As they rounded the final turn at Daytona yesterday, I couldn't help but think to myself: This is the greatest day in NASCAR history. The race had been incredible. NASCAR set new rules on aerodynamics this year, giving the cars more wind resistance. This slowed down the leaders and let cars catch up from behind (by drafting in the now-larger wind shadow). Last year, cars stretched out in a single-file line, and there were few lead changes—very boring for the fans. This year, the lead pack bunched up "three-wide" (three cars side-by-side on the track), several rows deep, for much of the afternoon. The lead swapped hands every few laps.
Fans live for this kind of close-quarters racing, which calls for split-second moves at top speed. Drivers jostle for position within a hurtling swarm, swerving into each other and then away ("trading paint"), nudging bumpers from behind to knock a car off course. It's thrilling, due in no small part to the threat of a spectacular crash. And in fact, there was a spectacular but harmless crash. Late in the race, Tony Stewart's car flipped upside down onto another driver's roof before tumbling and spinning down the track. A few lucky cars sped right under Stewart as he floated through the air. Many others weren't so lucky. Big excitement, no big injuries.
But the biggest excitement of the day lay in the fact that Dale Earnhardt, fan favorite, the sport's largest personality, was in the thick of the hunt from the get-go. Earnhardt, known as "The Intimidator," was NASCAR's biggest star.
Sure, kids and casual fans root for clean-cut Jeff Gordon. But Earnhardt, the mustachioed good ol' boy, was the one who threw his mean, black car around the track and looked to smack enemies out of his way. He was the true hero for die-hard NASCAR types—the ones that bring coolers of Bud to the track. Earnhardt was a riveting persona amid the Bible-clutching aw-shucks-ers that make up most of NASCAR's driving corps. After one early run-in at Daytona yesterday, the vengeful Earnhardt even stuck his fist out his window, flipping a Mach 1 bird to the car beside him. Fox cameras caught the moment.
In this crucial kickoff to its new NASCAR contract, Fox couldn't have asked for much better: a tight race, lots of dangerous action, and Earnhardt near the front. As the pack rounded the last lap, he sped along in third place. His son Dale Jr. held second. And no-name Michael Waltrip—whose car Earnhardt owned and whose team Earnhardt ran—was, improbably, in the lead.
Up in the Fox booth, Michael Waltrip's brother Darrell, now a commentator, couldn't believe his baby brother's good fortune. Waltrip had to choke back tears, cheering Michael on to the win. Fans chanted "DEI"—for Dale Earnhardt Inc., owner of the three lead cars. (Correction Feb. 20: Earnhardt owned Waltrip's car and Dale Jr.'s car, but not the one he drove.) And there was "The Intimidator," selflessly fending off challengers as his son and employee rolled on to the checkered flag. When Earnhardt rammed the wall, in the final corner of the final lap (nudged from behind by a car hoping to catch the two leaders), it looked like no big deal.
At that moment, I thought NASCAR had achieved its greatest victory. The first race of the new TV contract was the best race I'd ever seen. It happened at Daytona, the sport's most legendary venue. There was a fiery, multi-car crash, always an audience-pleaser, and no one had been hurt. Darrell Waltrip crying in the booth as his brother crossed the finish line seemed the kind of human drama that wins millions of new fans in an instant.
But then Waltrip's smile faded and, squinting through his tears, he asked, "Is Dale OK? I hope Dale's OK." Hours later, confirmation came: Earnhardt died when he hit the wall. Last night, after watching a truly great race, I wasn't sure I should watch NASCAR at all.
Any fan, when he's honest, admits danger is part of NASCAR's appeal. My eyes grew wide with everyone else's as Tony Stewart flipped through the air. Wow, we're getting our money's worth, I thought. Oh, and I hope he's OK. Later, when I found out Earnhardt had died, in a much less ghoulish-looking crash, it made me feel terribly sad and terribly guilty. On a day that looked like NASCAR's greatest triumph, I wondered if the sport should just stop. Three drivers killed last year. The best driver ever killed yesterday.
The qualities that make NASCAR fun to watch are the same ones that make it so deadly. Many fans loved Dale Earnhardt specifically because he often slammed other cars, sending them into dangerous spins as he passed by unharmed. I admit I get a thrill from watching cars crash at 190 mph. I admit I was glad that NASCAR tweaked the rules to bring cars closer together, increasing tension but also the risk of a wreck. And I admit that I'll probably keep watching NASCAR, once I get yesterday out of my head.