Haunting memory

Drivers still troubled by legend's final lap

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. --- The only laps Sterling Marlin makes in retirement are on a tractor at his Tennessee farm. The solitude offers a welcome reprieve from a 34-year NASCAR career.


He has time to think about winning the Daytona 500 twice. He can think about contending for the championship in 2002.

Too often, he remembers the day Dale Earnhardt died.

Ten years has done little to help Marlin accept the events behind the death of one of racing's most beloved drivers.

It was Marlin's bump on the final lap of the Daytona 500 that sent Earnhardt spinning. It wasn't intentional, just one of many bumps among a group of drivers making a frantic charge to the finish line.

Most of the blame has since been placed on a broken seat belt that was improperly installed and a host of other physical factors.

Marlin, however, still wonders whether anything could have been done differently.

Right or wrong, Marlin forever will be connected to stock car racing's darkest day. He's been threatened and consoled. He's been vilified and vindicated. Time has healed some of the pain and tempered the anger.

The lingering doubt, however, will never end.

NASCAR added several aerodynamic gadgets to the cars after the 2000 Daytona 500. There were only nine lead changes that day, as metal flanges on the roof and along the rear spoiler bunched up the field and created three-wide, 10-deep packs of traffic.

Marlin won the first 125-mile qualifying race Feb. 15, 2001, and he watched the second heat race from the press box. As everyone ganged up for the final lap, he turned and mumbled, "God help us on that last lap."

Marlin was in the middle of the final-lap fracas days later, doing exactly what Earnhardt, his longtime friend, would have expected in trying to win the race. He went low through the fourth turn in a three-wide attack on first-place Michael Waltrip and second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt was running in the middle groove with Ken Schrader on the outside. Rusty Wallace was trying to push his way into the mix, as were Ricky Rudd, Bill Elliott, Bobby Hamilton and Jeremy Mayfield.

Earnhardt moved left to block and clipped Marlin's right-front bumper. It turned Earnhardt's Chevrolet to the apron, then back up the track in front of Schrader. Earnhardt's car hit nearly head-on into the fourth-turn wall with Schrader's car still pushing him.

"It was crazy out there," Marlin said. "Everybody was out there punching each other trying to put themselves in the right place for the right time."

Silent witness

Schrader was the first to run to Earnhardt's car. Almost instantly, he started waving for help.

"I knew he was dead, yeah," Schrader said last week.

For most of the past 10 years, Schrader hasn't talked about what he saw inside the car. Only recently did he admit he knew the reality of Earnhardt's condition.

"I didn't want to be the one who said, 'Dale is dead,' " he said. "The hardest thing I ever had to do was face Richard (Childress, Earnhardt's car owner) in the infield care center after the crash. He pulled the curtain back and asked what was going on. I told him it was bad. He wanted to know if Dale was going to be out for a while and I looked at him and said, 'No Richard, it's really bad.' I couldn't say it."

It took NASCAR nearly three hours to make the official announcement. By then, there already were fans congregating outside the walls of Daytona International Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Inc. and at Richard Childress Racing.

Grief, anger set in

At Chip Ganassi Racing where Marlin worked, security kept fans away.

Death threats and threatening mail to Marlin followed. One fan wrote "I'll kill you Sterling" on Marlin's souvenir trailer.

"Maybe it's just people that's just frustrated for somebody to blame," Marlin said.

He is still troubled by the accident but refuses to believe he did anything wrong.

"(I) didn't do it," he said. "I didn't do anything intentional. I was on the bottom as low as I could go, and when Rusty pulled up behind him it might have got him loose. We barely touched a little bit and it sent us both onto the apron. He overcorrected and shot back up the race track.

"We were just racing our guts out."

The rest of the sport quickly came to Marlin's side, including Earnhardt's son. A week later, during driver introductions at North Carolina Motor Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. hugged Marlin on stage as he was announced. That moment quickly ended most of the outrage. As Marlin walked off the stage, the crowd gave him a roaring ovation.

"I do want to say that any notion, or any idea or any blame placed on anyone, whether it be Sterling Marlin or anybody else for that matter, is ridiculous," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It's pretty incredible, some of the things I've heard."

Seat belt blamed

Schrader is troubled by the factors in the car that attributed to the fatal blow to the back of Earnhardt's head. The seat belt system was improperly installed at Earnhardt's insistence, causing his lap belt to bunch up in one of the metal guides at the left of his seat. At impact, the bunching allowed the belt to break, throwing him into the steering wheel and back into the seat. Earnhardt died almost instantly of a ring fracture to the base of the skull caused by blunt force trauma, according to Dr. Robert R. Parsons, the associate medical examiner from Volusia and Seminole counties.

"The whole reason of things, what happened inside that car, should have never happened," Schrader said.


About the series

Today: Sterling Marlin became the target of death threats and insults after his bump started Dale Earnhardt's fatal spin.

WEDNESDAY: The sport went through a renaissance of safety initiatives that has kept any other driver in NASCAR from dying on the track since that day.

THURSDAY: Dale Earnhardt Jr. was left to deal with the enormous pressure and expectations of carrying on the family tradition without his father's help.

FRIDAY: The Florida Legislature and courts got involved when news outlets and Web sites wanted to post Earnhardt's autopsy photos.

SATURDAY: Earnhardt's stature continues to grow in death, and the sport's popularity seemed to peak in the seasons immediately following his crash.

SUNDAY: More than 200 drivers, celebrities and fans share their stories of Feb. 18, 2001.

MONDAY: What would Earnhardt would be doing today if he had survived the crash? How else would NASCAR be different?