NASCAR loses its 'greatest driver'

By MIKE HARRIS AP Motorsports Writer Published:

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Dale Earnhardt, the greatest stock car star of his era, was killed in a crash on the last turn of the last lap of Sunday's Daytona 500 as he tried to protect teammate Michael Waltrip's victory.

The 49-year-old driver had to be cut from his battered car and was rushed to Halifax Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead of head injuries.

"He had what I felt were life-ending type injuries at the time of impact and nothing could be done for him," said Dr. Steve Bohannon, an emergency physician at the hospital who also works for Daytona International Speedway.

Earnhardt, considered a master of superspeedway racing, was locked in a battle for third place as his newest driver, Waltrip, and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., headed toward the finish line for what should have been the most triumphant moment in the brief history of Dale Earnhardt, Inc.

The accident happened a half-mile from the finish of the NASCAR season-opener.

Earnhardt, running fourth in his famed black No. 3 Chevrolet, grazed Sterling Marlin's car while fighting for position. He crashed into the concrete wall at the fourth turn going about 180 mph, and was smacked hard by Ken Schrader's car.

"I guess someone got into Dale because Dale got into me and then we went up," Schrader said. "We hit pretty hard and Dale hit harder."

The scene was grim as safety workers removed Earnhardt from the car, and the accident removed all the luster from a glittering race that kept the record crowd of 195,000 spectators on their feet most of the afternoon.

Many of them were well on their way home when NASCAR president Mike Helton made the announcement, about 90 minutes after the race ended.

"This is understandably the hardest announcement I've ever had to make," Helton said. "We've lost Dale Earnhardt."

Fans in and around the sprawling speedway wept after hearing the news.

The death of Earnhardt left NASCAR reeling in the wake of a 2000 season in which three of its young stars were killed in separate accidents.

Adam Petty, the fourth generation of stock car racing's most famous family, and Kenny Irwin died in crashes two months apart at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Tony Roper was killed later in the year in a crash during a truck race at Texas Motor Speedway. All three died of the same type of head injuries that apparently killed Earnhardt.

Following those deaths, safety had become a front-burner issue for the sport, with an ongoing debate over possible rule changes and the use of new safety equipment.

The death completely overshadowed the victory by Waltrip, his first in 15 years and 463 of Winston Cup races.

At first, Waltrip, the younger brother of retired three-time champion Darrell Waltrip, was jubilant, scrambling from his car in Victory Lane and shouting in a raspy voice: "This is the Daytona 500, and I won it! I won the Daytona 500! I can't believe it!"

But he was somber as it became apparent that his new boss was badly injured.

"The only reason I won this race is Dale Earnhardt," Waltrip said.

The race, with two- and three-wide driving and constantly changing positions, was also interrupted by a 21-car crash that sent Tony Stewart's car flying through the air. He, too, was taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a concussion.

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