Bittersweet year for Earnhardt fans
|Rolex 24 at
Finished: 2nd in class, 4th
Chevy Monte Carlo
|Car No: 3
|Sponsor: GM Goodwrench Service Plus
2001 Season Summary
The 2001 season was a year of emotionally extreme
highs and lows on the Winston Cup circuit. Among these extremes were Dale Earnhardt's
unfortunate death and the many stirring tributes to him, Dale Jr.'s Daytona win and his
continued growth into one of circuit's top drivers, and the Winston Cup debut of Kevin
When the year began, DEI had just added a third team with driver Michael Waltrip, Dale Jr.
was entering his sophomore season, and The Intimidator was on top of his game and looking
to improve on his 2nd-place finish in points the previous year. All was good in the racing
world for Dale Earnhardt fans.
Despite being a just few months away from turning 50 years old, Earnhardt was showing few
if any signs of slowing down on the race track. After he and Dale Jr. earned a fourth place (2nd in their class)
finish in the Rolex 24, "The Man in Black" went through a string of nail-biting
"almost-wins" at Daytona, a track he practically owned, during the 2001
Speedweeks. It began when Tony Stewart passed Earnhardt with less than a lap and a half to
go and held on to win the Budweiser Shootout. Later that week, Dale Earnhardt was leading
when the first Gatorade Twin 125s race resumed green-flag racing with one lap to go.
Coming down the backstretch, a crowd of drafting cars caught up with Earnhardt. Sterling
Marlin, with help from Jerry Nadeau, was able to get by Earnhardt on the inside heading
toward turn 3. Earnhardt, a sitting duck on the last lap, finished third.
After that, Earnhardt was leading the IROC event when contact by Eddie Cheever sent Dale's
blue Firebird out of control and into the infield grass, putting him out of contention to
win. The following Sunday, Dale was again a contender to win, this time in the 43rd annual
Daytona 500. Earnhardt ran near the front of the pack for much of the day, and avoided a
late multi-car crash. He was running third in the final turn of the final lap at the time
of his crash that shook the NASCAR world.
The following week will be remembered
for, among other things, the extensive media coverage of Earnhardt and NASCAR that few
could have anticipated, as people everywhere tried to make sense of a situation that made
no sense. Dale Jr. and Richard Childress both announced that they would race in Rockingham
the following weekend, just as Earnhardt would have wanted. "We're gonna do what Dale
would want us to do, and that's race," said a heart-torn Childress.
With his win at 'The Rock,' Steve Park
made the first move in what would be a long healing process. Dale Earnhardt Inc. had won
the season's first two races! Two weeks later it was Kevin Harvick bringing RCR back to
victory lane in Atlanta, in an amazing finish that was remarkably similar to Earnhardt's
finish in that race the previous year.
Meanwhile, Teresa Earnhardt was forced to fight a frustrating battle against certain
members of the media in order to keep here husband's autopsy photos private. In early
March, Teresa would turn to the fans for support in her fight. Later that month, a bill
that requires a judge's permission to release autopsy photos was unanimously approved. But
the battle wasn't over. For several more months, some newspapers and a
sorry-excuse-for-a-website fought the new bill, calling it unconstitutional. In mid-June a
judge ruled again in favor of Teresa, stating that the autopsy photos cannot be made
Through the first half of the season Dale Jr. remained the only winless team at DEI
racing. Then, in the circuit's first race at Daytona without The Intimidator, Dale Jr.
passed Johnny Benson in the closing laps for an immensely popular and emotional win. From
there, Junior finished out the season with two more victories, including a star-spangled
win at Dover. A handful of consistent finishes late in the season moved the Budweiser team
back up to an eighth-place finish in the final points standings.
The week following Dale Jr.'s Daytona victory, Kevin Harvick won the inaugural race at
Chicago. Harvick, who's driving style drew many comparisons to the Dale Earnhardt's,
finished the year winning the Busch Grand National title and the Rookie of the Year
Kerry Earnhardt also made trips to victory lane, winning three ARCA events in his
Kannapolis Intimidator's sponsored black Monte Carlo. His wins came at Michigan, Charlotte
Throughout the year, countless
tributes were performed in honor of Earnhardt. Among them: the weekly three-finger salutes
on Lap 3 and the thousands of fan messages covering Earnhardt's merchandise trailer. On
the 1st of September, Earnhardt was inducted into the National Motorsports Press
Association's Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame.
The season ended with the NASCAR Winston Cup Awards Banquet in New York, where Garth
Brooks sang "The Dance" in tribute to Earnhardt. Following the performance,
Teresa Earnhardt, who was named Person of the Year by "NASCAR Winston Cup
Illustrated" magazine, accepted the Myers Brother's award (2001's most popular
driver) on behalf of Dale.
As the short off-season dwindles away, focus is already set on 2002. Among the events to
look forward to are the two Busch Series races that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will run using his
late father's number 3. Kerry Earnhardt will race in the Busch series in a #8
"Supercuts" sponsored car, co-owned by Terry Bradshaw. In Winston Cup we will
watch as Dale Jr. and Kevin Harvick attempt to move up to the top-5 in points and possibly
contend for the WC title. Michael Waltrip returns to the seat of the #15 Napa Chevy
looking for more consistency and a return to victory lane. Kenny Wallace will likely start
the season in Steve Park's #1 Pennzoil Chevy as Park continues rehabilitation from
injuries he suffered in September. At RCR Enterprises, Richard Childress expands to a
three-car operation for 2002. Childress will attempt to guide to success his drivers --
Kevin Harvick, Jeff Green and Robby Gordon -- all three who have only limited Winston Cup
experience. In safety improvements, each car will carry a crash recorder next year and the
organization will work to improve track medical facilities. In addition, all pit crew
members and NASCAR officials will be required to wear helmets on pit road in 2002.
And no doubt,
Dale Earnhardt's name will likely pop up on occasion throughout 2002 as his influence on
the sport continues strongly, even after his death. Our Man in Black is gone, but he will
live forever in our hearts.
2001 In the Rearview
11/21/01 - With the 2001 Winston Cup season
coming to a close, The Earnhardt Connection has been reflecting on the year's events. This
season has seen a wide range of emotional highs and lows, such as Dale Jr.'s continued
growth into one of circuit's top drivers, the arrival of Kevin Harvick, and the many
stirring tributes to The Intimidator.
2001 in Pictures: Feb. 2001 | Reaction | Back to Racing (with a heavy heart)
forget 2001 (poem)
Dear Number 3 (poem) - by John Nassif
Copyright © 2001 The Earnhardt Connection
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