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nascartop50

A Year of Triumph and Tragedy
By: Kelly Morris

As the 2001 Nascar Winston Cup season came to an end, many things came to mind on how unique this season has been. What a year it has been. From gut wrenching tragedy to joyous victory and celebration, this has been a season like no other. When Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap at the Daytona 500 in February the whole world of Nascar crashed down for a brief moment. People went from being ecstatic for Michael Waltrip, who won his first race in a Dale Earnhardt Incorporated car to feeling like a family member had just died. Nascar had lost its leader, the Intimidator, the invincible man who had walked away from wrecks so many times before. How would Nascar continue without its leader?

The following week at Rockingham, Steve Park helped us heal our broken hearts a little with an emotional win for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. The next week proved to be exciting as well for a guy familiar with winning the million-dollar bonus as Jeff Gordon conquered Las Vegas for the first time. Then a kid named Kevin Harvick gave our hearts something to cheer for as he won at Atlanta in just his third race in Winston Cup, driving Dales old car. As the season continued, Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd showed their strength by dominating the top three spots in points. Were Jeff Gordon and his newly constructed team really good enough to run for the championship this year?

On a stormy night in Charlotte that question was answered. On the first lap of The Winston all star race, a rain filled track caused havoc on the field causing a huge crash in turn one collecting Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Michael Waltrip and Jeff Burton. But since it was not a points race and they had not completed a lap, Nascar allowed those teams to pull their back up cars out and race them. Jeff Gordon ended up winning The Winston in dramatic fashion in his back up car, giving flashbacks of the old glory days of him and the rainbow warriors. This victory pumped Gordon and his whole team up and showed them that they were ready to run for the championship.

During the summer very exciting and emotional things happened. Gordon won two straight races in a row at Dover and Michigan and Nascar returned to Daytona in July for the Pepsi 400. I was lucky enough to be in the stands that fateful night, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line in first with Michael Waltrip in second, the exact opposite of the Daytona 500. The emotion that filled the air is too much to put into words. Seeing Dale Jr. climb on top of his car and celebrate his triumph with the fans was incredible. Conquering Daytona for him was probably the single thing that many true Nascar fans needed to help ease the pain of a turbulent season.

They say the Brickyard is made for helping dreams coming true and Jeff Gordon proved that once again as he won his third Brickyard 400 after just turning 30 in August. This win padded Gordon’s point lead and put him in position to win his 4th Winston Cup title. Then as Nascar was feeling a little bit of closure from the Earnhardt investigation, the terrorist attacks of September 11th occurred. These attacks put in perspective how precious life is and how much we have in this great country. The race on September 16th at New Hampshire was postponed because of the attacks. One week later, a patriotic crowd of thousands of Americans cheered as Dale Earnhardt Jr. won at Dover.

Then comes the story of Matt Dahl, a young man who lost his father, Jason Dahl, the pilot on flight 93. Both were avid Jeff Gordon fans and one of their dreams was to meet Gordon. Jeff Gordon made that happen and Matt was invited to the race and got the chance to meet one of his heroes. To top off a fabulous weekend at the new Kansas Speedway, Jeff Gordon won the race and dedicated it to his new friend Matt Dahl. Classy acts like this really show you how much these drivers care about others and how they want to help out.

At Atlanta in November, Jeff Gordon finally clinched the Winston Cup title. Robbie Loomis was finally a champion crew chief. This capped off an incredible year for Gordon who ended his season with six wins and a championship.

As the season finally ended at New Hampshire, on a surprisingly warm day in November Gordon was in victory lane, but it was not Jeff Gordon, it was Robby Gordon, who had bumped Jeff out of the way at the end to win the race. But Jeff Gordon did not go quietly as he let Robby know how mad he was by hitting him from behind on the caution lap. Boos rained down on Robby Gordon for a change instead of Jeff, who had just gained a little more respect from the fans. This should give people a lot to talk about in the off-season as we gear up for Daytona.

In New York at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel it was an emotional awards ceremony for sure! Tears filled the room during the Dale Earnhardt tribute as Garth Brooks sang The Dance. Teresa Earnhardt made a much-needed appearance, accepting Dale’s award of Most Popular Driver. Then Jeff Gordon took the stage and poured his heart out, pumping himself and his team up for 2002. Many thanks were handed out and true emotions flowed freely.

Overall, this season has been bittersweet. The loss of Dale at Daytona overshadows even the happiest of moments this year. This season has tested even the strongest of people and the sport will never be same without Earnhardt but at least we know we have Jeff Gordon to lead us into a new era of Nascar Winston Cup racing with class, respect and great racing, the same thing Dale Earnhardt did for so many years.

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