The dark day Dale Earnhardt made time stand still at Daytona

This classic photo of the late Dale Earnhardt was taken at Daytona on Feb. 4, 2001, just two weeks before his death.

Brian Cleary/Getty Images

Drive through Daytona Beach today and it doesn’t seem much different to the naked eye than it did 15 years ago. Cruise around and you’ll still see a random collection of assorted beachfront hotels with tropical names, T-shirt and trinket shops, seedy biker bars and strip clubs. In some respects, Daytona Beach is the land time forgot, a place where life goes on pretty much as it always has.

But the NASCAR world has changed radically since Feb. 18, 2001, the day Dale Earnhardt died in a story so simultaneously tragic and preposterous, you couldn’t write a work of fiction that was less believable.

On the last lap of the Daytona 500, two cars Earnhardt owned were leading the race: Michael Waltrip, who had not won a NASCAR points race in 462 starts led in a Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet Monte Carlo, with teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. second and Earnhardt himself third.

Anyone who follows NASCAR remembers what happened next: In Turn 4, Earnhardt got loose, got tapped from behind by Sterling Marlin and turned right where he was hit by Ken Schrader and then hit the Turn 4 wall, where he died instantly of a basal skull fracture.

Waltrip took the checkered flag to thunderous applause and Junior finished second. But soon, the whole world knew there was a big problem.

Bill Elliott after winning the pole for the 2001 Daytona 500.

First, some background.

The 2001 NASCAR season was greeted with tremendous optimism because of a landmark $2.8 billion unified television deal that was set to begin with Daytona Speedweeks. Before the 2001 season, each track negotiated its own TV package and races were rarely on the same channel two weeks in a row. In 2000, for example, Cup races were televised on six different networks.

But that all changed in 2001. FOX got the first 16 points races of the season and two non-points races, with NBC and TNT sharing the rest of the schedule.

When the deal was announced at Homestead-Miami Speedway, I stood against the back wall of the media center next to Bill France Jr., who was eating sunflower seeds as the press conference went on. When I congratulated him on the TV contract, which truly brought the sport out of the South and onto a national stage, he shrugged and spit a shell on the floor. "Fifty years from now, this will seem like peanuts," he said.

But it was a huge deal then.

So was the return of Dodge to NASCAR, another landmark event for 2001. Between FOX and Dodge, there were signs and banners all over Daytona. At the Daytona Beach Hilton, the credit card-sized room keys had been printed with the pictures of all the Dodge cars entered in the Daytona 500.

Photos: Dale Earnhardt remembered 15 years after his death at Daytona

Across the street from the track at Volusia Mall, Dodge had set up an autocross course in the parking lot where fans could drive Dodge Vipers, the 500-horsepower V-10 sports cars. Every time you drove by there it was like a war zone, thunderously loud and filled with clouds of smoke.

Daytona was never more alive and vibrant than it was in 2001. It was like Mardi Gras at 200 miles per hour.

Even before NASCAR arrived, the track hosted the Rolex 24 sports car race, with Earnhardt and his son sharing a Corvette with sports car racers Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins. The team finished fourth overall and second in class, an excellent run all things considered, though Earnhardt reportedly leaned over to Pilgrim and said, "Second sucks, doesn’t it, son?" which was about the most Earnhardt thing he could have said.

Afterward, FOX play-by-play man and veteran journalist Mike Joy and Earnhardt had a long chat about the Rolex experience.

"We talked about how much he really enjoyed running the 24-hour race with Dale Jr.  and he was looking forward to the day — still some years away — when he might be able to do more of that, maybe including racing in Europe and doing the 24 Hours of Le Mans," said Joy of Earnhardt. "He really enjoyed it, really had a great time."

FOX broadcaster Mike Joy.

Once the NASCAR teams rolled into town, Speedweeks got off to a great start, with Bill Elliott shocking everyone by winning a pole in one of Ray Evernham’s factory-backed red Dodge Intrepids. And when he did, soon some people were grumbling that Elliott "got the call" from NASCAR, a reward for Dodge’s return to the sport. That was an absurd notion, of course. And, yeah, even before the social-media explosion, NASCAR conspiracy theories were rampant.

During the Daytona IROC race, Eddie Cheever ran Earnhardt down to the apron, looking for all the world like it was going to cause a huge crash. But somehow Earnhardt made a miraculous save and avoided calamity. Ninety-nine out of 100 drivers would have crashed — hard — in that situation. But Earnhardt didn’t.

After the race, Cheever was actually worried that Earnhardt would track him down and beat his ass, a humorous aside to the serious business of racing.

When the Daytona 500 rolled around, the FOX television booth had three broadcasters: Joy, three-time Sprint Cup champion driver Darrell Waltrip and two-time Daytona 500 winning crew chief Larry McReynolds.

Waltrip said Speedweeks got off to a somewhat rocky start, as the three tried to develop a rhythm and comfort with each other.

"Larry, Mike and I had never worked together before, but you’re in Daytona so long — we spent a lot of time together getting our act together," said Waltrip. "Some of the shows we did were pretty good and some weren’t so hot.

"I’ll never forget, David Hill (FOX television executive) walked in the booth and said, ‘You guys are not with it. You need to do this, you need to do that.’ He had a great mind for television," said Waltrip. "And then he took a piece of paper and wrote, ‘Why?’ in great big letters and posted it on our window. And he said, ‘That’s what I want to know. I don’t care what they’re doing. I don’t care how they’re doing it. I want to know why they’re doing it.’ And that was really like a light came on for all three of us. Mike was already a pro. He knew what he was doing. It was up to Larry and I to do our jobs, too, and I guess we weren’t doing that good a job up to that point."

Former FOX Sports president David Hill.

By the time the 500 rolled around, the three television partners had established a good feel for the stories and for each other.

"The race unfolded and I think we got a good sense of out comfort level as new booth mates and trying to bring the storylines along, do the replays, cover the incidents and build the thing to conclusion," said Joy.

And until the end, the race was shaping as one of the best Daytona 500s in recent memory.

"The whole race was a great race," said McReynolds. "We had that one big crash on the backstretch that involved Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte and a host of others, but it just was a good race. It kept Darrell and I on the edge of our heels the whole time. A lot of it was because it was our first race in the booth for the Daytona 500."

"We just started having fun," said Waltrip. "It was a fun race to do, with a lot of excitement, a lot of anticipation. And then you had the wreck and they stopped the race. We sat up there and we chatted about what’s going to happen when they go back to green. We’ve got radios and we’re listening to what drivers are saying and what crews are saying. It was a great show. The aero package made the cars so easy to draft up on and pass. It was a fun day, a great day and we were having a ball."

The teams of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip briefly celebrated Waltrip’s victory in the infield.

Waltrip had a unique challenge: His brother Michael was one of the fastest cars all race long and obviously Darrell wanted to see him win. But he had to show at least some impartiality as the race went on.

"I think for the first time out of the box, Darrell did a good job of not cheerleading, of being objective, which is very hard to do when your younger brother is leading and having a strong chance to win the race," said Joy.

And then it came down to the end, an end everyone watching thought would be fascinating, compelling and historical. Turns out they were right, for all the wrong reasons.

"We were an eighth to a quarter-mile away from having one of the best Daytona 500s that we’ve had in a long, long time," said McReynolds.

"Here they come," said Waltrip. "White flag and Michael’s first, Junior’s second and Dale’s probably going to run third. That’s Dale vision. He wanted to show people that my brother could drive. He wanted to show people that putting Michael in that car was a good decision, a smart decision on his part. And that dream was kind of coming true for him. He was coming down the backstretch. He sees his two cars coming off Turn 4 going for the checkered flag and he was going to try and finish third."

Waltrip paused.

"Then all hell breaks loose — all hell breaks loose and then the aftermath."

Seconds after he called his brother to victory in NASCAR’s biggest race, Waltrip had tears in his eyes. "This is great," he said. "I just hope Dale’s alright. I guess he’s alright, isn’t he?"

Darrell Waltrip (left) and Larry McReynolds.

Later he added, "As excited as I am for Michael and as proud as I am of him, I’m praying for Dale."

For a long time, there was no information forthcoming from NASCAR or the track.

Schrader, who had looked into Earnhardt’s cockpit after the crash, knew the situation was dire. "I don’t really know. I’m not a doctor," Schrader said when he got out of the infield care center. "I got the heck out of the way as soon as they (the EMTs) got there."

With no facts about Earnhardt’s condition, Joy had a narrow tightrope to walk before the telecast went off the air.

"I had to put together a summation of this and I’m thinking of all the possibilities," said Joy. "On the one hand, at the one extreme, there was the possibility that Dale could have been seriously injured. At the other extreme was the possibility that he had a superficial wound that bled profusely and he was merely unconscious. That and everything in between.

"So what I tried to do was to convey the potential gravity of the situation while not alarming anybody to things that we did not know to be fact," Joy said. "That’s a very fine line, knowing all these drivers have family watching and people very close to them that you don’t want to alarm unnecessarily."

"Thank the Good Lord we had Mike Joy there being the professional and being the ‘A’ play-by-play guy that he is, to guide us through what we were trying to get through there," said McReynolds.

But the booth trio saw something that they all knew meant bad news. When Earnhardt’s body was put in an ambulance, the ambulance didn’t stop at the infield care center. Instead, it left the track very slowly and headed directly to Halifax Medical Center.

Fans left these hats in a tribute to their fallen hero.

"When I didn’t see any sense of urgency when that ambulance left that wreck and it never stopped at the infield care center, I knew right then it was not good. I just had that gut feeling," said McReynolds.

That gut feeling would soon be confirmed after they went off the air. Waltrip was buddies with a local deputy sheriff nicknamed Big Andy, who was married to an emergency room nurse at Halifax.

"She called Andy and told him, ‘When DW gets off the air, get him to the hospital. Dale didn’t make it.’ So, I kinda knew pretty quick," said Waltrip. "I went to the hospital and was there with everyone. Everyone was in shock. Nobody could believe what had happened. Nobody could believe that Dale was dead. It didn’t seem — it was surreal."

Especially because everyone had seen Earnhardt survive crashes that looked much worse, including a rollover crash on the Daytona backstretch in 1997, when he got into the ambulance, saw his car was intact and climbed back out of the ambulance and into his battered car, fired it up, and finished the race.

"You know, that’s what everybody was expecting," said Joy. "And hoping for. ‘Oh, he’ll be fine. He’s fine. He’ll catch a ride to Victory Lane and catch up with Michael and Dale Jr. there.’ And I’m sure if he was conscious, he would have insisted on it. That’s just who he was."

But as we all know, that didn’t happen.

"When we sign up to cover this sport, we know there are going to be a lot of great days and there are going to be a significant number of dark days," said Joy. "And it’s how we handle those that really define, or more properly define, the kind of job we’ve done."

And so Joy, Waltrip and McReynolds finished the broadcast.

"There’s two things that happen in a situation like this," said Joy. "Your first reaction is, ‘Oh, my God, what’s happening here? How are we ever going to make sense of this?’ And then the adrenaline of the job you’ve been trained for years and years to do kick in, and it says, ‘Get the story. Get it right.’ And that’s what you do."

Fifteen years after Dale Earnhardt’s death, Waltrip said he still remembers it like it was yesterday.

Teresa Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt’s widow, with Bill France Jr. nearly a year after Dale’s death.

"People always talk about what would it have been like if Dale hadn’t a passed on?" said Waltrip. "I’ve thought many a time — Bill France Jr. loved Dale so much that I’m not so sure that Dale wouldn’t be running the sport today. Bill thought that much of Dale. They were really close.

"The thing you have to take away from it — and you have to look for the good — that created an initiative by NASCAR to make the cars safer, to make the tracks safer," said Waltrip. "To make it safer for all the drivers. So when I see a car slam into the wall these days — the SAFER barrier, the HANS device, the $25,000 seat — I just say to myself, thank the lucky stars for Dale Earnhardt. Because I’m sure if something like that hadn’t have happened to him, it would have taken a lot longer to get to where we are today."