Feb. 18, 2001: How Dale Earnhardt's death forever changed NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEB 4, 2001 - Dale Earnhardt checks out the view from the newly completed Earnhardt Grandstand during winter testing, two weeks before the Daytona 500, at Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, FL, in this file photo from February 2001. 

Imagine if the most famous athlete in a sports league, who is only seconds away from the greatest victory in his career, tragically lost his life in a split second. This is what happened to Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the final corner during the 2001 Daytona 500. 

Going down the backstretch, Earnhardt ran in third behind two of the cars he owned at Dale Earnhardt Inc. 

Between turns three and four, Earnhardt was clipped by  Sterling Marlin, turned up the track and collided head-on with the outside retaining wall. 

Earnhardt’s cars finished 1-2 in the race, but the celebrations were eliminated instantly as attention went solely to the health of Earnhardt. At 5:16 p.m. that evening, Earnhardt was pronounced dead from a fatal basilar skull fracture. 

The NASCAR world was frozen, stunned and shocked that one of its greatest athletes had died on the sport’s biggest stage.From there, NASCAR dedicated itself to never have another death on its tracks. 

Since that fateful day, drivers have walked away unscathed from worse crashes than Earnhardt’s. Multiple cars have endured flips, head-on collisions similar to Earnhardt’s and have even ended up in the catch fence on numerous occasions. 

The technological advancements in safety have saved the lives of current drivers and protected them from getting severely injured in major incidents. 

Two of the biggest safety advancements are the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barrier inserted around tracks on the outside and inside retaining walls, and the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device. 

The SAFER barrier was first installed in 2002 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Due to its success, almost all tracks on the NASCAR circuit installed the barriers by 2015. The barrier uses large foam cartridges that absorb the force of the impact to reduce a violent whiplash reaction from the driver. 

Notable examples of the SAFER barrier protecting drivers from serious injury or death include Brad Keselowski’s severe collision at Auto Club Speedway in 2007, Regan Smith’s crash at Talladega Superspeedway in 2011 and Eric McClure’s high-speed accident at Talladega in 2012. 

The HANS device goes around the neck of the driver as they enter their car. There is a latch on both sides of a driver’s helmet where a tether will secure the driver’s head and neck to the rest of their seat. The restraint reduces neck tension by 81% and the total neck load by 78%. 

In an interview with Fox Sports reporter Bob Pockrass, NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon attributed the HANS device to saving his life during a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2008. 

“Everything else in my body moved, stretched and was so incredibly sore in the days following that,” Gordon said. “I don’t think my head would’ve withstood that without the HANS holding it back.”

Further safety advancements were made to the current cars ran in the NASCAR Cup Series, and the technology was put to the ultimate test at the Daytona 500 last year. 

Cup Series veteran Ryan Newman was a few hundred feet away from winning his second Harley J. Earl Trophy at Daytona, but as he came to the finish line, he was turned by fellow driver Ryan Blaney and slammed the outside wall. The angle of Newman’s impact flipped the car over and he slid upside-down in a shower of sparks. One disturbing replay froze the NASCAR world once again as driver Corey LaJoie plowed into Newman’s car on the driver’s side going around 200 mph.

The impact shot Newman’s car high into the air, and he landed upside-down and slid toward the infield before coming to a complete stop. 

Thousands of fans at Daytona and millions watching at home believed they were staring at a coffin rather than Newman’s No. 6 Ford car. 

Two days later, Newman was photographed walking out of the hospital with his two daughters by his side. 

Newman sustained serious, but non-life-threatening injuries from the crash. In an interview with ESPN’s Ryan McGee, Newman made it clear the safety advancements saved his life. 

“I would not be an alive racing driver today sitting here,” Newman said. 

After 20 years, NASCAR has never been safer. While the threat of injury still exists with the abundance of crashes in the sport, it is because of Earnhardt and his legacy that have saved the lives of numerous drivers and will save others for years to come.