Earnhardt's death a big blow to Waltrip
Today's Daytona 500 marks the 10th anniversary of auto-racing icon Dale Earnhardt's death during the race's final lap, and of all the drivers in today's race, Michael Waltrip knows he has to go down that road.
"I'm not that bright," Waltrip said in a telephone interview, "but last year I said, 'Nine is now. And 10 is next.'"
So he wrote a book, "In the Blink of an Eye," about that day, when Waltrip, now 47, won the first of his two Daytona titles, taking the checkered flag seconds after Earnhardt - who was Waltrip's friend and the owner of his car - hit the wall.
"It was definitely a race you don't want to be the winner of," Waltrip said. "It's painful, and it's sad, but the 10th anniversary was coming. I'm totally not here celebrating my win 10 years ago. I'm here to honor Dale, let people see that my car [painted black, the color Earnhardt drove] is a reflection of him and my racing is out of respect and admiration for him and what he did for me. I feel real comfortable being here."
Race officials have requested that, during the third lap of today's race, fans observe a moment of silence and hold up three fingers; Earnhardt's Chevy bore the No. 3. Earnhardt's son, Dale Jr., who has inherited many of his father's fans, won Daytona in 2004 and today will start from the pole position, told reporters last week that he would be "happy to observe everything" done in his father's memory.
"But if you don't mind," Earnhardt Jr. said, "I'd just rather watch it; stand on the sidelines. I know how I feel in my heart and I don't feel the need to discuss it a lot. What I enjoy is hearing other people talk about him, not me."
Waltrip called the Daytona Speedway's newly paved track, the first such treatment since 1979, "the big story" of this year's race. The resurfacing, according to speedway president Joie Chitwood, cost $20 million, required 50,000 tons of asphalt and covered more than 33 acres.
The new, smoother surface will save up to seven sets of tires per car, aid handling, faciliate more pack racing and increase speeds. (Waltrip hit 206 miles per hour on the track last weekend, prompting NASCAR officials to impose some minor technical changes to slightly reduce horsepower today.) Pat Tryson, crew chief for Waltrip's racing stable, said that NASCAR's new design for car "noses" is mostly for aesthetics, but the new track will affect "drafting" strategy.
To an old hand like Waltrip, it's all progress for a venue he said "truly inspires me. This is my 25th straight 500. It's a special place to me. I've had my highest highs and definitely my lowest lows at this place.
"When I was a kid, 12 years old, I'd come down from my home in Kentucky to watch my brother [Darrell] race, and I was mesmerized by those curves, that track three stories high in the turns, banked 31 degreees. Some kids had a Playboy magazine under their mattress; I had pictures of the Daytona Speedway. My curves were different, I guess."
When track officials began the re-paving process last summer, using a backhoe to dig down to the sand under the original pavement laid down in 1959, Waltrip showed up to claim a souvenir chunk.
"Probably," he said, Earnhardt's death "affects me more than anybody else here. We were so close to having one of the greatest Daytona 500s ever and, in the blink of an eye, it changed. He didn't make it off Turn 4, and it became the worst race ever.
"But I'd like to say that, while you rarely would talk about 10 years ago being back in the day, for safety in NASCAR, 2001 was back in the day. Race car drivers are so much safer since 2001, with the beefed up seats, head and neck restraints; the advancements are phenomenal.
"I love it here. I hope I can still do this a few more years."