Spectacular crashes mar Daytona 500

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 19, 2001

The Associated Press

Tony Stewart’s car hurtled through the air like a toy, somersaulting twice before plopping down on top of Bobby Labonte’s machine in a fiery mess.

Monday, February 19, 2001

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Tony Stewart’s car hurtled through the air like a toy, somersaulting twice before plopping down on top of Bobby Labonte’s machine in a fiery mess.

All around, there was mayhem – cars spinning and sliding and slamming into each other.

With just 25 laps remaining, one little mistake changed the entire look of Sunday’s tragic Daytona 500, which claimed the life of seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt on the final lap.

Many of the top contenders were eliminated in the 19-car pileup: Stewart and Labonte, teammates and the latter the defending Winston Cup champion. Also taken out were three-time series champ Jeff Gordon, defending race champion Dale Jarrett, and Ward Burton, who appeared to have one of the strongest cars on the track.

"It’s great racing, it’s exciting, there’s a lot of passing, a lot of lead changes," Gordon said. "But one little mistake and something like that is going to happen. It’s inevitable."

Amazingly, no one was seriously injured. Stewart was taken to the hospital with a concussion and complaining of a sore shoulder, but he was alert and talking.

On the final turn of the final lap, Earnhardt was dicing for position while Michael Waltrip was pulling away to the first victory of his career, just ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The Intimidator’s car touched bumpers with Sterling Marlin, colliding with Ken Schrader and swerving straight into the outside wall.

Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion and the sport’s biggest name, was cut out of his mangled car and rushed to Halifax Hospital. His son rode along in the ambulance.

But doctors were unable to revive Earnhardt, who apparently died from a basiler skull fracture. The crash cast a pall over those who deal with life-and-death issues every weekend.

"That’s where my mind is," Waltrip, who drives for a team owned by Earnhardt, said before learning the greatest driver of the generation was dead. "Racing is my job, but he’s more than an owner. He’s my friend. My heart is hurting right now."

The first crash occurred only 25 laps from the end of the 200-lap event, which to that point had been amazingly clean considering the thrilling bumper-to-bumper, side-by-side racing. There had been only two yellow flags, both for minor wrecks.

It was the kind of race NASCAR craved after last year’s "Bore At The Shore," a Daytona 500 with single-file racing and little passing. It was the kind of race that could lure new fans to the sport as it begins a $2.8 billion television contract with Fox.

On lap 175, everything changed on the backstretch. Robby Gordon’s car tagged Burton, who then spun into Stewart as the cars raced at more than 180 mph.

Stewart’s Pontiac flipped at least twice before landing on top of Labonte’s car, sparking a brief fire. Sixteen other cars were taken out, as well.

"Someone got sideways and I saw a lot of smoke," Jeff Gordon said. "A lot of us had no place to go."