February 19, 2011 in Sports

Recalling No. 3

Associated Press photo

Fans take photos in the garage area at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
(Full-size photo)

Someone placed three small white angel figurines at the foot of the Dale Earnhardt statue that stands outside of Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Near the statue was a lone yellow rose in a small glass vase, with a black ribbon tied around it. On the ribbon was written one word: “forever.” Members of the team Earnhardt once drove for, Richard Childress Racing, wore black No. 3 hats as they worked on cars in the garage area.

Subtly but surely, fans and NASCAR competitors remembered the 10-year anniversary of Earnhardt’s death, which fell Friday.

“It’s just a sad day in racing,” said 62-year-old Nita Powell, an Earnhardt fan who came to Daytona from Sand Lake, Mich.

More tributes will come during Sunday’s Daytona 500.

The Fox television broadcast team will fall silent during lap No. 3, while fans are expected to hold up three fingers in tribute – much as they did at every race in the immediate aftermath of Earnhardt’s death in 2001.

Fans still remember where they were on that day in 2001, and how they found out the shocking news that Earnhardt had been killed. The wreck hadn’t looked that violent – and wasn’t Earnhardt invincible?

“You’re not going to hurt that guy,” said 52-year-old Greg Walton, an Earnhardt fan who lives near Santa Barbara, Calif. “He drove with a broke back.”

“There were so many worse,” Walton said. “I can remember the time when he flipped, the car rolled, and he gets out of the car saying, ‘Hey, does it start back up?’ ”

A decade after Earnhardt’s death, his loyal fans take solace in the fact that his accident was the catalyst for a safety revolution in the sport.

“We’re still racing, and thankfully nobody’s been killed since his death,” said Jody Scheckel, an Earnhardt fan from Eustis, Fla. “Obviously, we were able to gain from his death, and take the knowledge from that and make the drivers safer. That’s the most important thing.”

While NASCAR actually experienced a surge in popularity in the immediate aftermath of Earnhardt’s death, Walton believes the sport lost something it hasn’t replaced.

“With the economy, they know they’ve lost a lot of fans,” Walton said. “They’re trying to get the fans back in, and he was a big market draw for them.”

And no one driver has risen up to replace him.

“Jimmie Johnson’s won the championships, but he doesn’t have the fan following,” Walton said. “They tried to get a couple of rivalries going. But until last year, NASCAR kept trying to (say), ‘Be nice, guys, be nice.’ You didn’t have that bumping and banging like back (with) Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace.”

Bowyer wins pole for Nationwide race

Clint Bowyer won the pole for the Nationwide Series race at Daytona International.

Bowyer’s lap of 180.821 mph knocked Landon Cassill off the front starting spot, moments after he had knocked Danica Patrick from the top position.

The final qualifying order ended up Bowyer first and Cassill second, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. also squeezing in ahead of Patrick for the third spot.

Waltrip wins Daytona Trucks Series race

Michael Waltrip passed Elliott Sadler in the final hundred yards of the season-opening Trucks Series race in Daytona Beach, then celebrated the emotional victory a decade after his car owner Dale Earnhardt died on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Clay Rogers, Miquel Paludo and Kyle Busch rounded out the top five.

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