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Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Death At Daytona

In nearly two decades of Winston Cup competition, including seven championship seasons, Earnhardt met his nemesis every year at Florida's Daytona Speed-way. With eighteen career losses on record at Daytona Beach, his determination to win the 500-mile classic approached fanaticism. In 1997 he flipped his car but managed to walk away from the crash. He headed for a waiting ambulance as his head cleared, suddenly realizing that all four wheels and tires on his car remained intact. He beat the wrecker crew back to his car, slid into the cab, and finished the race—albeit in thirty-first place.

Related Biography: Winston Cup Driver Neil Bonnett

Neil Bonnett of Hueyville, Alabama, was born in 1946. He worked as a pipe fitter in high-rise construction before entering the race car circuit. After driving for Butch Nelson in 1972, Bonnett joined the Winston Cup circuit in 1974, winning his first event in 1977 and taking a total of eighteen Winston Cup races during his career.

Despite shattering his leg in a crash in Charlotte in 1987, Bonnett returned to the circuit three months later with a plate in his hip. In 1988 he won three races, but he crashed again in 1989 and broke his sternum. A crash at Darlington in 1990 left Bonnett with severe amnesia and effectively ended his career.

Bonnett and Earnhardt were close friends, and it was the memory of bagging a prize buck with Earnhardt that snapped Bonnett from the amnesia. Recovered, he retired from auto racing to become a color commentator and host of his own show on The Nashville Network (TNN).

Like Earnhardt, Bonnett earned a reputation for no-holds-barred auto racing, and in 1993 he opted to return to the Winston Cup circuit. After testing some Monte Carlos for Childress, he was set to race at Talladega on July 25. He crashed that day, but walked away unhurt. After scheduling a fiverace farewell tour, Bonnett crashed and died on February 11, 1994, at the fourth turn at Daytona, while practicing for the first race of his farewell tour.

On July 12, 1993, just months before his own death, it was Bonnett who pulled Davey Allison from the wreckage of a helicopter crash that caused Allison's death. Bonnett was inducted into the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame in 2001.

One year later, in 1998, Earnhardt took the theretofore elusive first prize at Daytona. It was a hard-earned win. Three years passed again, until 2001 when Earnhardt lost the race and his life in one final instant. The drive that day had progressed with Earnhardt leading in laps number 27 through 31. He was back in front on the eighty-third and eighty-fourth laps. Some time later a 19-car pile up and crash on lap number 174 caused a ruckus but little injury. Flamboyantly, Earnhardt flipped an obscene gesture with his finger to Kurt Bursch when they pinged bumpers during the course.

The number 3 sedan with its cocksure driver regained the lead in lap number 183. In the final lap Earnhardt approached the finish on a wild drive. He was in third place and blocking for two members of his team who held the lead. The trio was poised for a memorable three-way win, but the victory stalled with only seconds left to the finish. Earnhardt's car, clipped from behind, went out of control and careened into a car driven by Kenny Schrader. Both cars left the track and nosed into the wall on the final turn of the race. Schrader emerged from his car without help while Earnhardt remained motionless in the wreck. Earnhardt was pronounced dead at 5:16 p.m. at the Halifax Medical Center, from a basal skull fracture.

Earnhardt over the years had matured into a devoted family man. After the 1980 Winston Cup season, having divorced Gee and assumed custody of their two children, he married Teresa Houston in November of 1982. Their daughter, Taylor Nicole, was born in 1985. He took custody of his older son Kerry as well. He loved the wilderness and was an avid hunter and fisherman.

At the time of his death Earnhardt remained tied with Richard Petty for the most Winston Cups in history. In At the Altar of Speed, Leigh Montville said of Earnhardt, "He was the bridge, the connector," between the old world of auto racing and modern high-stakes game at the turn of the twenty-first century.

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Famous Sports StarsAuto RacingDale Earnhardt Sr. Biography - What Makes A Champ?, Guts Make A Champ, Chronology, Awards And Accomplishments, Death At Daytona