DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – After 462 races, a sad-sack losing streak that had spanned 16 long years, Michael Waltrip's first trip to Victory Lane — at the Daytona 500 no less — should have been the happiest moment of his life.
It was, for 15 or so minutes, anyway.
Then longtime friend Ken Schrader stopped by to speak privately to Waltrip. Schrader leaned in and whispered the news that brought the party to a crashing halt: The accident on the last lap was bad, and Dale Earnhardt was in trouble.
Waltrip at first didn't seem to hear. So Schrader again leaned in to Waltrip's ear. The smile faded from Waltrip's face, the light in his eyes darkened, and he spent the next few hours simply going through the motions of a victory celebration.
When it was time for the customary champagne toast, he declined and headed to his motorhome for his first moments alone with his wife since crossing the finish line.
"I remember my words, I said to her, 'He's going to be OK, right?'" Waltrip recalled. "I was just hoping she was going to say he's hurt really bad.
"And she said, 'No, he's dead.'"
Earnhardt was the toughest man to ever climb in a stock car, the face of American racing and the blue collar everyman the fans could relate to. His death — in a crash that insiders viewed as rather routine — stunned NASCAR, raising questions about mortality, safety and moving on.
The 10-year anniversary of Earnhardt's fatal accident falls on Friday, just two days before the season-opening Daytona 500, NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl.
This season, the past has a chokehold on the season's biggest race. The typical excitement and optimism that comes with each new year have been overshadowed by memories of The Intimidator, whose death still very much defines NASCAR and those he left behind.
There's Dale Earnhardt Jr., the prodigal son forced out of his father's shadow the day Dale Sr. died. Savvy marketing had made the introverted and sometimes socially awkward kid a star, but it didn't prepare him for the crush of attention from his father's adoring fan base. He's been stoic in facing the anniversary questions, but it's clear he wants everyone to move on.
Richard Childress, the team owner who never wanted to return to a race track after the loss of his best friend, has tried so hard to block the memories of that day. The topic still makes him obviously uncomfortable, though he understands the public interest that still accompanies Earnhardt.
Then there's Waltrip, who talks freely about the friend who gave him his big break at the journeyman age of 38. He found some peace this past year in writing the memoir released last month "In the Blink of an Eye."
For all, Earnhardt's death remains a raw, open wound. No matter the approach to the anniversary, the reality is the same: Everything changed the day Earnhardt died — for the people who loved him and for the sport he left behind — and it has taken every bit of the last decade to recover.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 26, starting his second full season at NASCAR's highest level, when his father was killed. Although he'd won two championships in NASCAR's second-tier series, two 2000 Cup races as a rookie with Dale Earnhardt Inc., and was being marketed like a rock star by Budweiser, he was very much under his father's thumb.
Big E expected a lot of Junior. Although there was always a father's love, he wasn't exactly easy on his namesake. Life as the son of the seven-time champion was a constant lesson in where to go, what to do and how to be more professional.
When Earnhardt died, his son had to figure it out on his own. But there was no newfound freedom. Instead he inherited the responsibility of safeguarding his father's legacy, ensuring the health of the family race team and satisfying the rabid fan base he'd suddenly inherited.
And of course, he still had to live up to his last name.
As NASCAR rolled into Rockingham, N.C., five days after Earnhardt's death, his son wanted to be anywhere but there.
"After that happened, I never wanted to see another race track or race car again. We went to Rockingham, and I went because I felt responsible to be there," he said.
When the green flag fell, Earnhardt Jr. crashed before finishing even a single lap.
"I was embarrassed. It was embarrassing because it was on television and in front of all the fans," he said. "But I really had no interest in being there. It was embarrassing to wreck a car, tore that car up, but it didn't break my heart any worse than it was already broken. I couldn't feel any worse than I was already feeling."
It took him about a week to accept his new life and its tremendous responsibilities. "I got to thinking, 'Well, what else am I going to do? My dad gave me this opportunity, and I would be a fool to squander it,'" he recalled.
It has not been an easy ride.
There have been flashes of success, and one brief flirtation, in 2004, at winning a Cup championship. But it has been pocked by a fragmented relationship with Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, that ultimately drove Junior out of DEI at the end of the 2007 season.
A move to Hendrick Motorsports hasn't translated into the on-track success Earnhardt Jr. desired, and the last three seasons have been a confidence-shattering nightmare for NASCAR's most popular driver.
This season is another fresh start — his fourth make-or-break season. A new crew chief this year has renewed hope, and he'll start on the pole for Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500.
The irony of Earnhardt's son winning the top starting spot for the 10-year anniversary race of Earnhardt's death wasn't lost on fellow Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon, who surmised "things are certainly lining up in an interesting way."
But perhaps not the way Earnhardt Jr. wanted. It has been so obvious in the buildup to this week that he would rather focus on racing and leave his father out of it.
"I know how I feel in my heart. I don't feel a real need to discuss it a lot," he said. "I just feel like it's too personal for me. There are depths of it that I'm not comfortable discussing, and I don't want to have it out in the media or on the internet. I want to honor him and respect him and please his fans and do things that make them feel good. But I don't want to drag on about details and things of the past."
Richard Childress lost all interest in racing in the hours after Earnhardt's accident. He fielded cars for six of Earnhardt's seven championships, and together they built Richard Childress Racing into one of NASCAR's top teams.
But Childress lost much more than an employee that sunny Sunday. He lost his best friend.
The 65-year-old doesn't enjoy talking about his loss, and on many occasions, offers only the briefest of answers. He's talked a bit more freely — but never comfortably — in the month leading up to the anniversary.
"I have personally tried to totally block (the day) out of my mind. When I get asked a question, it deserves an answer, and I'll answer it as well as I can," he said. "But what gets me through is remembering all the good times, the great times, the fun times I had with Dale Earnhardt."
Those memories are what kept Childress going when it seemed as if there were no point in continuing. Through a 36-hour period, those who know him best say it was the closest he ever came to quitting. He told his wife the night of the accident he was done, he wouldn't be taking his cars back to the track, and he felt that way all the next day, too.
Come Tuesday, alone on a dock at then-NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr.'s house, he remembered a specific conversation with Earnhardt that renewed his spirit. The two had been on a hunting trip together in New Mexico, riding horses up a mountain when Earnhardt's horse slipped on ice and back into Childress.
They both would have tumbled off the mountain if trees below had not caught them.
"We got back to camp that night and naturally Dale blamed me for pulling his horse off the mountain," Childress recalled. "We were having a cocktail around the fireplace, and I told him, 'You know, if I'd been killed on that mountain today, you would have had to race Phoenix.'
"We looked at each other and he said, 'If it ever happens to me, you better race.' That made it a lot easier."
Of course, it wasn't at all easy for Childress or his organization. As he had promised Earnhardt, they raced the next week, but with a new car number and a new driver in Earnhardt's famed black No. 3. RCR and replacement driver Kevin Harvick made it to the end of the year, but it took its toll.
"I think the first year we were all so wound up in everything we were doing ... racing and trying to go out and represent RCR and the quality of racing that Dale did, I think the wind just blew out of us at the end of the year," Childress said.
The next nine years have been a rollercoaster for the organization, which has cycled through several different rebuilding phases that culminated with Harvick's near-miss last season in his quest for his first Sprint Cup title.
Although Childress is still seeking his first Cup championship since 1994, his last with Earnhardt, RCR turned a corner last season and seems poised after a decade of ups and downs to hold its spot as one of NASCAR's top teams.
Dale Earnhardt Inc. was a fledgling race team for most of its existence. Earnhardt formed the team in 1984, mostly as a place for him to run lower-level Busch races here and there, before finally moving toward full seasons in 1995 with a variety of different drivers.
DEI didn't seriously climb into NASCAR's elite Cup division until 1998, and the next year was its first full foray into legitimate competition with Steve Park as the star driver. Earnhardt Jr. was added in a second car the next year, and 2001 was to be the breakthrough season with Waltrip behind the wheel of a third DEI car.
Earnhardt himself was driving for Childress, but as much as he wanted to win his own races, he equally wanted DEI drivers to do well.
That's what made the Daytona 500 so difficult for DEI: Earnhardt died blocking traffic for his drivers. With Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. out front in the final laps, Earnhardt had switched from offense to defense as the third-place driver, circling the track trying to protect a DEI win.
It created feelings of survivor's guilt for at least Waltrip.
"People would say Dale died blocking for you and Junior, or even worse, they'd say Dale died blocking for you. And that's basically blaming me," Waltrip said.
But Waltrip, who didn't watch a replay of the race until this past year, knows it's untrue. He and Earnhardt Jr. had such a cushion over the field as they headed to the checkered flag, Waltrip is convinced Earnhardt was only trying to preserve his own finish.
"Dale knew it was over. He knew the only one that could beat us at that point was him," Waltrip said, figuring Earnhardt was only thinking of a way to get past his two DEI drivers, or to hold on for third.
Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. did cross the finish line 1-2 in what should have been a crowning moment for DEI. It was instead the beginning of the end.
Park was badly injured in a wreck at Darlington later that year and never again raced a full season for DEI. The team was down to two full-time cars by 2004, for Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip, who had combined to win 14 races in the first four years after Earnhardt's death.
But the success petered out, and wins came harder and harder to come by. Then came an ill-fated crew swap between Earnhardt and Waltrip in 2005, and the tension between Earnhardt and his stepmother began to grow to an irreparable level.
Earnhardt decided in early 2007 that he'd leave DEI at the end of the year, an easy but emotional decision because of the ripple effects it would have on his father's race team. Indeed, the organization no longer operated the way Earnhardt Sr. had intended by the end of 2008. A merger with Chip Ganassi Racing was the only way to keep the Earnhardt name on the track, but few view the current Earnhardt Ganassi Racing operation as having very much to do with anything Earnhardt.
The family joined briefly last May for Earnhardt's induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, presenting a united front of The Intimidator's four children and Teresa. It was a rare appearance together for Earnhardt Jr. and his stepmother, and left everyone wondering what could have been.
There was really no need to wonder.
"If (Earnhardt) was here, I'm pretty sure we'd all still be together," his sister, Kelley Earnhardt, said. "Dale Jr. would have never left DEI."
NASCAR was enjoying an incredible popularity boom at the time of Earnhardt's death. The series had exploded into mainstream markets, and corporations were spending heavily to jump on the ride.
The 2001 Daytona 500 was the first race in NASCAR's new six-year, $2.4 billion television package, and the first broadcast for Fox. Attendance, TV ratings and sponsorship were all flush, and everybody demanded an answer to the same question: How could Earnhardt have died?
The investigation into his death took more than six months to complete and determined that collisions from several angles in a matter of seconds put tremendous strain on Earnhardt's head and neck, ultimately causing a basal skull fracture — the same injury that killed Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper the previous year.
Many believe that had Earnhardt been wearing a head-and-neck restraint system, he would have survived the crash. The HANS device became mandatory that same season, and additional safety features — soft wall technology, stronger cockpits, automatic engine kill switches — were added the next few years. Those efforts culminated in 2007 with the debut of the current car chassis, which NASCAR designed specifically with safety as the overriding emphasis.
Called the "Car of Tomorrow" when it was launched, the model boasts a larger driver's compartment, center-located seat and energy absorbing materials through the gut of the vehicle.
Many believe Earnhardt's legacy is not his 76 wins and seven championships, but the safety improvements that followed his death.
"If he didn't believe he was bulletproof, he certainly believed he was Teflon-coated," rival team owner Jack Roush said. "In the final analysis, the safety equipment he had in relation to the wreck that he was involved with was something that was not survivable.
"And they are survivable today. That's probably his greatest contribution to the sport."
Earnhardt has become almost mythical over the last decade, and some fans cite the lack of an Earnhardt-type among the present crop of drivers as the reason they now tune out NASCAR.
The series still has its stars, and the personalities run deep. But the fans are right: There is no Earnhardt, and NASCAR likely will never be able to fill that void.
The Jeff Gordons and Tony Stewarts of the sport all have declined to step into Earnhardt's role as garage mediator/enforcer, and Earnhardt Jr. and Harvick have been uncomfortable with the comparisons. Jimmie Johnson isn't viewed as tough enough to be revered like Earnhardt, and enough fans don't find Kyle Busch likable enough to accept the obvious comparisons to Earnhardt.
So as each year goes by, Earnhardt's legend grows and the failure to replace him becomes more glaring. No driver today speaks of a rival with the same mix of admiration and fear that Earnhardt commanded, and victories never will be as sweet as ones over Earnhardt.
"I was emotionally drained after that race," said Tony Stewart, who beat Earnhardt in the 2001 exhibition Budweiser Shootout, eight days before the accident. "When Dale Earnhardt was behind you, you had to do a lot of extra footwork by lifting and dragging the brake, because you knew how good he was at getting a run at you. When he was running second to you, you knew he was going to throw everything he had at you."
There's a sense that the Earnhardt insiders just want to get through this week, honor Earnhardt's legacy, and get back on with the lives they've been leading since Feb. 18, 2001.
The one thing that's certain is that nobody involved is the same person they were on that bright, sunny Sunday morning before Earnhardt and the rest of the field climbed into their cars for the Great American Race.
But no one's ready to give up racing and all its heartbreak either.
Earnhardt's eldest son, Kerry, holds out hope that the family will get DEI back on track to fulfill the his father's vision for that race team.
"That place was built on people and racing. I'd give anything to have that back," Kerry Earnhardt said. "Never say never. You never know what life holds for the future."