DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The death of Dale Earnhardt overshadowed what was a great Speedweeks 2001 from the “World Center of Speed,” Daytona International Raceway.
The festivities surrounding the 43 running of “the Great American Race” saw a familiar face return to the scene, while another familiar face turned up in an unfamiliar finish.
Michael Waltrip, younger brother of the three-time Winston Cup Champion turned Fox commentator Darrell Waltrip, won his first Winston Cup race in 463 starts. Ironically, he did it in a car owned by the late Earnhardt.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who witnessed the crash of his father from his rear-view mirror, finished second giving Dale Earnhardt and Incorporated (DEI) Motorsports a one-two finish.
Despite all of the complaining that Ford drivers did during Speedweeks, Rusty Wallace, driving a wrinkled-up and wounded Taurus, came home in third in the exciting race marred by a mere two accidents.
Mike Skinner, teammate of the number three car, also picked up his first taste of victory lane in a cup car, winning the second Gatorade Twin 125 on Thursday. Also overshadowed was the win by Joe Ruttman in Friday’s truck race, and the outstanding performance of Earnhardt in the IROC race and all of the fireworks surrounding its conclusion.
Speedweeks also saw the return of the Dodge Corporation to the Winston Cup scene. Despite running in the Craftsmen Truck Series for the past several years, Dodge has been absent from the cup cars for over 17 seasons. However, Dodge had a big impact on Daytona in 2001.
Both on the track, with Bill Elliot capturing the Bud Pole with Stacy Compton starting along side, to Sterling Marlin and Ward Burton running strong throughout the 500, Dodge proved that it was back on the track. However, even if the Intrepids hadn’t impressed everyone with their performance, the propaganda and public relations activities performed by Dodge sure would.
For a week, Dodge spent money on helicopters to fly over the speedway advertising their “Dodge City,” which was an information “town” set up outside the speedway gates. There, approximately ten Vipers – about a $60,000 automobile – were taking guests for rides around a parking lot at high speeds, slinging the cars sideways as they turned and squealing tires displaying their outstanding handling and power.
Despite the loss of a great racing legend, and an all-around great friend to many, Daytona was what it always is; a great experience capped off with some outstanding racing from the world’s best drivers.