Ingram's Flat Spot On: Earnhardt's Last Daytona 500

There's been a lot written during the month of February on the subject of Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash ten years ago on the last lap of the Daytona 500. But not much of it has touched on the details of how one of NASCAR's greatest drivers made a mistake on the final lap of the Daytona 500, one that cost him his life.

One of the huge ironies that weekend was the performance of Earnhardt just two days before the 500 in the IROC race. On Friday, while running up close to the wall at Turn 1 in pursuit of the lead, a typically aggressive Earnhardt left Eddie Cheever with enough room on the outside for one car width and maybe an inch or two. When Cheever bounced off the wall -- twice -- that sent Earnhardt across the full width of the track and into the grass. At this point, fans saw one of the greatest recoveries in a long list of brilliant saves by Earnhardt, one that rivaled his so-called "Pass in the Grass" in Charlotte.

Once the IROC race had ended Earnhardt spun Cheever on the cool down lap, much to the delight of the crowd. The race winner, Dale Jarrett, said in his post-race interview that Earnhardt's miraculous save in the grass at Turn 1 was "the reason why he's the greatest driver in the world."

Two days later, Earnhardt's mistake in Turn 3 cost him his life.

Earnhardt's biggest difficulty during his last Daytona 500 was a damaged front air dam resulting from contact with another car during the first round of pit stops. The problem likely prevented his Richard Childress Racing Chevy from staying in the lead because it produced too much aerodynamic drag. (He led 11 straight laps prior to the first pit stop, but afterwards led on three different occasions for only a total of six laps.)

The air dam problem did not hamper Earnhardt's usual determination to fight for as many points as he could salvage in the season's opening race while in pursuit of a record eighth championship. In this case, over the final ten laps he blocked Ken Schrader, Sterling Marlin and Rusty Wallace all around the Daytona tri-oval to hold on to third place.

The common speculation is that Earnhardt decided to run blocking maneuvers so the drivers of his own Dale Earnhardt Inc. team, Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr., could finish the race in first and second. If so, it would have been the first time in his career that Earnhardt decided to give up a victory.

In the IROC race, Earnhardt had been angry enough to confront Cheever on the pit road afterward. When the veteran of F1, Indy cars and sports cars apologized and said he didn't meant to bump Earnhardt, "The Intimidator" told the media he'd review replays of the race and then decide. "I hate to lose," he growled.

But suddenly, two days later, NASCAR's most ferocious competitor was content to let Michael Waltrip and his son beat him while he ran blocking maneuvers in the Richard Childress Racing Chevy? That just doesn't pass the smell test, even if Earnhardt was the car owner of those two drivers' Chevy entries. For one thing, Earnhardt would never cheat his own car owner, much less himself, out of a second Daytona 500 victory.

To suggest Earnhardt might have chosen to give up a victory is a disservice to Earnhardt's entire career and the man himself. One may have doubted Earnhardt's methods, but never his integrity.

The story about Earnhardt choosing to run third has gained more credence this year with the passage of time and because Waltrip's new book, In the Blink of an Eye, helps perpetuate this account of the motives behind Earnhardt's blocking tactics. Waltrip's book is a well told tale and well worth reading. But he leaves out some of the facts which are crucial to what happened that day (which also might help poor Mikey accept the outcome).

Far more likely, the decision to fight for third was forced upon Earnhardt by his damaged air dam. In the blackest of ironies, during the first round of stops Earnhardt's contact with the rear of the Pontiac of Ken Schrader, who briefly locked up his brakes, resulted in the irregularities in the air dam of the Goodwrench Chevy. It was clear from radio conversations that both the driver and team were concerned about the damage.

Whether the air dam might have influenced the fatal driving error remains a matter of speculation. But it does answer the question of why Earnhardt was fighting for third and not for first. When Earnhardt sailed under Sterling Marlin in Turn 3 with an incredibly daring slide job with 17 laps to go, he couldn't hold the lead. The drag created by the damaged air dam was likely the problem and made his car a sitting duck. A lap later, the tandem of Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. took over the top spot and Earnhardt evidently recognized that third place was the best he was going to get on this day.

About the worst thing one could say about Earnhardt's intentions at this point in the race: he didn't try to block his fellow Chevy drivers, which were also driving his own DEI entries. That would be typical of Earnhardt. Once he was beat, he always found a new competition to excel at. That's how he won so many championships.

Pontiac driver Schrader, Ford's Wallace and Marlin, behind the wheel of a potent new Dodge effort, not only represented rival brands and teams. Wallace and Marlin were definite threats to the eighth points championship Earnhardt coveted.

Over the final ten laps, Earnhardt blocked his three trailing adversaries on both ends of the track and in the tri-oval. On the final lap, Schrader made a bid to pass on the high side at Turn 3, Marlin took the low route and Rusty Wallace pulled up close to the rear of Earnhardt's Chevy, which took air off the rear spoiler and reduced much needed downforce. On worn tires, the black No. 3 Chevy was surrounded by adversaries and turbulent air.

With his car wobbling slightly, Earnhardt's errant left rear hit the nose of the Dodge as Marlin made his bid to pass on the lower edge of the track. Making a mistake quite possibly influenced by the broken air dam, Earnhardt overcorrected and his Chevy's tail swerved down the track as a result and hooked its left rear tire on the flat apron.

The black Chevy shot up the banking, caroming off Schrader's Pontiac, a fateful turn of events. Instead of a glancing blow against the wall, contact with Schrader sent Earnhardt's black Chevy into the wall so that the right front corner took the brunt of the impact, which led to his fatal injuries.

Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jonathan@jingrambooks.com.