February 18, 2001

Published 3:17 pm Tuesday, February 18, 2020

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I’ve never attended a NASCAR race in my life. There are members of my family who follow that sport and may have been in Daytona this past weekend. It must have been a “hoot” to see The Beast, the name of the president’s limo, make it around the International Speedway there.

No matter what anyone thinks about the president, there has to be the admission that he knows how to work a crowd. I would also think that most NASCAR fans would also be fans of President Trump and he genuinely seems to like sporting events.

When considering sporting events, the Daytona 500 is at the top of the list for stock car racing fans. This year’s race was postponed because of rain, but the rain didn’t stop the president from making the most of his opportunity.

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The race was run on Monday and this morning (Tuesday) I looked at the results. A driver by the name of Denny Hamlin won this year’s race and it was his 3rd Daytona 500 victory. Since I don’t follow the sport, I didn’t know his name, nor any of the other driver’s names. If it’s not a Petty or an Earnhardt, I wouldn’t know them.

Hamlin drove a Toyota Camry to claim the checkered flag and that also surprised me. I’m looking for Fords, Chevys, or Plymouths. It shows how little I know about stock car racing. Shoot, they don’t even make Plymouths anymore. Remember King Richard and his “bad,” blue, #43 Plymouth? Petty won the Daytona 500 seven times, more than anyone else.

As I write this today, though, I’m thinking of the most dramatic Daytona 500 I remember and it occurred on this date, February 18, 2001.

I was serving the Baconton United Methodist Church and had invited the men of the community to a steak dinner that evening. I was interested in getting new men into the church and I told them, if they would come that night, I would serve them the best steak they had ever eaten.

I had an ulterior motive. Most of them did not come to church and I figured that if I could get them there one time, I might get them to come regularly. The best way to get them there one time was to cook them a steak. I found out, later, that if you want to get someone to come to church, feed them. The only problem is that, if you want them to come back, you’ve got to feed them again!

The Daytona 500 was run that day and it was the talk of the afternoon, but not because of who won the race. The talk was about the final lap and a crash that took the life of NASCAR’s most popular driver of that time.

There is no doubt that Richard Petty is the best known stock car driver in the history of the sport, but Dale Earnhardt is not far behind. Even today, almost twenty years after his death on that final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, there are still many people holding up three fingers as homage to the number of his car.

Earnhardt shared North Carolina with Petty as a birth state and wanted to do nothing in life more than drive fast and hard. He was known for his aggressive style and one of his nicknames was “Intimidator.” It was that aggressive style that led to his death.

On that Sunday afternoon in Baconton, when the news came that Dale Earnhardt had been killed, it hit like a ton of bricks. He was biggest name in the sport. Sort of like Kobe Bryant. Be ready. You never know.