DAYTONA BEACH -- It's easy to understand why rookie Sprint Cup driver Austin Dillon's seizing of the pole for Sunday's Daytona 500 iin the No. 3 that was Dale Earnhardt's who lost his life coming off turn 4 of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 when Sterling Marlon made contact with the back of his car, sending him into the concrete wall and killing him instantly, his mangled car bouncing back across the pavement and coming to rest in the grass.
The NASCAR legend was in third place at the time trying to protect the lead for protégée Michael Waltrip in his first ride for Dale Earnhardt Inc. and baby face Dale Earnardt, Jr, behind Waltrip in the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet.
I was at the track that day as a back-up reporter getting color for feeds back to the Daytona Beach News-Journal newsroom by phone when I saw the elder Earnhardt with his wife, Teresa, before driver introductions. They were holding hands and he got in that last kiss before he climbed into the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy with that open-face helmet.
He was the only driver I saw with a helmet like that.
It was that kiss that would lave a lasting impression on me eight months later when I was embedded at the civil trial brought by Teresa Earnhardt who sued to keep her husband's autopsy photos sealed after a website operator, Michael Uribe, had posted disgusting autopsy photos of several other drivers killed prior to Earnhardt, including Rodney Orr.
With my pre-race assignment complete, I left Daytona international Speedway about a third of the way into the 200-lap race because I didn't have a great view of the track from where I was standing with lots of people craning their necks like me with the passing blur of the cars whizzing by so I drove home to beat the traffic as I had done in each of the previous five 500s and enjoy the remainder of the race in the comfort of my Port Orange home with my son, Henry, who was 8 years old.
Like many fans -- at home to in the bars and restaurants throughout the county and at the track -- my emotions in the last two laps were on Michael Waltrip and Junior with the Intimidator doing what he could with his aggressive driving to keep Marlin from getting around him. The Fox broadcast cut away from Earnhardt's crash in a split second to capture Waltrip passing by the checkered flag with Earnhardt., Jr. behind him.
A few hours after the race, I had turned on the radio in hopes of finding out how serious the elder Earnhardt's situation was as nobody at the newspaper had any information weather. That's when I heard NASCAR chief Mike Helton announce, "We've lost Dale Earnhardt."
In the week that followed, there was a lot of discussion in the newsroom about the autopsy photos because the Orlando Sentinel had been doing a series of in-depth stories on driver safety and basilar skull fractures -- and because I was the metro cops and courts reporter, I pleaded with the editor