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Dale Earnhardt's legacy looms over NASCAR 20 years after his death

Dale Earnhardt, who died in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001, left a lasting impact on NASCAR as the company has made many safety changes over the last two decades to better protect its drivers. File Photo by Michael Bush/UPI
Dale Earnhardt, who died in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001, left a lasting impact on NASCAR as the company has made many safety changes over the last two decades to better protect its drivers. File Photo by Michael Bush/UPI | License Photo

MIAMI, Feb. 18 (UPI) -- NASCAR fans picture Daytona International Speedway when they think about the start of the annual Cup Series, but they also remember legendary driver Dale Earnhardt.

Earnhardt, who died on the fourth turn at the Daytona Beach, Fla., track 20 years ago today, left a lasting mark on motorsports. The fatal crash sparked increased safety standards throughout NASCAR, which likely have numerous saved lives.

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Today's competitors still chase the benchmarks Earnhardt set as one of most accomplished drivers in NASCAR history. His name and number are synonymous with enthusiasm for the sport among today's new generation of drivers.

"His spirit echoes in every turn [at Daytona]," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said in an appearance Friday on Fox Sports. "Twenty years gone, and we miss him, but in so many ways, he is still right here."

The 40-car field and respective pit crews continued a 19-year tradition Sunday by holding up Earnhardt's No. 3 with their fingers during the third lap of the 2021 Daytona 500.

Michael McDowell went on to win the "Great American Race" in his 10th appearance at the event. Earnhardt initially scored 10 Top 5 finishes at Daytona and then won the event for the first and only time in his 20th attempt in 1998.

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Despite his drought at Daytona, "The Intimidator's" many accomplishments most likely will remain untouched in the record books.

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His seven Cup Series titles tie Richard Petty and Jimmie Johnson for the most in history. His 76 Winston Cup victories rank third, behind only Petty and Darrell Waltrip.

Earnhardt final victory came at the Winston 500, on Oct. 15, 2000, at Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Ala. He had no plans to retire at age 49.

He said at the 2000 Winston Cup awards ceremony -- four months before his death -- that he planned to chase an eighth championship.

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"I want to do it, I want to be back up here," Earnhardt told the crowd at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. "I've got a chance, maybe if [team owner] Richard Childress keeps me out there."

Earnhardt never got that chance, but his greatest accomplishment could be the legacy he left as NASCAR's great protector. His death led NASCAR to enact many changes to its safety protocols and made NASCAR drivers safer for decades.

Increased safety part of legacy

Several drivers and NASCAR officials have said over the years that Earnhardt's death forced the company to take a hard look at its safety standards. Earnhardt died from a skull fracture after he crashed into a wall during the final lap the Daytona race.

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NASCAR went on to require drivers to wear the HANS (head and neck support) device, which holds their head in place during impact and reduces the likelihood of head or neck injuries.

NASCAR also made many other improvements to its cars over the last two decades to protect drivers.

The drivers now wear stronger harness seat belts. Their seats have been modified with additional braces to protect the sides of the head from rapid movement, and those seats are more centralized in each car because the center is better designed to maintain the car's structure in a crash.

NASCAR also made the walls softer at its tracks so that they better absorb force when a car hits them.

Two years after Earnhardt's death, NASCAR opened its Research and Development Center, where analysts analyze crash and car performance information from recording devices and use that information to make further safety improvements.

There hasn't been a fatality in NASCAR's Cup Series since Earnhardt's crash.



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Current Cup Series driver Ryan Newman was one of the most-recent drivers to speak about how Earnhardt's death led to increased safety standards, which saved his life.

Newman was hospitalized after a fiery wreck during the 2020 Daytona 500. He recently told ESPN that he would not have survived that wreck if he had been driving Earnhardt's 2001 car.

"I look at my crash and how it started, and the turn into the right and the nose in under the wall, and I'm guessing if you laid the paths out, technology-wise, it'd be fairly similar to Dale's crash," Newman said.

The interior of current cars looks much different than that of Earnhardt's old Chevrolet, and fans won't see a paint scheme similar to the black No. 3 any time soon -- and that's by design.

Richard Childress said after Earnhardt's death that the No. 3 would never again appear on the side of a GM Goodwrench car.

Childress' grandson, Austin Dillon, now uses the No. 3, but his car has a different paint scheme and sponsors. Dillon frequently mentions Earnhardt, and he recently paid tribute to "The Intimidator" after he won one of the qualifying races for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 11.

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"Twenty years ago, we lost a hero in our sport in Dale Earnhardt," Dillon said. "It's great to put the number he made famous back in victory lane."

Dale Earnhardt Sr.: 20 years in memoriam

Dale Earnhardt Sr., seven-time Winston Cup Champion, heads to his car just before the Daytona 500 in Daytona Beach, Fla., on February 15, 1998. Photo by Michael Bush/UPI | License Photo

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