Dale Earnhardt has been deceased for more than two years, but the motorsports icon's spirit lives and continues to inspire, motivate, and influence NASCAR and its drivers he left behind.
One of the last things Earnhardt saw before his famed No. 3 Chevrolet crashed into the wall on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 was Michael Waltrip about to take the checkered flag with his son, Dale Jr., riding second in cars Earnhardt owned.
Since that tragic, unforgettable day, Waltrip and Junior in Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI) Chevrolets have dominated races at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, the two NASCAR Winston Cup tracks where engine restrictor plates are required. Earnhardt Sr. was the acknowledged master of restrictor-plate racing with more wins at the two superspeedways than anyone.
It seems more than coincidence that Waltrip won the Daytona 500 for the second time in three years and that Little E. won everything he entered, except the pole competition and the 500, which he was denied by misfortune for a second straight year. Fittingly, the pole and a 125-mile qualifying race went to drivers Jeff Green and Robby Gordon, respectively, from Richard Childress Racing (RCR), with whom Earnhardt became a legend.
Drive for excellence Everyone at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. is driven to maintain and enhance the restrictor-plate excellence the Boss achieved, especially at Daytona, which he loved with a passion. All teams with the resources prepare meticulously for Speedweeks leading to the sport's Super Bowl, but it seems DEI is obsessed with those events to a fault, though there are only four of them. Daytona is not a race-it's a mission. In spite of NASCAR rules that brought all four brands closer to equality than ever this year, the new DEI Monte Carlos, in their Winston Cup debut, commanded an edge.
Tony Eury Sr., Junior's crew chief, says Richie Gilmore and the engine builders at DEI, who are eternally trying to squeeze one or two more horsepower out of the choked mills, made a significant gain in 2001 that might have left competitors playing catch-up.
As drivers, Waltrip and Junior aren't the best in Winston Cup, but right now they're as good as anybody at Daytona and Talladega. Waltrip is better at Daytona than anywhere. He has won three and Junior one of the past five races at the 2.5-mile tri-oval. Junior, into his fourth full season in Winston Cup, has swept the past three 500s at Talladega. They have made the legion of fans Earnhardt Sr. left behind feel good, and Junior has gained a rock-star, almost cult, following.
Winning Motivation Waltrip and Little E. have reason to be inspired and motivated to excel beyond others. Earnhardt Sr. got them to the front, and they are determined to show their gratitude. What more appropriate places than Daytona and Talladega to keep the fire burning? Earnhardt Sr. gave Waltrip a second career, showing faith and confidence by hiring him when he was in the throes of a zero-for-462 career winless streak. That was broken the day Earnhardt died, a heartwarming story overshadowed by tragedy and sorrow.
Earnhardt instilled confidence in Waltrip, assuring him that he could and had better win in his cars. "I was just in awe of the fact that it worked out for me to get into such a great ride," Waltrip says. "Dale might have been the only person big enough in this world to get me this ride. It was pretty big that Dale started (a third) team and convinced our sponsor, NAPA, to accept me. I am so thankful for that."