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The Callahan Report: Racing doesn't matter today; Earnhardt is gone

By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel
February 18, 2001

DAYTONA BEACH, FL: Of the 43 drivers competing in the 2001 Daytona 500, there were none who were more patient, more gracious, or more deserving of a NASCAR Winston Cup victory than Michael Waltrip. The tall, gentle man from Owensboro, Kentucky finally found his way to the winner's circle after 463 tries. With a river of tears streaming down his face, Michael Waltrip claimed the coveted real estate known as Daytona's Victory Lane after 500 miles of grinding racing action.

Waltrip was given the chance to win just a few months ago when he worked a deal to drive for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (DEI). He knew he had the talent if only he could land a quality ride.

"People were saying 'Why on earth did you hire him?'," Waltrip said after winning the biggest race in NASCAR. "Well, I'll tell you why. This is why," Waltrip said as he gazed over the massive crowd at Daytona International Speedway.

Waltrip credited his teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., for pushing him to victory. The younger Earnhardt stayed in line behind Waltrip for the final 17 laps.

"It's just unbelievable," Waltrip said. "I would have been 0-for-463 if it hadn't been for Dale Earnhardt Jr. I thought maybe we were being a little bold and a little boisterous, thinking we could win this race. And we did!"

Unfortunately, Waltrip's car owner could not celebrate with him in victory lane. Dale Earnhardt, gunning for his second Daytona 500 victory, crashed within a half mile of the finish. Earnhardt was running in third place when he and Sterling Marlin touched, sending Earnhardt head-on into the turn four wall.

The seven-time Winston Cup Champion was trapped in his car for several minutes as rescue workers cut away sheet metal and tubing. After hearing of how bad the situation was, Dale Earnhardt Jr. went to the infield care center to check on his father. Earnhardt was transported to Halifax Medical Center. Earnhardt Jr. followed the ambulance to the hospital. Dale Earnhardt died from his injuries.

I was just informed of the above information. I am in no condition to write. This sport has changed forever.

People say that Dale Earnhardt was "intimidating". Maybe so on the track…but off the track he was the gentlest person I have had the pleasure of knowing.

It was 1998 at Daytona when I first met him. I thought he was rude too initially. He quickly shunned my request for a couple of questions and headed into the media center, followed by his entourage. I followed the group.

What I saw next was a man with his priorities straight. Dale Earnhardt was on his way to do an interview of a different kind. A child from the Make a Wish Foundation was waiting for her hero. Earnhardt blasted past all the media and got to what was really important…a child in need.

While many of us in the pressroom waited, Earnhardt took his time with the child. He allowed only the child's parents to be in the little corner office with him and the girl. Even his entourage was sent away. Earnhardt stuck his head out of the office a couple of times to whisper into the ear of one of his PR people. A few minutes later, the PR person would return with another souvenir for the child.

Even though I never got to talk to Earnhardt that day, I had plenty of opportunities since. It was a day that I found a hero of my own. We have not lost the greatest racing talent in NASCAR. We have lost the kindest man in NASCAR.

I began this article with the intent of writing about a race. Racing seems pretty unimportant right now. People have always made this sport what it is…now we have one huge void to fill. I doubt that it can ever be filled.

May God's speed be with you now, Dale.

Editors Note: To view hundreds of hot racing photos and art, visit The Racing Photo Museum and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.