2001 Daytona 500
|Race 1 of 36 in the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season|
Daytona International Speedway
|Date||February 18, 2001|
|Location||Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Florida|
|Course|| Permanent racing facility |
2.5 mi (4.02336 km)
|Distance||200 laps, 500 mi (804.672 km)|
|Weather||Temperatures reading up to 79.0°F (26.1°C); wind speeds up to 29.92 miles per hour (48.15 km/h)|
|Average speed||161.783 miles per hour (260.365 km/h)|
|Driver||Bill Elliott||Evernham Motorsports|
|Qualifying race winners|
|Duel 1 Winner||Sterling Marlin||Chip Ganassi Racing|
|Duel 2 Winner||Mike Skinner||Richard Childress Racing|
|Most laps led|
|Driver||Ward Burton||Bill Davis Racing|
| No. 15
|| Michael Waltrip
||Dale Earnhardt, Inc.|
|Television in the United States|
|Announcers||Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds|
The 2001 Daytona 500, the 43rd running of the event, was the first race of the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup Series schedule. The event took place on February 18, 2001 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida over 200 laps on the 2.5 mile (4 km) asphalt tri-oval. Bill Elliott won the pole. The race was the first official Winston Cup telecast shown by the Fox network, which had received broadcasting rights along with NBC at the end of the previous season, replacing the two former NASCAR broadcasters, CBS and ESPN. Michael Waltrip, in his first race in the #15 car for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., won the race. It was the first victory of his career, coming in his 463rd start. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished second and Rusty Wallace finished third.
In the race's final lap, a major accident was triggered by 1998 Daytona 500 winner and seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt losing control of his car and collecting Ken Schrader in a head-on collision with the wall. The wreck resulted in the death of Earnhardt, who was killed instantly by a basilar skull fracture. The race was also marred by a 18-car wreck on lap 173 when Robby Gordon made contact with Ward Burton, sending Tony Stewart's car flipping down the backstretch.
After Earnhardt's death (as well as other notable deaths of other drivers in other NASCAR national touring series in the previous year), NASCAR implemented rigorous safety improvements in later seasons.
Bill Elliott led the field to the green flag, but he only led one lap before Sterling Marlin passed him for the lead. Jeff Purvis hit the wall between turns 3 and 4 on lap 49, bringing out the race's first caution. This was followed by a green flag period that lasted 105 laps. Ward Burton led most of these laps. On Lap 85, Dale Earnhardt and rookie Kurt Busch made door to door contact coming out of turn four battling for 5th place. Earnhardt promptly gave Busch the bird at 185 mph or - as described by Mike Joy - Earnhardt was simply saying: "Kurt, you're number one".
The second caution came on lap 157, when Kurt Busch hit the Turn 3 wall trying to pass Joe Nemechek, and then slid across the track, through the infield and into pit lane. On lap 167, Steve Park took the lead, but he was passed by teammate Michael Waltrip on the next lap.
On lap 173, as the lead pack was coming out of turn 2 onto the back straightaway, Robby Gordon and Ward Burton, the latter of which led the most laps in the race, collided. In the process, Tony Stewart was collected, turned against the wall, and was pushed airborne over Robby Gordon. Stewart's car then flipped over twice, while being battered by other cars behind him, and then Stewart momentarily stood on his hood before coasting to a stop in the infield. The Tony Stewart crash was instantly described as being the same as Richard Petty's 1988 Daytona crash. Although some drivers, like Earnhardt, Sr. and Ken Schrader, were able to make it around the wrecking cars, eighteen cars were eliminated in spectacular fashion. 2000 Winston Cup Champion Bobby Labonte's engine caught fire, Ron Hornaday Jr. crashed out of contention to win, and Mark Martin collided first with the outside wall, then was hit by at least two other cars, destroying the rear end of his car. Martin managed to limp his car back to pit road, where he abandoned it. The race was red-flagged to allow for an extensive cleanup. With all the 35 drivers that remained on the lead lap within 100 laps only half of them managed to have contention to win. Legendary Daytona favorites such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Ron Hornaday Jr., Mike Skinner, Bobby Labonte, Jimmy Spencer, Terry Labonte, and Kenny Wallace all were among the eighteen cars that crashed.
The race restarted on lap 180, with Michael Waltrip still out in front. Sterling Marlin led the next three laps before Waltrip took the lead again. As the white flag waved at the start of the final lap, both Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Sr. were behind Waltrip, with Junior in front of his father. With less than two laps remaining, Darrell Waltrip in the booth commented that "Sterling has beat the front end off of that old Dodge trying to get around Dale."
Heading into Turn 3 on the last lap, Earnhardt held third and was running in the middle lane of traffic. Marlin was behind him and running the bottom lane, while Rusty Wallace's navy blue #2 Miller Lite Ford was directly behind Earnhardt and Ken Schrader was above Earnhardt riding the high lane in his yellow #36 M&M's Pontiac.
On Turn 4, Marlin came into contact with the left rear on Earnhardt's vehicle. Earnhardt slid off the track's steep banking, onto the flat apron. Trying to correct at speed, he turned sharply up the track toward the outside retaining wall. Although it briefly looked as though Earnhardt was going to avoid hitting the wall, his car went right into Schrader's path. Schrader rammed into Earnhardt just behind the passenger door, causing Earnhardt's car to snap, rapidly changing the angle of his car toward the wall. When Schrader made contact, Earnhardt hit the wall nose-first at an estimated speed of 155 to 160 mph and was pushed down the track by Schrader. Earnhardt's and Schrader's cars then slid off the track's asphalt banking toward the infield grass just inside of turn four.
Seconds later, Michael Waltrip raced toward the checkered flag to claim his first victory, with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finishing second. Rusty Wallace finished third while Sterling Marlin got loose after the contact with Dale and came across seventh, and Earnhardt and Schrader were credited with twelfth and thirteenth places despite not finishing the race. Just after Waltrip won the caution flew which shielded Ken Schrader and Earnhardt in their spots. After crossing the finish line, Earnhardt, Jr. got out of his car and rushed to his father. Earnhardt had to be extricated from the vehicle and was rushed by ambulance to Halifax Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 5:16 PM Eastern Standard Time, reportedly surrounded by his wife Teresa Earnhardt, his team owner/friend Richard Childress, and Earnhardt, Jr. The official announcement of Earnhardt's death was made at about 7 PM by NASCAR president Mike Helton. Earnhardt's death largely overshadowed Michael Waltrip's first Winston Cup victory, as well as Tony Stewart's flip in the lap 173 crash.
- For the remainder of the season, the first two points races of the following season and the 2011 Daytona 500, racing fans, television and radio broadcasters would fall silent during lap 3 of every Winston Cup race in Earnhardt's honor.