- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2001

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. The death of stock car racing icon Dale Earnhardt in the final seconds of yesterday's Daytona 500 eclipsed the premier event of a sport that starts its season with its "Super Bowl."

It certainly obscured the high point of Michael Waltrip's life his first victory in 463 starts, breaking NASCAR's longest active winless streak. And it ruined Earnhardt's extraordinary personal achievement of helping the three-car team he owns decisively capture the most volatile Daytona 500 in many years.

Earnhardt, 49, of Mooresville, N.C., was killed instantly in one of his desperation banging and slamming maneuvers, part of the win-at-all-costs philosophy that earned him "the Intimidator" title he savored and $41.6 million for his career.

But his death may produce a longer-lasting legacy, one that prevents deaths from such relatively routine crashes.

In NASCAR, drivers die when their heads jerk their necks in crashes like Earnhardt's, yet sometimes everybody walks away from more spectacular wrecks, such as yesterday's fiery 19-car mixup. If today's autopsy confirms Dr. Steve Bohannon's suspicion that Earnhardt died from internal injuries to the base of his skull when his car hit the wall before Ken Schrader's car hit him, it would give support for those asking NASCAR to adopt a Head And Neck Safety (HANS) brace.

Earnhardt refused to wear a HANS because he was among those drivers who said the device limits head movement needed to watch other traffic. HANS costs about $1,200 a car and prevents hyperextension in the kind of sudden stops that result from cars slamming into walls.

The HANS is designed to prevent the kind of injuries that apparently ended Earnhardt's life and those of NASCAR drivers Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin in identical crashes eight weeks apart last year in Loudon, N.H.

NASCAR reportedly is the only major racing circuit that does not require its use.

Bohannon wavered last night when asked whether the HANS would have saved Earnhardt's life, saying he would know more after today's autopsy.

"I really don't know if that would have or not," he said. "I suspect not. He had blood in the ears that we see with basilar skull fractures but really no other external evidence of trauma."

NASCAR president Mike Helton, who has discouraged efforts to have NASCAR adopt HANS, declined to address the topic last night.

"There will be other press conferences and other opportunities to answer questions as we get more answers," Helton said.

President Bush called Earnhardt's wife, Teresa, last night to express his condolences.

Bush spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the president's "prayers are with the Earnhardt family and the NASCAR community."

Waltrip's shining moment came before anyone really knew what had happened.

When he was leading the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team to what looked like a one-two-three sweep of the Daytona 500, big brother Darrell Waltrip who won the Daytona 500 himself in 1989 cheered him on from the Fox broadcast booth, where he made his debut as a race analyst.

"Go Mikey, go go go," the elder Waltrip shouted on the air, even as Earnhardt caromed off the wall and into Schrader.

Michael Waltrip crossed the finish line one-eighth of a second ahead of teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Waltrip shed tears after his first Winston Cup victory career, for which he won $1,331,185.

The elder Earnhardt placed 12th for a purse of $194,111. It was the first time since 1989 that he finished without a Speed Week victory of any kind.

Before getting any news about his boss, Waltrip was busy discouraging reporters from making too much of breaking his long drought.

"You can make a story now about me being 1-for-463, and that's not a very good record either," Waltrip said.

He fought his way from a 19th-place start to lead two Chevrolets and two Fords to victory over the fastest of 10 Dodges with Bill Elliott at the wheel.

When he finally learned of Earnhardt's wreck and suspected he was dead, he apologized to reporters gathered for a victory interview.

"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," he said.

Because of Earnhardt's death, the track canceled its traditional day-after ceremony to install the winning car for a year into the museum outside the speedway.

Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd were third and fourth in Fords, and Elliott, who started his Dodge Intrepid from the favored pole position, finished fifth after running near the back of the pack most of the day.

The vaunted Dodges, returning to Daytona International Speedway after 19 years, were scattered evenly throughout the 43-car field, with half of them finishing among the last 15 positions.

The fastest Pontiac, driven by Bobby Hamilton, placed eighth.

Race time was 3 hours, 5 minutes, 26 seconds. Waltrip's average speed was 161.783 mph. There were three caution periods for a total of 14 laps, and the race was stopped for 16:25 to clean up the 19-car mess on the backstretch.

Both Pontiacs from Joe Gibbs Racing, driven by Tony Stewart and defending Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte, were demolished in that lap 175 wreck.

That wreck cut the field virtually in half with 25 laps to go, thinning the three-wide traffic jam that had many drivers on edge all day long while producing some of the best racing at Daytona.

It has been 18 years since that many lead changes occurred at a Daytona 500, which in recent years seemed more like a parade than a race at times.

Even before yesterday's tragedy, Ford driver Dale Jarrett criticized writers and drivers who pressed for the kind of closer competition that produced yesterday's action. When he wrecked his own car Thursday, he blamed those who sought more "excitement."

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