NOTE: This entry was cross-posted at my new sports blog, Section LL19 – R.J.
On the ten-year anniversary of the death of Dale Earnhardt, there was a celebration in Victory Lane, albeit it was a muted one. Michael Waltrip, dressed in a blue Napa Auto Parts fire suit like he did that fateful day, crawled out of his ride still wearing his helmet with its visor concealing his eyes. After a brief moment of celebration for the fans in attendance, he removed his helmet and hugged his young daughter for what seemed like forever. Tears visibly dribbled down his cheeks as he struggled to keep his emotions in check, making it a challenge for the Speed HD pit reporter to conduct her compulsory Victory Lane interview.
I cried along with him when I realized the meaning of the moment – after ten years we finally had closure after Dale’s death.
Only a few minutes earlier the race looked like any other season opening Camping World Truck Series event at the 2.5-mile tri-oval. Waltrip, who was unable to enjoy his first Sprint Cup victory, was in the right place at the right time when the final caution flag waved. He found himself firmly among the leaders, one of only five trucks on the track that had not been damaged in two earlier wrecks that had decimated the field in this year’s NextEra’s Energy Resources 250. At worst, he was looking at a Top 5 finish but when the green flag waved with two laps to go Waltrip went for the win.
Waltrip maneuvered his #15 Chevrolet Silverado truck behind race leader Elliott Sadler, his front bumper firmly planted into the rear bumper of Sadler as they pulled away from the pack in a two-truck draft down the backstretch. Then as they exited the fourth turn on the final lap, at the same corner that claimed Earnhardt’s life, Waltrip pulled his truck alongside Sadler’s and won a drag race to the checkered flag as his brother Darrell Waltrip cheered him on from the announcer’s booth.
The scene looked all too familiar. The winning driver, the sponsor, the car number, and the color commentator calling the race were the same as they were ten years ago. Was it a coincidence? I’m 60% sure I don’t give a flip about ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser and his conspiracy theories. The Waltrips wanted closure. Race fans across the land wanted closure. I wanted closure and I didn’t care if the race was fixed or not.
Tonight we all got what we wanted and thankfully no Earnhardts were harmed in the making of this storybook ending. That’s all that really matters on this dark anniversary.