This is the story of the day Dale Earnhardt died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, as told by people who were there – working with him, racing against him, friends.

Sunday morning, February 18, 2001

"We met every day in his coach. He always sat at this little table in a dining area. We sat across from each other. He was wearing a black shirt and jeans – his Sunday attire. Then he would put on a leather jacket to go to the drivers' meeting. He was very positive that day. Michael [Waltrip] had shown so much speed that week. He felt like one of us would win – either himself, Michael or Junior. He specifically said, 'We can win this race today.'" -- Ty Norris, then spotter for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Inc. executive

"The morning was just like any other. Buffy [Waltrip] was cooking breakfast. My daughter was there. She was only 3, jumping around in the motor home. I got to thinking, 'This could be a big day. I got a car I can win the Daytona 500 with.'" -- Michael Waltrip, then driving his first race for Dale Earnhardt Inc.

"It wasn't raining, which is a good thing. I remember seeing Earnhardt at the drivers' meeting. He was his usual stoic self. He had a fixed face of determination. He had a way of clicking on – it's time to go racing. There was nothing unusual. I remember him signing a few autographs." – Jim Hunter, then president of Darlington Raceway

"I was series director for NASCAR. I remember the day pretty well. I sat next to Dale at the drivers' meeting. We made small talk, mainly. I don't think it was racing related. I think he was sitting in one of the first few rows. There were some empty chairs around him. He had his cowboy boots and jeans. Dale was pretty relaxed. He always had the air of confidence anywhere you saw him. Always had that same demeanor." – Gary Nelson

"There are a lot of things about the day that were different. It was my first race on Fox. It was a couple rookies – me and Larry McReynolds in the booth – getting ready to do the Super Bowl. We were uptight. More people watch that race than all the other races put together." – Darrell Waltrip

"Dale and I, with Buffy and Teresa [Earnhardt, Dale's wife], walked to the track. He hit me on the back and said, 'You know what to do.' And he walked away." -- Michael Waltrip

"He was in a very calm, happy place. He had no tension. He was ready to roll." – Ty Norris

"I seen him standing up there by his car, with his arm around Teresa. He had to be thinking, 'This is the day. This is gonna be a great day.' " – Michael Waltrip

THE RACE

"Our cars could go anywhere they wanted to, anytime they wanted to. We were the class of the field. There was only one guy who could beat us – Sterling Marlin in the 40 car. We kept a very close eye on Sterling. If he got in front of us, I felt he was going to be tough at the end." – Ty Norris

Photo

"The race started, and I chilled out and took my time. We were running 1, 2, 3, 4. It was amazing because, the night before, Dale predicted it when we had this impromptu meeting. I liked what he was saying, but I thought it might be a little unrealistic. I mean, there are going to be 40 other cars. And me, him and Dale Jr. are gonna win it? But it's Dale. Then during the race, I saw Dale behind me and I thought, 'Damn, how'd he know?' " – Michael Waltrip

"The race took off, and it was obvious right away it was going to be a fantastic race. There was a lot of passing, a lot of excitement. We settled in right away. It was my brother's first ride in Dale's car. Dale Jr., Michael and Senior were all running well. My brother had a chance to win the biggest race of his life. A lot of things were mushrooming, coming together, as the day wore on." – Darrell Waltrip

"I'm in the control tower. As series director, I oversee that the rules are adhered to. I kinda remember thinking to myself, 'The last race Senior won, he came from pretty far back in just a few laps to go ahead and win at Talladega.' That's a similar kind of race. There was a red flag – a serious wreck. As they were working to get the race started back, I remember thinking, 'Dale Sr. is in a better position.' But he was the owner of a couple of the cars he's racing against – Waltrip and Dale Jr. I thought, 'This'll be an interesting finish.' " – Gary Nelson

"I started off and I had a tire failure and I was a lap down. We come ripping through the field and I'm about to freak out. We got the lap back. The seas parted for me in the back straightaway. I look down underneath me and I see Sterling and Dale going to the bottom." – Rusty Wallace

"The thing that stood out the most to me – it looked like Sterling had an issue. He pitted or got shuffled out. He got back to 15th and every time I looked up, he gained a spot or two. Dale started playing blocker against the 40. Everyone sensed he could do the most against us. As we were coming down toward the end, we could see Sterling coming. The three spotters were all talking back and forth, saying, 'Don't make any drastic moves coming down to that last lap.' " Ty Norris

"Dale was doing everything he could to keep Junior and Waltrip up front. Sterling Marlin was making an honest effort to pass him." – Jim Hunter

"It was setting up to be one of the best finishes ever. I didn't believe Michael would win until he was into the third turn and Dale Jr. got a lead on the pack of cars. Then it dawned on me: He's gonna win this race. They were comfortably into Turn 3. He had it won by that point. The tears were building." – Darrell Waltrip

"When those races are over, you don't think about it. We had a red flag – and hell, I didn't remember that. I just remember the last lap. I remember the white flag and what happened after that. Going down into the turn, coming off 2, I went to the top thinking somebody would go up there. I remember Dale getting wiggled and coming across the track." – Ken Schrader

"As I recall – I've never watched a replay of the race – we were going down the back straightaway and they fanned out two or three wide. Dale was trying to protect the high side and he was running in the middle. The 40 slid under him going into Turn 3. When they got into Turns 3 and 4, they came together." – Ty Norris

THE CRASH

"I was the team manager for Chip Ganassi Racing. Our car had Sterling Marlin driving it. He came into contact with Dale." – Andy Graves

"I was looking right at it. It didn't look as bad as a wreck earlier on the back straightaway. I was thinking to myself, 'Senior is really going to be upset.' " – Gary Nelson

"The first thing I thought was, 'We're going to win this race.' They weren't going to get the run to come get us. I knew we were going to win the 500. First thing I said to Junior was, 'You lost your drafting partner.' Without a push, he wasn't going to get around Michael. You're going to settle for second. I was not even paying attention to who was crashing." – Ty Norris

Photo

"I see Dale and he goes flying across the front of me. I'll never forget his car just flying across the bow. I just chirped off the throttle. It was not a bad wreck. I remember thinking, 'Oh man is he gonna be pissed off.' " – Rusty Wallace

"I was in the truck, watching it on TV. I didn't think anything of it. I had no idea that it was serious." – Jim Hunter

"In the control tower, you have all the camera views. We were able to see the camera that's in the car. We focused our eyes on that. You got one of those sinking feelings as they were trying to get him out of the car. And that builds. They didn't look like they're talking to him. They were scurrying around a little more than normal. The commotion was a little more hectic than it would be for a guy with a cracked rib." – Gary Nelson

"I knew there had been a crash. I looked in the mirror, and there was no one behind me and Dale Jr. anymore. I knew they'd give me a big hug shortly. But that never came." – Michael Waltrip

"Michael wins the race, and I'm all excited. I can't wait to go to victory circle. Then I got a sick feeling. I saw Dale wrecked out the corner of my eye. I lost all my jubilation and it turned to fear. I knew he was hurt. I had a great sinking spell. We couldn't say the condition because we didn't know. And then we were off the air." – Darrell Waltrip

"There was very little celebration of Michael Waltrip's victory. The total focus was on Dale Earnhardt. People were walking around in a daze." – Jim Hunter

"Dale and I were staying together on boats at the Halifax Marina. I figured we'd get on the boat that night and have a beer. I'll meet him back on the docks, he'll pat me on the back." – Rusty Wallace

THE REALIZATION

"I remember wondering, 'Was it Sterling's fault? Was it Dale's fault?' I never came to a conclusion." – Andy Graves

"I went over to Andy Cutler and said, 'Tell Dale we'll see him downstairs.' He thought his radio must have come undone. We didn't have text messages back then. I saw the ambulances; I saw he didn't get out of the car. But we popped across the track and I went straight to victory lane. Dale never showed up. Teresa never showed up." – Ty Norris

"After the race, I remember Dale Earnhardt Jr. running to the care center. I remember Kenny Schrader describing what he saw in an animated fashion. Mike Helton came into our little office in the trailer. He was in and out of there for quite a while – maybe an hour and a half, two hours. He looked very, very concerned – distraught." – Jim Hunter

"I ran into Ken Schrader. I can remember the look on his face. It was just white – pale." – Gary Nelson

Photo

"I went over to the car and I knew Dale was in trouble. The emergency people were already there. All I could do was let 'em know to come as quick as possible. I don't wanna talk about what I saw." – Ken Schrader

"I saw Chris Williams, our head of merchandise sales. He said, 'I don't think he made it. Something went wrong.' I jumped in the car with Greg Penske and hauled. I was in total shock. I think about that moment at least twice a week. I was in total shock. I couldn't believe it. I'm still waiting to hear he's gonna be OK." – Rusty Wallace

"I might have been in shock. I wasn't normal. I was trying to gather my composure and get ready for victory lane, and I drove right by where he was – where his car stopped. Had I been cognizant, I would have stopped right there. For some reason, I believe I was escorted through there. I can't imagine stopping there and seeing that." – Michael Waltrip

"Ken [Schrader] said something to Michael. I saw his face change. I walked into the garage and asked to go to the NASCAR trailer. It was Brian France, Jim France, Mike Helton, Jim Hunter, John Griffin and Daniel Humphrey. Brian said, 'Dad went over there.' I thought, 'Now why would he go to the hospital?' " – Ty Norris

"Time kept passing by and I became more concerned. Eventually, it became obvious to me that something was really wrong." – Michael Waltrip

"I saw the wreck on TV in the hauler when I was getting dressed to leave. I thought, 'Oh, he'll be fine.' It didn't look like that type of an accident. I remember walking to the bus lot, seeing Teresa walk by. She definitely had a look on her face that I had not seen on her face before." – Jeff Gordon

"At the hospital, it was real chaotic. Everybody was walking around, looking at each other. We knew probably that he was dead. It didn't seem possible. I could have never imagined anything like that happening. So hard to fathom that Dale Earnhardt, the great Intimidator, was not going to be at the next race." – Darrell Waltrip

"The phone rang and Brian picked it up. He said three or four words. He looked at me and said, 'Sorry, it's the worst.' " – Ty Norris

"I had known Dale Earnhardt since he was a kid. I knew his father, Ralph Earnhardt. I was at a newspaper in Columbia back then. He used to run that speedway. He won 50 percent of the races. He would bring Dale with him when he was a towheaded teenager – he always told people I was an easy touch to get him a Coke. I had to go to the press center for the announcement. It was the longest walk I've ever taken. … The new media center didn't open until the following year. With Earnhardt being involved, the place was bulging at the seams. There were such cramped quarters, with the TV cameras and people holding up recorders. It looked like a tangled web of wires. It was like putting 20 people in a closet that might hold three. People were sweating. But when Mike Helton walked in there and stepped on the little stage, the silence was unbelievable. I'll never forget his words. He stood at the mike and said, 'We've lost Dale Earnhardt.' " – Jim Hunter

"People were on the floor wailing and crying, hitting and kicking. Tony Eury came over to Dale and said, 'What are we gonna do now, Junior?' Dale Jr. looked at him real firm and said, 'It's time for us to grow up.' " – Ty Norris

THAT NIGHT

"I found out when everybody else did. Seeing as that I'd been there, I wasn't surprised. I knew before I went home. I lost a friend that day, lost a good friend." – Ken Schrader

"I left the garage. It was a hard place to be. I ended up walking over to see Michael back in his coach. He was sitting there, with a blank look on his face. Only thing I could tell him was, 'Dale knew. He knew you won.' " – Ty Norris

"I got on a plane. I remember when I got on the plane, the talk was, you know, they're checking Dale out, that it's more than what it looked like, but I still didn't think it would be anything more than maybe some injuries. Then I landed at home and my phone just lit up. I started getting those messages. I mean, I was blown away. I couldn't believe it. I was just in shock." – Jeff Gordon

"We had the car impounded. The wrecker people dropped it behind the care center. It was Gate 7, I think. Wasn't very far from where the accident happened. Not as beat up as others I'd seen. It was dark. A couple guys went with flashlights. They lifted the car cover. We decided to leave it overnight. I made a plan to figure out what time sunrise was so I could go back. I really needed to be there at daybreak to get the measurements of the skid marks." – Gary Nelson

Photo

"We had three race teams that had to get back home. I called the guys back at the shop and told them to make sure all the employees were there at 7 the next morning. We got on the airplane and everyone was crying. It was like we left something behind. When we took off, I remember the feeling of coming off the ground to head home, and I could feel every inch. We were getting farther and farther from Dale." – Ty Norris

"We had a meeting at 9 p.m. That meeting lasted about a half-hour. Everybody was very, very quiet. Everybody was drained. Most of us had been up since 5 a.m. We had to move on and plan a press conference for the next morning." – Jim Hunter

"When I landed, I went to Mike Helton's house, where Teresa had gone. I finally said to her, 'We're getting the employees together.' She said, 'You tell them we're going to be OK. We're a race team that's gonna race.' " – Ty Norris

"Dale Sr. had kinda changed. All the years I knew him, all he talked about was pedal-to-the-metal type conversation. Now he was trying to find ways to make the sport safer. He had shifted some of his focus to his kids and trying to build something for them. The winter leading up to this race, he asked me to come up to his race shop in Mooresville [N.C.]. He showed me a bunch of ideas he had that were safety-related. He wanted to make sure he had the safest cars he could build." – Gary Nelson

"I went back to the marina and just sat there, stunned. He did not have his boat that week, Sunday Money. It was his favorite boat ever, and it was not finished. He was waiting on his pride and joy. It didn't get done in time. That night, I thought we'd have a glass of wine together. I just sat there in disbelief. I remember his car … and looking at it in my rear-view mirror. That was it." – Rusty Wallace