10 Years Later: How Dale Earnhardt's Death at Daytona 500 Changed NASCAR

NASCAR made sweeping safety changes after crash that killed racing legend.

ByKaren Travers, Mark Flamini and Jessica Small
February 18, 2011, 11:10 AM

Feb. 19, 2010 -- The drivers of NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series will start their engines Sunday at the 53rd running of the Daytona 500 and five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson is on a quest for an unprecedented sixth-consecutive series title.

But the weekend will also be marked by somber tributes. Sunday's race in Daytona Beach, Fla., will be the 10-year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s death on that same track.

His crash on the final turn of the final lap brought the racing world to a screeching halt and changed NASCAR forever.

The death of Earnhardt, a stock-car legend, brought sweeping safety changes to the dangerous sport.

"I believe it required us to study longer, work harder and understand what the limitations of the human body are and really study the impacts, not only on the car but residual effects on the body," said Ricky Craven, a former NASCAR driver and a racing analyst for ESPN. "NASCAR has implemented some great changes. They have built a safer race car. They have mandated devices that have helped to keep drivers protected."

Tracks now have softer crash-walls, cars have better seat-belt systems and roll-cages and NASCAR drivers are now required to wear a head-and-neck safety device.

Earnhardt refused to wear one and many experts believe it would have saved his life.

"[Drivers] don't want something new to come into their environment, something that can distract them or slow them down," Craven said. "Any change that they would perceive to be a negative, they resist it.

"And they think that they are resilient and could survive anything and give little consideration to being hurt until someone, a member of your family, is injured or fatally injured and then get's everybody's attention."

Earnhardt's son, Dale Jr., followed his dad into the racing business. He said this week that he wants to move on from that tragic day 10 years ago.

"I'm sure 110 damn percent my dad would not want me discussing this 10 years later," Earnhardt said. "He would be like, "Look, quit. You've done it. You did it.'"


Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s career started off on the right track. In 2004, he reached Victory Lane six times and won the Daytona 500, a feat that took his dad 23 years to accomplish.

But he soon hit a few bumps in the road, winning just two races in two years.

And then he made an announcement that shocked the racing industry.

"After a year of intense negotiations and intense efforts by DEI and DR Motor Sports, we've decided it is time to move on and seek other opportunities," he said May 10, 2007.

In a sport known for its family ties, Earnhardt ditched the racing company that was founded by his father and run by his stepmother in order to join rival Hendrick Motor Sports the following year.

The move initially seemed promising but he has earned just one win in 108 starts with the power-house team.

"I used to feel I belonged in victory lane, so it's trying to get back to victory lane to see if that guy comes back, which I'm sure he will," he said.

He said he wants racing fans to move on from that tragic day in 2001 when his father died, although he admits it has taken a toll on him; on and off the track.

"If you look at the videos from 1998-99 and if you look at the videos from after that, I'm not the same person," he said.

Earnhardt earned the top starting spot -– the pole position -- for Sunday's Daytona 500, but lost it after a wreck during a practice run this week. The crash was an eerie reminder of his family's history on that Florida track.

NASCAR fans will remember the legacy of Dale Sr. this weekend. His son is still hoping to create his own.

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