forming behind them, but Earnhardt Sr. is in control of the herd.

[+] EnlargeWaltrip and Earnhardts
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesMichael Waltrip rushes to the front of the 2001 Daytona 500 with Dale Earnhardt Jr. right behind him. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was running third.

"Dale Sr. was just trying to hold everybody else off so the three of them could race for the win at the end," Norris said. "A lot of people have said Dale spent the entire race blocking.

"It certainly looked that way, but he just wanted to get the end of the last lap where the three of them could compete for the win. If he had a run he would have tried to pass them. He was trying to do all the right things to make sure it was just those three. Dale was trying to control things until the end."

Watching Earnhardt Sr. direct the show was nothing new for Norris. He witnessed it every day at DEI.

"There was quite a bit of micromanaging going on," Norris said with a chuckle. "He used to come in my office complaining about something and I would say, 'You're going to make the worst retired driver ever.'

"I was really concerned he would be bored as an owner and be miserable. But in all honesty, today he would be what Rick Hendrick is now as a championship team owner. I feel very strongly about that."

The Backstretch

Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. are slowly pulling away. Cars lined up nose to tail run faster than cars running side by side. The pack behind them is three-wide with Earnhardt Sr. in the middle. He briefly falls back to fifth, but quickly surges up again, moving slightly ahead of the cars on either side of his legendary No. 3 black Chevrolet.

"At that point, I think Junior felt Dale was in a protection mode," Norris said.

No one can say for sure what Earnhardt Sr. was thinking, but he had to know something glorious was moments away for DEI.

Waltrip, the man whose career Earnhardt saved after years of struggle, could earn his first Cup victory in NASCAR's biggest race. Or Earnhardt Jr. could join his father as a Daytona 500 winner.

Racing Through Turns 3 And 4

Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. now are about 100 yards ahead of the pack behind them. Earnhardt Sr. still is in the middle of a three-wide situation, slightly ahead of the pack.

Sterling Marlin is in the inside lane and Kenny Schrader is outside. As they enter Turn 4, Earnhardt is almost a full car length ahead of Marlin.

Almost.

Earnhardt needed about 18 more inches to clear Marlin. Only 18 inches and the racing world as we know it would be drastically different from what it is today.

As for the finish, maybe Earnhardt would have made a run at the leaders with Marlin pushing him. Maybe not. They had checked out. But in all probability, he would have made it to the end.

Norris believes Earnhardt wanted to clear the pack and try to run down the leaders.

Earnhardt continued to hold his line in the middle and Marlin held his line down low. But three-wide in the turns at Daytona always is dicey. The cars bounce hard at almost 200 mph. It's all but impossible to hold them in one spot.

The Tragic Moment

Marlin's right-front quarter panel touches Earnhardt's left-rear quarter panel ever so slightly, causing Earnhardt's Chevy to turn to the left.

Marlin later would be unfairly blamed for the accident. Had Earnhardt been able to keep the sliding car on the banking, he probably would have slid up into the outside wall either sideways or with the back of the car hitting first.

Earnhardt's car gets down on the flat apron, turning it to the right and shooting it up the track. Schrader's car plows into Earnhardt's right-side door panel, but both cars keep speeding up the embankment.

Earnhardt's car hits the concrete wall slightly skewed to the left of head-on, immediately popping the hood up and over the windshield. Schrader's car is pinned against Earnhardt's.

All in all, as wrecks go, it didn't look so bad.

"There was a lot of bumping and banging going through the turns," Norris remembered. "I saw Dale get hooked, then all I remember saying to Junior was, 'You've lost your drafting partner.' But none of us knew it was anything more than that."

Waltrip wins the race with Earnhardt Jr. on his bumper. Big brother Darrell Waltrip is in tears of joy in the broadcast booth, but he looks back down Turn 4 with fear in his eyes and says: "I hope Dale is OK."

Victory Lane

Norris quickly runs down to enjoy the moment in Victory Lane. But something is amiss. John Graham, the president of Daytona International Speedway, asks Norris to accept the winning owner's trophy.

"I said, 'How come Dale is not going to be here?'" Norris told Graham. "And he said, 'Well, they're taking him over to the hospital.' I said, 'What did he do, hurt his leg or something?' And John just looked away and he said, 'I don't know. They haven't told me.' And I'm like, 'What do you mean they haven't told you?'"

Norris still didn't think much of it except knowing Earnhardt would be mad about missing the celebration.

"I was worried he would be angry because he recently had neck surgery and had finally gotten back to being healthy," Norris said.

Norris quickly notices something else is wrong. No Earnhardt family member is in Victory Lane. Junior isn't there and Teresa Earnhardt, Dale's wife, isn't there.

"I got the trophy and we had our picture taken," Norris said. "I remember being interviewed and saying, 'This isn't right. This is Dale's trophy, not mine, but I'll hold it up.'"

Norris turns around and sees Schrader talking to Waltrip in Victory Lane.

"I saw Michael's face change," Norris said. "I asked him what Schrader said and Michael said, 'It's not good.'"

Norris still is in a state of denial, but that is about to change.

Walking Back To The Cup Garage

"What does Michael mean by not good?" Norris thinks. "Is Dale mad because he broke his leg or something?"

While walking back to the hauler, Norris is told he needs to go to the NASCAR trailer. Several members of NASCAR's hierarchy are there, including Brian France. His father, Bill France Jr., chairman of NASCAR, isn't there.

"Brian closed the door and told me his dad was at the hospital," Norris said. "The phone rang and Brian picked it up. He just hung up and looked at me and said, 'It's the worst.'

"Then I knew. That was the first time I had any indication it was fatal."

The next week was a blur to Norris as the team tried to continue working at DEI.

One Week Later At Rockingham

The race is postponed until Monday because of rain. Earnhardt Jr. crashes on the first lap, hitting the wall at a similar angle to his father's crash eight days earlier.

[+] EnlargeSteve Park
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonSteve Park won at Rockingham for Dale Earnhardt Inc. only eight days after the death of the team's owner.

"When I saw it, it made me almost vomit," Norris said. "I couldn't believe what I just saw. When he got hooked and turned into the wall, it just gave me the flashback to the week before.

"It was pretty eerie. I think after that happened, [Junior's team] probably could have worked to fix that car, but they just wanted to get home. Junior didn't want to get in the car. It was just 'pack it up, let's go.' I remember that vividly."

Depression at the start of the race turns to joy at the end when DEI driver Steve Park wins the event.

"All the flags were at half-mast for obvious reasons," Norris said. "But we all went out to the flag stand and raised the checkered flag all the way to the top and everyone just cried.

"After that, you felt like we were going to be OK as a race team. You have to deal with the life part, but the race team, we felt like we were going to be OK."

So much has changed in 10 years. Safety advancements have revolutionized the sport for the better. Earnhardt Jr. moved on to Hendrick Motorsports. And the name DEI no longer exists, the team having merged with Chip Ganassi's team.

But Norris believes Dale Earnhardt is as relevant today as he was the day he died.

"I didn't grow up watching Elvis," Norris said. "But I have a great deal of respect for him. The same is true with the Beatles.

"I feel the same is true with Dale. They still know him, just like football fans know Vince Lombardi and have respect for what he did. Dale still has significance. I think he always will."

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter