How Dale Earnhardt Saved Austin Dillon’s Life

Daytona crash in 2001 sparked changes in effect today


Austin Dillon should be dead.

The crash on the final lap of Sunday night's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway was the most violent, brutal wreck I've ever seen in racing, and I've covered sports for 18 years. In case you haven't seen it yet, watch and wonder at the way the laws of physics and modern technology get in to a fight with a man's life hanging in the balance.

Austin Dillon’s last-lap crash at Daytona could have been much worse.

The wreck stirred dark memories for racing fans. In 2001, on the final lap of the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt, the most popular driver possibly in the history of the sport, lost control and hit the wall in his iconic number 3 car. The Intimidator died that day, setting off a chain of events that led us up to Sunday night on that very same speedway ... in that very same number 3 car.

In the wake of Earnhardt's death, NASCAR instituted sweeping changes in its safety rules. They developed a safety research and development center to study how to keep drivers and fans safe. In the last 14 years NASCAR has changed its regulations on head restraint systems, seats, belts, roll cages surrounding the drivers, catch fences around the track and softer walls to better absorb wrecks.

All of those factors came together at the Coke Zero 400, so the man who used to drive the number 3 saved the man who now drives it.

In case you don't know the history, after Earnhardt passed away nobody on any NASCAR circuit drove the 3. It was like a member of the Chargers wearing number 21 the year after LaDainian Tomlinson left. Nobody wanted to take on that kind of pressure.

Then Austin Dillon started racing. He's the grandson of Richard Childress, who was the car owner for Earnhardt from 1984 through 2001. With the blessing of The Intimidator's children, it was Dillon who finally earned the opportunity to put the number 3 back on the NASCAR tracks.

The crash that Dale Earnhardt was in at Daytona did not look too bad, but turned out to be devastating. The crash that Austin Dillon was in at Daytona looked devastating but turned out not being too bad. The latest crash will spark NASCAR to make yet another round of tests to make absolutely certain they're doing all they can to keep everyone both on and at the track safe.

So Austin Dillon will race again. Now that he's been in a crash in the same place at Earnhardt, it seems almost karmic that he'll end up another place The Intimidator used to frequent: Victory Lane.

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