REMEMBERING DALE EARNHARDT: An inside look at the Fox broadcast of the 2001 Daytona 500

Zach Dean
The Daytona Beach News-Journal

Dale Earnhardt was different that week.

Talk to anybody who was around NASCAR's biggest star in the days leading up to the 2001 Daytona 500, and they'll all tell you the same thing. 

He was smiling. He was joking around. As Darrell Waltrip puts it, he was showing a side of himself to the world that he usually left at his Carolina farm.

"There were two Dales," said Waltrip, the 84-race winner and 1989 Daytona 500 champion. "There was the 'Intimidator' on the track, and the Dale who had a big heart and a sweet way about him that he didn’t want people to see. I got to see both over the years.

"That week, he was having fun. I think he was feeling a little different about everything."

Darrell Waltrip, a racing legend in his own right, sensed something different about Dale Earnhardt leading up the 2001 running of the Daytona 500. "That week, he was having fun. I think he was feeling a little different about everything." Earnhardt suffered a fatal crash on the final lap of the race.

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Twenty years after Earnhardt's death, Waltrip, now 74 and retired, admits not a day goes by where he doesn't think, 'What would Dale do?'

The two were fierce competitors on the track — "frenemies," he said with a laugh — but they were closer than ever when Waltrip retired from racing after the 2000 season. 

The following Speedweeks, Waltrip was in the booth for Fox's first broadcast of a NASCAR race, along with play-by-play man Mike Joy and analyst Larry McReynolds.

Fox Sports' Mike Joy, from left, Larry McReynolds and Darrell Waltrip had worked together during Speedweeks, but nothing could prepare them for the 2001 Daytona 500, the network's first NASCAR broadcast.

In 1999, Fox Sports, FX, NBC and Turner Sports agreed to pay $2.4 billion for a new six-year television package with NASCAR, beginning with Speedweeks 2001. Fox would get the first part of the season, while NBC and Turner would get the second half.

The three men tasked to usher NASCAR into a new era — Joy, Waltrip and McReynolds — along with former Fox President David Hill, gave The News-Journal a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most memorable and saddest days in NASCAR history: The 2001 Daytona 500.

Earnhardt's scripture 

McReynolds knew Earnhardt as well as anyone.

He spent 15 years in the sport as a crew chief — two for Earnhardt — and was atop the box for his breakthrough Daytona 500 win in 1998. Like Waltrip, McReynolds was fresh out of competitive retirement when he joined Fox in 2001. 

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"Our first day there during Speedweeks was check-in day for inspection," said McReynolds, who still works the Fox broadcast. "I got there early that day, went into the garage area and bumped into Dale.

"He had so much bounce in his step, a lot of energy. He had just run the 24-hour race and just had a real sense of energy and excitement about him."

Later that week, Joy and McReynolds interviewed Earnhardt, who was having a decent Speedweeks: Second in the Budweiser Shootout, third in a Thursday Duel, and a seventh-place start for that Sunday's 500 — Feb. 18, 2001. 

Dale Earnhardt, left, walks down pit road holding the hand of his wife Teresa before the start of the Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2001. Earnhardt, the greatest stock car star of his era, was killed in a crash on the last turn of the last lap of the Daytona 500 as he tried to protect Michael Waltrip's victory. The 49-year-old driver had to be cut from his battered car and was taken to Halifax Health Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead of head injuries.

"He was excited about the season and his prospects," said Joy, the veteran in the booth who had called the three previous Daytona 500s for CBS. 

"He was really looking forward to the season. He didn’t want to talk about a championship or anything like that, but he’d say, 'Hey, we got something for them.' It was a renewed enthusiasm from Dale."

For Waltrip, that was more evident in the hours before Sunday's green flag. The two spoke one last time during a pre-race interview. 

"He said, 'I've got it all DW — my family, my company, DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc.) is doing great — I’ve got it all," Waltrip said. "He told me he'd never been so happy."

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McReynolds said two specific moments during those pre-race hours still stick out.

"The first was, on our pre-race show, I think it was (pit reporter) Matt Yocum who did an interview with Dale from his motorcoach," McReynolds said. "The last comment he made was, 'You’re gonna see something on Fox today that you’ve never seen.'

"Later on, Dale was walking down pit-road with his arm around Dale Jr., and also holding (wife) Teresa's hand. When they got to the car, he rubbed Dale Jr. on the head, gave him a hug and went on his way. Then, when he got to the 3 car, he gave Teresa a kiss, and then he pulled her back and gave her a second kiss.

"I'm not saying he’d never done that before, but I look back at those two things that happened, and still think 20 years later to how significant they were."

When Earnhardt finally got into his famed No. 3 car for the final time, there was a note waiting for him. It was from Waltrip's wife, Stevie. 

"Stevie and Dale were really good friends," Waltrip said. "She’d been putting scriptures in his car ever since 1994, when Neil (Bonnett) got killed. This one was Proverbs 18:10: The Lord is like a strong tower, where the righteous can go and be safe. 

Dale Earnhardt, right, jokes with Darrell Waltrip during a tribute for Waltrip at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2000.

"It turned out to be exactly what he needed in the car that day."

'Ain't nobody gonna wreck Dale Earnhardt'

Even before the famous final lap, it was clear from the start that the 2001 Daytona 500 would be one of the better 500s in recent memory. 

Bill Elliott put the No. 9 Dodge on the pole in Dodge's first season at the Cup level. There were big names battling for the lead all day. Halfway through the race, Earnhardt even gave Kurt Busch, then a rookie, the middle-finger after the two made contact and nearly wrecked. 

"Dale was having fun with it ... we all were," Joy said. 

"I was virtually hugging myself," added Hill, the chairman of the Fox Sports Television Group at the time. Hill played a prominent role in bringing NASCAR to Fox, where it still remains today, during the 1999 negotiations. 

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With 27 laps to go, The Big One happened down the backstretch. It involved 18 cars, and was the real first break the three men in the booth got since the start of the race.

"Tony Stewart was running up front, and Bobby Labonte was running last, and they ended up on top of each other," Waltrip said of the wreck. "That gave us a chance to catch our breath. 

"During that little break, we were just strategizing how to finish up this race. Sterling (Marlin) was trying to win, (Kenny) Schrader was trying to win, there were still a lot of good cars."

Larry McReynolds, from left, David Hill and Darrell Waltrip helped usher in a new era for NASCAR as Fox began broadcasting the races in 2001.

The cars up front, though, were Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 8, Michael Waltrip's No. 15, and Earnhardt's No. 3.

Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip, Darrell's younger brother, drove for Earnhardt's team, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. This was Waltrip's first race in the No. 15.

Waltrip and the two Earnhardts led the field back to green with 21 laps to go. 

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"My brother told me that Dale had met with them Saturday night and said, 'Boys, if we play our cards right, we’ll be running first, second and third when this race is over,'" Darrell remembered.

"When they went back to green, I remember Dale telling Michael and Dale Jr., 'You guys stay in line, I'll take care of the rest.' I poked Larry a couple times in the booth and told him, 'If Dale keeps driving like that, someone's gonna wreck him.'

"Larry looked at me and said, 'Are you crazy? Ain't nobody gonna wreck Dale Earnhardt' ... I think Dale even thought that."

Fox made the decision to let Darrell Waltrip call the end of the 2001 Daytona 500.

'Call him home'

Waltrip, winless in 462 Cup starts, leapfrogged Earnhardt and then Sterling Marlin to take the lead with 17 laps left. With 10 to go, Waltrip, Earnhardt Jr., and Earnhardt ran 1-2-3. 

"As those laps were winding down, I was seeing a different Dale," McReynolds remembered. "Dale Earnhardt, it didn’t’ matter who he was racing — his teammate, his son — he was all about winning. But this time, he was in defensive mode. He was protecting those DEI cars.

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"One was his son, and one was a guy that he had hired. He couldn’t wait to see that 15 car win that race so he could look at the whole world and say, 'I told you so.' I think for maybe the first time in his career, Dale was going to be OK finishing second or third."

With 6 to go, Hill and the Fox team put Darrell Waltrip's video feed in the top left corner of the race.

"I remember our producer, Neil Goldberg, getting in our ears and saying, let Darrell be a brother, let Darrell call his brother home," McReynolds said. "Mike let Darrell have the ball. I was a fan then, too."

Years earlier while working for CBS, Joy was in a similar spot with Ned Jarrett when Dale Jarrett was closing in on his first Daytona 500 win. 

"Darrell was the newly anointed star of NASCAR on Fox," Joy said. "What better scenario than to have the three-time champion call his previously luckless little brother to the 500 win?"

As Joy said, everything played out exactly how they thought it would ... until the final turn of the final lap. 

Dale Earnhardt Sr., in the No. 3 car and Ken Schrader in the yellow car, collide on Turn 4 of the final lap of the Daytona 500 on Sunday Feb. 18, 2001 at the Daytona International Speedway. Earnhardt was fatally injured in the crash.

Earnhardt was holding off the field as Dale Jr. and Waltrip pulled away. Marlin got into Earnhardt's left-rear quarter panel in Turn 3, sent him bobbling toward the apron and then up toward the outside wall. Earnhardt crossed the path of an oncoming Ken Schrader, whose car hit the No. 3 and turned it into more of a head-long angle toward the wall.

As Waltrip called his brother across the start/finish line, Hill wanted a camera on Earnhardt, whose No. 3 had come to a rest with Schrader's in the grass. 

"When you're working live sports, time slows down," Hill said. "You're always thinking 30 second ahead. One of our cameras was on the wreck, and I told the guy on that camera, just stay there. Zoom in on that. And we knew as soon as (Schrader) looked into the car, it wasn't good."

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As Waltrip celebrated, McReynolds pulled out his binoculars while Schrader approached Earnhardt's driver-side door. 

"I saw him almost in hysterics waving his arms to the safety workers. That wasn’t a good sign to me," he remembered. 

"I was beside myself," Waltrip added, still unaware of what was unfolding at the wreck scene. "I don’t even know what I said or what I did, I was just proud. Proud for my brother."

Dale Earnhardt was 49 when he died Feb. 18, 2001.

'I sure hope Dale's OK'

It wasn't long before Waltrip realized something wasn't right. With the cameras still on him after the race, he turned to his left, looked at the wreck and said:

"I sure hope Dale's OK."

"When Dale went into the wall, I knew he was hurt," he said. "I didn’t want to even think about him not being alive, but I figured he was hurt pretty bad. Then I saw Schrader go to the car and drop the window net down.

"Schrader's a tough guy, I've been around him his whole life, but when he jumped back from that car and started waving his arms, that’s when I knew things weren’t good."

Schrader's reaction was bad. As Waltrip said, cutting the roof off and putting a tarp over the car was even worse.

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But for McReynolds, he got that "pit in my stomach" when the Fox cameras showed the ambulance riding down International Speedway Boulevard, toward Halifax Hospital.

"There was no sense of urgency ... It made its way through the infield, didn’t stop at the care center, went straight out the Turn 4 tunnel and there was just no urgency," McReynolds said.

"I said to myself, but not to the viewers, that this didn't look like a life-saving operation," Joy remembered. "You can’t convey that, though. You don’t dare convey that to people."

Emergency personnel move Dale Earnhardt to a waiting ambulance after he was cut out of his car following a final-lap crash at the Daytona 500, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2001, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona, Fla. Earnhardt died Sunday from injuries suffered in the crash.

As the broadcast went to commercial, all three agreed Joy would take the lead when they came back.  

"He could see where Darrell and I were and he took the ball," McReynolds said. "Thank God we had Mike Joy guiding us. We learned that day, when it comes to something like that, you don’t guess and you don’t speculate.

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"We came back on camera and had our closing comments, but Mike and Neil sort of pushed us — your closing comments are about the race, not about the wreck. We made some very brief closing comments and went off air."

Joy said he spent the final minutes on air trying to "toe the line."

"I could look through the glass at the NASCAR people, and there were a lot of ashen faces over there. A lot of stern looks," he said. "There was not the flurry of activity you would expect if, say, they had to clear the tunnel so the ambulance could get out.

Fox acquired the rights to NASCAR in 1999, and debuted with the 2001 Daytona 500.

"There was no communication. The less we got, the more I worried."

Shortly after the broadcast ended, former Daytona Beach police officer Andy Cospito, who spent years escorting Waltrip around the track, came to the Fox booth.

"He had tears in his eyes," Waltrip remembered. "His wife worked in the Emergency Room at Halifax. He said we had to go. I said, to Victory Lane?

"He said 'No, to the hospital. Dale didn't make it.'"

At this point, the Fox broadcast was finished, but Hill realized the severity of the situation. He quickly called Fox News. 

"I told them I had a horrible feeling that this wasn't going to be good," he said. "I told them it was going to be really important to the sport. I asked them if they could give us 30 minutes if Dale was dead. They said sure."

That evening, Mike Helton, NASCAR president at the time, told the world what Waltrip, Joy, McReynolds and Hill had suspected for a while.

"We've lost Dale Earnhardt," he said from the Daytona International Speedway media center. 

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McReynolds said he was across the street at the airport when he got the news.

"I had just sat down, waiting for my flight back home, and Neil called me," he remembered. "He said, 'Larry, I didn’t want you to hear it through the grapevine, but Dale didn’t survive the crash' ... and I already knew that in the pit of my stomach."

Michael Waltrip of Owensboro, Ky., left, speaks with Ken Schrader, right, in victory lane following Waltrip's win of the Daytona 500 race Sunday Feb. 18, 2001 in Daytona Beach, Fla. Schrader was involved with in a crash with Dale Earnhardt Sr. Earnhardt died from injuries he sustained in the crash.

'The last thing he saw'

Twenty years later, Joy and McReynolds still call NASCAR races for Fox, although McReynolds left the booth in 2015. He now works the race as a technical analyst from the virtual studio in Charlotte. 

Waltrip retired after the 2019 season and spends most of his time at his Tennessee home. Hill left Fox Sports in 2012, and then left the network altogether in 2015 to start his own production company. 

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Still, to this day — and especially this week — the memories from the 2001 Daytona 500 are as fresh as they were 20 years ago.

"That day really bonded us as a team. That was our first real race together, but we trusted one another, and 20 years later that bond has never broken," Joy said. 

Michael Waltrip raises his arms in victory after winning the Daytona 500 February 18, 2001. It was Waltrip's first Cup win and was a joyous moment before the realization set in that Dale Earnhardt had suffered fatal injuries in the crash on the last lap of the race.

"One minute it was jubilation," Waltrip added, "because your brother just won the race. And the next minute, one of your best friends loses his life. It was a roller-coaster. 

"For me, though, when I think about that wreck, I always think about this: For Dale, he had to see Michael and Dale Jr. headed for the start/finish line. He had to see that. And that would've been the last thing he saw.

"Even today, it's really hard to put that into perspective."