Pedley: The 2001 400 Was Fix Free
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s first victory at Daytona International Speedway was unbelievable. Seriously. Literally. The circumstances of that victory were so bizarre that some in the garages, and many in the media and grandstands, thought the race was fixed.
They thought the fact that Earnhardt won the race on his first trip back to the NASCAR’s biggest venue after the death of his iconic father there five months earlier, that it was Junior’s first points victory at DIS, that the victory came in a car which was eerily fast, and that DEI teammate Michael Waltrip was second fastest, surely wreaked of fish.
Restrictor plate hanky-panky on the part of NASCAR was the charge.
It was a charge which was never proved – most likely because it never happened.
Instead, the 2001 Pepsi 400 is now viewed by most as just a dang cool moment in the history of the sport.
Especially by Earnhardt Jr. himself.
“It was one of my favorite wins,” he said this week on the 10-year anniversary of the race.
The story of the 2001 July event at DIS kind of began the week before. It began with Junior still gripped by thoughts of his father’s death.
“It had been a tough year and had been tough on a lot of people around me, a lot of my
family and a lot of my close friends,” Junior said. “A lot of my Father’s close friends.”
But Junior, who had won Cup races at Texas and Richmond the year before, headed down to Daytona Beach early. With him were a bunch of buddies. They hit the spots around town and then headed over to the track.
Junior toured the place. Visited the spot where his father had fatally crashed.
He wasn’t daunted by anything that week. He was a racer.
“I just wanted to come here and race,” he said. “I just wanted to race; do my job and go to the next race. I didn’t ever see what happened coming.”
What happened was domination once the green flag dropped. He would lead 116 of the 160 laps. His car was so fast that he made passes without the aid of drafting partners.
“I just jumped into the car for the race and went around there,” Earnhardt said. “I was running about half way through the race and I remember thinking that we’d led a lot and we were really fast. I said, ‘Man’. That was when it dawned on me that I might win; that I could win the race. Then I started getting nervous and anxiety about it. Anytime I get a glimpse of hope that something is going to go right, I start to freakout. But, it all worked out.”
And a wild celebration broke out. Earnhardt celebrated with his crew chief, his team, Dale Earnhardt Inc. employees and, most memorably, Waltrip.
“That was more fun for me than emotional because I was pulling down into the grass there and the team came running and I saw Michael’s car and it was fun to do it with a friend. It is just fun to be with friend,” Junior said. “It is just fun to be celebrating with people and the more the merrier. Bring Michael on, bring his team on, the RCR guys-everybody. Michael had a big part in helping me win that race being my drafting partner and he wanted to be part of the celebration which he had every right to come on down in there.”
In Victory Lane, Earnhardt said he believed his father was there in the car with him that night. He thanked his father. He dedicated the victory to him.
Others witnessing the scene got caught up in the moment.
“It was pretty emotional,” fellow driver Tony Stewart said. “That was the biggest thing you remember was just how emotional it was for everybody. I think we all looked at it and it was hard that weekend for Dale Jr. to be here that weekend even. It was the first time that we all were back and for him to go out and win that race, it wasn’t a way to put a period on the chapter, but it was a way for him – it was a way for him to look at it and say that life’s going to go on now and that’s it’s OK. You never can replace losing a parent and a mentor like that. When he won that race, it was just a way – I think to a certain degree, a way of saying that it was going to be OK.”
Junior says, yes, it helped. Helped a lot of people.
“It definitely helped me,” he said. “I think it helped some people in my family. My Dad’s sisters and brothers had mentioned that it was a really neat moment for them. It is what it is. We had an awesome car and you couldn’t write a better story.”
But was the story fiction as some still claim?
Knowing the process involved in distributing restrictor plates; given the fact that 10 years down the line not a single person in the know in NASCAR or in the garages has blown a whistle; having been convinced in an off-the-record talk by a person certainly in position to know; knowing how conspiracy theories are born and grow; knowing how much work DEI put into the four plate races and how good they were at building rocket-ish plate cars, the strong belief here is that facts trump fiction when it comes to drama.
Sorry, black helicopter types. This story is true.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments