Sunday afternoon, the Cup Series drivers will head to Daytona International Speedway for the Daytona 500, which you can watch online with a trial. The race marks the 20-year anniversary of a crash that killed Dale Earnhardt and forever changed the sport. Here is everything to remember about the tragic incident.
The crash occurred during the final lap of the Daytona 500. Earnhardt was running in fourth place when he grazed Sterling Marlin's car. The No. 3 Chevrolet crashed into the wall on the fourth turn at about 180 mph. Ken Schrader's No. 36 Pontiac collided with Earnhardt's car. Moments later, Michael Waltrip won his first-ever Daytona 500 while Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second.
According to ESPN, Earnhardt suffered head injuries during the crash and died instantly. "There was nothing that could have been done for him," said Steve Bohannon, a doctor at Halifax Medical Center. The safety crew had to cut Earnhardt out of his car after the crash before taking him to the hospital.
Earnhardt's death came at a time when the sport faced scrutiny due to safety concerns. Three NASCAR drivers were killed in wrecks during the 2000 season. Busch Series driver Adam Petty was killed in Loudon, New Hampshire, in May. Two months later, Winston Cup driver Kenny Irwin was killed at New Hampshire International Speedway. NASCAR truck series driver Tony Roper was killed in October at Texas Motor Speedway.
Following Earnhardt's tragic crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR made sweeping changes to improve driver safety. They required a seven-point restraint system to keep drivers in place, along with The HANS (Head and Neck Support) device, a shoulder harness with tethers attached to each side of the driver's helmet. Since that fateful day, no drivers have died during races despite a number of massive crashes. The list includes Ryan Newman's frightening crash at the end of the 2020 Daytona 500.
"20 years ago, I don't think I would be here," Newman says in a special Earnhardt retrospective that will air prior to Sunday's race. "There's no doubt." The Roush Fenway Racing driver spent less than two days in the hospital after his own crash and only suffered minor injuries. He later attributed this outcome to the safety measures implemented by racing's governing body. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson also appears in the special and expresses a similar sentiment, saying during the trailer that Earnhardt's untimely death changed the safety in motorsports and NASCAR.