- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2001

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. Dale Earnhardt, one of the greatest drivers in stock car racing history, died yesterday in a crash on the last turn of the last lap of the Daytona 500.

"Today NASCAR lost its greatest driver in the history of the sport. I lost a dear friend," said Bill France Jr., chairman of the National Association of Stock Car Automobile Racing and senior member of the family that founded Daytona International Speedway.

Earnhardt, 49, who was known as the "Intimidator" for his aggressive driving tactics, was the first driver killed in 43 runnings of NASCAR's premier race. Neil Bonnett, a close friend of Earnhardt, was killed during practice for the 500 in 1994.

Winning the Daytona 500 in 1998 after 20 years of trying was a high point in a stellar Winston Cup career that produced winnings of $41.6 million and seven championships, tied with Richard Petty for the most titles. The year before his victory at Daytona, Earnhardt had a major wreck. He flipped wildly on the backstretch near the end of the race in 1997 but was not seriously hurt.

Earnhardt was the leader among active Winston Cup drivers with 76 career victories. He also had the most wins (34) at Daytona International Speedway, which lowered its huge American flag in the infield to half-staff after the race.

Doctors said Earnhardt died instantly of head injuries when his coal-black Chevrolet slammed into the track wall in full view of 200,000 fans after grazing Sterling Marlin's car. Earnhardt then was hit broadside by a car driven by Ken Schrader.

Earnhardt was a factor throughout the race and spent the final laps close behind his son, Dale Jr., and teammate Michael Waltrip, the eventual winner, trying to block Marlin. Marlin had just passed Earnhardt, who was trying to get his position back when slight contact sent his Chevrolet spinning up the banking.

"He never showed any signs of life and subsequently was pronounced dead by all the physicians in attendance at 5:16 p.m. His wife, Teresa, was there at bedside," said Dr. Steve Bohannon, a trauma specialist who runs the Speedway's emergency medical service.

Earnhardt also left four children: Kerry, 3Two doctors and medics gave Earnhardt oxygen and CPR for 10 minutes before cutting him free through his car roof, and Mr. Bohannon said they made every effort for another 23 minutes at the hospital before declaring him dead.

"We all did everything we could for him," Mr. Bohannon said. He said there were no outward signs of injury but said blood clogged his ears and airway and he will be autopsied today to pinpoint the cause of death.

Track spokeswoman Kathy Catron announced immediately after the 4:30 p.m. crash that Earnhardt was seriously injured, but his death was not confirmed for another 2 and 1/2 hours, by which time race fans and other racing teams had departed.

"We've lost Dale Earnhardt. Our prayers, our wishes are right now this moment with Teresa and her family," NASCAR President Mike Helton said at 7 p.m., calling it the toughest announcement he has made.

Earnhardt's death came at the moment his own considerable racing fortunes were nearing a new peak. The three-car racing team he owned was about to capture the first three places in the Daytona 500.

As it turned out, Waltrip won the race and $1.3 million, breaking the sport's longest current winless streak at 462 races. Earnhardt Jr. finished second. The triumphs drew no joy in the somber aftermath.

Even though Earnhardt's own car came to rest a few hundred yards before the finish line, he finished in 12th place. His team won $2.5 million for the day, in part because of a spectacular crash on lap 175 that put 21 cars out of contention.

Immediately after the race, Waltrip was aware only that Earnhardt Jr. paved the way by blocking other cars from a last-ditch challenge.

"I owe it all, or most of it, to Dale Jr. I just can't thank him enough, and his daddy, too. I saw him back there fighting them off," he said in Victory Lane, still unaware of the wreck that hospitalized his boss.

But Schrader himself walked to Victory Lane and told Waltrip what had happened and what he feared.

"I guess someone [hit] Dale because Dale got into me and then we went up towards the wall. We hit pretty hard and Dale hit harder," Schrader said.

Later, a subdued Waltrip said, "I would rather be anywhere right this minute than here… . He was not just my owner. He was my friend. My heart is hurt right now, and I want to know what he's going through."

Earnhardt was rushed about 15 minutes after the crash to Halifax Medical Center, where doctors already were treating last year's winningest driver, Tony Stewart, from the earlier 21-car wreck.

Stewart was knocked unconscious by a concussion from a crash that sent his battered orange Pontiac spinning in flight while other cars sped by underneath, a track spokeswoman said. A CT scan of his head and neck was ordered.

Among other top drivers eliminated from race contention by that pileup were John Andretti, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace.

Last year, Busch Series driver Adam Petty, the grandson of stock car great Richard Petty, and Winston Cup driver Kenny Irwin were killed two months apart on the same turn at New Hampshire International Speedway. Truck series driver Tony Roper was killed in a wreck at Texas Motor Speedway in October.

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