Some people say there is no better healing in sports than winning.
Through every sport there are many examples, from Mike Piazza’s dramatic home run during the first baseball game played in NYC after 9/11, to Bret Favre’s magical Monday Night Football game right after his father passed away.
However, no sport proves this better than NASCAR. In a sport that is almost as unpredictable as any, it is almost expected, almost to a script, that there will be triumph over tragedy.
Take February 18, 2011 for example. This date was the much-hyped 10-year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death during the last lap of the Daytona 500. Although most of us have managed since, there was always some mystery surrounding Michael Waltrip and his reaction to what easily had to be one of the worst days of his life.
Only recently has he began speaking--through book--about what it felt like to FINALLY win a race, not only a race, but THE biggest race, while his good friend, car owner, mentor, and arguably one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers, slipped into eternity in his rear view mirror.
Nothing speaks more volumes, however, than crossing the finish line first at the Daytona Camping World Truck Series race on the exact anniversary. Not only that, but his older brother, Darrell, was in the same exact spot he was 10 years ago, screaming “YOU GOT IT!” at the top of his lungs in the announcer's booth, just as he did when Mikey won the 500.
This is only one example of real life almost merging into fantasy in the NASCAR world.
Another really poignant example is Jimmie Johnson‘s victory in the fall 2004 Atlanta race, a week after a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed, killing 10 team members/team friends.
In the spirit of Daytona and Watrip’s victory, let us just focus on a few moments during the 2001 season.
After Dale Earnhardt’s death, NASCAR almost stopped dead in its tracks. How can Dale’s GM Goodwrench team keep moving after losing its driver? How can DEI keep moving after losing its owner? How can Dale Jr. keep moving after losing his father?
How can the sport keep moving after losing its biggest star?
You talk about redemption, not only did all of those questions get answered rather quickly, but they turned a nightmare situation into an inspirational situation for believers.
One week after Earnhardt’s death, all three DEI drivers--Steve Park, Michael Waltrip, and Dale Jr.--all stepped back into their race cars at Rockingham. During lap 1, in an extreme twist of fate, Junior wrecked in an accident eerily similar to the one his father was in the week prior, when he was hit from behind and ran head-on into the turn 3 wall.
Steve Park, after holding off a late-surging Bobby Labonte, ultimately ended up winning the race. Two weeks in a row Dale Earnhardt’s team ended up taking the checkered flag, and Park met Waltrip on the front stretch and gave him a hi-5.
Richard Childress was even more helpless. While DEI was able to begrudgingly move on, how can Childress, owner and very close friends with Dale, possibly keep going?
In an interview during the biography Dale, Richard even made mention to the idea that he was going to quit following his death, until he thought about how Earnhardt would have wanted him to keep going.
So it was decided that he will continue. But how? He had no driver for the Goodwrench team, and even so, had no intentions of replacing somebody in the #3 car.
Childress decided to take the number 29, paint the car white, and put Kevin Harvick, a driver from the Busch Series, in the car.
Two weeks later, in Atlanta, Harvick stunned the world by drag racing Jeff Gordon to the finish line, conquering him by 6 thousandths of a second.
It was one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history.
There was not one dry eye in the house. Everybody, from Richard Childress to Mike Joy in the FOX booth, had that distinctive quiver in their voices.
Most of the Earnhardt crew thought they were going to be out of jobs after losing a great friend; now they were back in victory lane!
That just left Dale Earnhardt Jr. For most of the first half of the season, he seemed to have internalized the grief of losing his dad on the race track. He was constantly asked about it, but never gave as emotional of a response as, say, Childress did after being interviewed following Kevin Harvick’s win in Atlanta.
Then they head back to Daytona for the first time since his father‘s accident. As Alan Bestwick in the NBC booth elated, “using lessons learned from his father to go from sixth to first!,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the victory in the Pepsi 400. He spun out his car in the infield, parked it, hugged teammates from both his #8 and the #15 crew, then jumped on top of runner-up Michael Waltrip’s car to celebrate the victory together.
NASCAR’s darkest day was the day the Man in Black lost his life in what was supposed to be NASCAR’s defining moment. After all, they just signed a new TV deal and were looking to start their new “national” era.
However, it brought about some of the most emotionally driven moments one could ever imagine.
Michael Waltrip’s victory 10 years to the date on Friday was only a reminder of the perseverance we all have to step up when it counts the most.
Just like the racing world did in 2001.
NOTE: Picture credit of Media Wieck