DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - After 462 races, a sad-sack losing streak that had spanned 16 long years, Michael Waltrip's first trip to Victory Lane - at the Daytona 500 no less - should have been the happiest moment of his life.
It was, for 15 or so minutes, anyway.
Then longtime friend Ken Schrader stopped by to speak privately to Waltrip.
Schrader leaned in and whispered the news that brought the party to a crashing halt: The accident on the last lap was bad, and Dale Earnhardt was in trouble.
Waltrip at first didn’t seem to hear. So Schrader again leaned in to Waltrip’s ear. The smile faded from Waltrip’s face, the light in his eyes darkened, and he spent the next few hours simply going through the motions of a victory celebration.
When it was time for the customary champagne toast, he declined and headed to his motorhome for his first moments alone with his wife since crossing the finish line.
“I remember my words, I said to her, ‘He’s going to be OK, right?’” Waltrip recalled. “I was just hoping she was going to say he’s hurt really bad. And she said, ‘No, he’s dead.’”
Earnhardt was the toughest man to ever climb in a stock car, the face of American racing and the blue collar everyman the fans could relate to. His death – in a crash that insiders viewed as rather routine – stunned NASCAR, raising questions about mortality, safety and moving on.
The 10-year anniversary of Earnhardt’s fatal accident falls on Friday, just two days before the season-opening Daytona 500, NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl.
This season, the past has a chokehold on the season’s biggest race. The typical excitement and optimism that comes with each new year have been overshadowed by memories of “The Intimidator,” whose death still very much defines NASCAR and those he left behind.
There’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., the prodigal son forced out of his father’s shadow the day Dale Sr. died. Savvy marketing had made the introverted kid a star, but it didn’t prepare him for the crush of attention from his father’s adoring fan base. He’s been stoic in facing the anniversary questions, but it’s clear he wants everyone to move on.
Richard Childress, the team owner who never wanted to return to a race track after the loss of his best friend, has tried so hard to block the memories of that day. The topic still makes him obviously uncomfortable, though he understands the public interest that still accompanies Earnhardt.
Then there’s Waltrip, who talks freely about the friend who gave him his big break at the journeyman age of 38. He found some peace this past year in writing the memoir released last month “In the Blink of an Eye.”
For all, Earnhardt’s death remains a raw, open wound. No matter the approach to the anniversary, the reality is the same: Everything changed the day Earnhardt died.