The 2001 Daytona 500 -- The End of an Era

Three years after winning his only Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was running third in the final lap of the 2001 race. On a day where Tony Stewart had already been airlifted to the hospital after his car took flight on lap 173 and crashed in a heap along with 19 others, Earnhardt found himself in position to help either his son Dale Earnhardt Jr. or fellow Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI) driver Michael Waltrip win the race. As Dale Sr. came to the checkered flag on that fateful day, he lost control of his legendary black-and-silver No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet and careened into the turn-four wall at a nearly 90-degree angle. Due to the sudden deceleration, Earnhardt suffered a basilar skull fracture and was fatally injured in the accident. Waltrip went on to win his first career race with Dale Earnhardt Jr. finishing in second place. On a day when the Earnhardt family should have celebrated victory, the race will instead be remembered as the day NASCAR lost a legend.

Daytona International Speedway: The World Center of Racing

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Located a mere two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean in Daytona Beach, Fla., Daytona International Speedway is a 2.5-mile trioval race track positioned on 480 acres of property that includes a 29-acre lake (Lake Lloyd) and a road course configuration. Daytona is owned by the France family, the same family that founded NASCAR. Each year, Daytona International Speedway is the site of a variety of races including the Grand American Road Racing Association's Rolex 24 at Daytona, The American Motorcycle Association Daytona 200 and five NASCAR races including the Coke Zero 400 during the Independence Day weekend. Because of this diversity, Daytona has been dubbed the "World Center of Racing." With a true year-round racing schedule, Daytona is one of the only tracks that can boast so many different forms of racing.

Daytona is a superspeedway -- any track over two miles (3.2 kilometers) in length (excluding road courses) and featuring high-banked turns -- that can seat 168,000 race fans. On the NASCAR schedule, Sprint Cup, Craftsman Truck Series and Nationwide Series cars race on two superspeedways with Talladega being the other example. At 2.5 miles (4.02 kilometers) long, Daytona is second in length only to Talladega which is 2.66 miles (4.3 kilometers) long. Let's take a quick look at Daytona's vital statistics:

  • Type: Superspeedway
  • Seating: 168,000
  • Configuration: Trioval
  • Turns: 4
  • Width: 40 feet (12.2 meters) (racing surface)
  • Turn length: 3,000 feet (914.4 meters)
  • Front stretch length: 3,800 feet (1,158.2 meters)
  • Chute length: 1,900 feet (579.1 meters) (from the middle of the trioval to turns 1 and 4)
  • Backstretch length: 3,000 feet (914.4 meters)
  • Total length: 8,700 feet (2,651.8 meters) or 2.5 miles (4.02 kilometers)
  • Banking: 18 degrees at the start/finish line, 31 degrees in turns

­[source: Daytona International Speedway]

Thirty-one degrees of banking is pretty steep. To get an idea of the angle, the top of the track near the outside wall is more than 35 feet (10.7 meters) above the infield -- that's higher than the roof of a typical two-story house. As a result of the extreme banking in the corners and the length of the track, stock cars can travel at speeds in excess of 200 mph (322 km/h). While those speeds are relatively safe for a car with an extreme amount of downforce such as a Grand-Am sports car or an Indy car, stock cars have a tendency to lift off the ground when they reverse direction at high speeds, as in the case of a spin. Because of the instability at such high speeds, NASCAR gives each team a carburetor restrictor plate to cut-down the horsepower from more than 700 to around 450. This reduces the top speed of the cars considerably. Obviously, this is why you may hear Daytona referred to as a restrictor-plate track.

NASCAR drivers seem to universally agree that stock car racing and Daytona International Speedway go hand in hand. The original Daytona track can be traced back to the 1950s where the cars used the hard-packed sand of the Daytona shoreline as the original racing surface. Those days are long gone, yet the spirit of NASCAR remains in Daytona. Two times a year, NASCAR's top racing series visits the hallowed race track. The first visit is for the race that defines NASCAR -- the Daytona 500.

Up next, find out why the Daytona 500 means so much to NASCAR fans and drivers and why qualifying is so important.