DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.~
The last day of Dale Earnhardt's life starts quietly.
He spends the morning with his wife, Teresa, in his racing motorhome in the Daytona International Speedway infield.
The Daytona 500 is hours away.
Just before 11 a.m., he and Teresa walk into the garage area for the mandatory driver's meeting.
They stop to chat with Cliff Pennell, the former president of Sports Marketing Enterprises, and his wife, Sara, about taking a fishing trip together in May.
At the meeting, NASCAR President Mike Helton welcomes the drivers.
He talks about how important this moment is in racing history because of the new six-year, $2.67 billion TV contract.
David Hoots, the race day director, goes over rules.
He tells drivers to test their brakes on the backstretch, to have patience in the race and to drive carefully.
The meeting concludes with a prayer from Dale Beaver of Motor Racing Outreach, who asks God for a safe race.
Earnhardt returns to his motorhome, where friends stop to wish him luck.
Just before 12:30 p.m., he walks out for driver introductions. Earnhardt starts seventh, on the inside of Row 4. Jeff Burton starts alongside him.
Earnhardt jokes with Burton about the running argument Burton and his wife, Kim, have about buying a boat.
Driver Mike Wallace also talks with Earnhardt about the way he saved his car after being hit during Friday's IROC race.
"I just told him, `Hey, after that IROC deal, you are the man.
ī He kind of grinned and didnīt say much," Wallace said.
Max Helton of Motor Racing Outreach stops alongside Earnhardt's car. Before Earnhardt begins the race, he prays with Teresa and Helton, as he does with several other drivers.
The Daytona 500 begins just after 1 p.m.
Ten laps into the 200-lap race, Earnhardt is third. On Lap 27, he takes the lead, then stays in front for 11 laps until Mike Skinner passes him.
The drivers are bunched together all day. Earnhardt is ninth on Lap 40, then leads again on Laps 83 and 84. He stays in the top 10 as cars continue to run close.
On Lap 174, he is in front of Robby Gordon, Ward Burton and Tony Stewart when they collide to start a 19-car wreck. The race is stopped. Stewart goes to the hospital with a concussion.
There are 21 laps left when the race is restarted. Earnhardt is second behind his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., on Lap 180 and leads Lap 183 before Michael Waltrip takes the lead with 16 laps left.
Earnhardt settles into third behind Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. - both driving cars Earnhardt owns - and appears to block cars behind him rather than attack aggressively as usual.
Darrell Waltrip, doing his first television broadcast for Fox Sports, screams for his brother Michael, who is trying to win his first race in 463 tries.
Earnhardt, Sterling Marlin and Ken Schrader race for third place down the backstretch.
"All right, here we go now," Darrell Waltrip says on television. "This is when it's gonna get tense. This is when we're gonna find out."
Earnhardt is challenged from all sides as he races through Turn 3. He goes to the low side of the track. His car either hits the flat apron at the bottom of the track or is touched in the right rear by Marlin's Dodge - or perhaps both.
Earnhardt's car shoots to the left, its nose pointing toward the wall. Schrader, running on the high side, plows into the right side of Earnhardt's car, which hits the outside wall head-on.
Waltrip beats Earnhardt Jr. across the finish to win the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt's car slides across the track and into the grass at the bottom of the banking in Turn 4. Schrader's car skids. A wheel bounces down the track.
Darrell Waltrip cheers and appears near tears as his brother wins the race.
Schrader jumps from his car to check on Earnhardt. He motions to emergency workers.
Dr. Steve Bohannon, the track's director of emergency services, is in an ambulance that heads for Earnhardt's car. Two paramedics and a doctor are already giving Earnhardt oxygen and CPR.
"When I walked up and saw what car it was and then looked in, and the other physician who was in the car working on him looked up at me, I could tell," Bohannon said. "It broke my heart."
Rescue workers quickly cut the roof away to remove Earnhardt.
Halifax Medical Center is minutes away down International Speedway Boulevard. A trauma team is assembled.
The ride takes less than two minutes. Earnhardt reaches the hospital at 4:54 p.m. Doctors insert a chest tube and administer intravenous fluids. Diagnostic tests are ordered. CPR continues.
Teresa Earnhardt is at her husband's side.
At 5:16 p.m., Earnhardt is pronounced dead.
At the track, Michael Waltrip celebrates in victory lane. He looks for Earnhardt. He can't wait to hug him, he says.
He doesn't know.
Schrader walks up and speaks quietly to Waltrip, telling him Earnhardt's injury is serious.
About 6 p.m., Waltrip comes to the press box to be interviewed. He said he prays Earnhardt is OK.
After Waltrip's interview ends, Brooke Mitchell, who handles Waltrip's public relations, tells him Earnhardt is dead.
At about 7 p.m., Mike Helton speaks to reporters.
"This is undoubtedly one of the most difficult announcements I have personally ever had to make," he says.
"We've lost Dale Earnhardt."
At 7:40 p.m., the large flag just across from the finish line in the infield is lowered to half staff.
After a race, fans usually celebrate around the track. Horns honk. Parties break out. But this night, there is quiet. Fans stand around a bonfire in Turn 4.
Michael Waltrip spends the night in his motorhome in the infield.
The word spreads through Daytona. At 11:30 p.m., a nearby hotel sign reads "Will Miss You Dale Earnhardt 3."
At 11:45 p.m., a bartender at the Hilton Garden Inn hears two people at the bar talking about Earnhardt.
She looks up and says, "I'm sorry."
By JIM UTTER
The Charlotte Observer
The Charlotte Observe