Kevin Hamlin can only describe the week leading up to the 2001 Daytona 500 as "loose." Anyone in the circle of trust of Hamlin's driver, Dale Earnhardt, knows that Earnhardt was in an especially good mood during Speedweeks that year.
Earnhardt took a joyride in January's Rolex 24, teaming up with son Dale Earnhardt Jr. and road racers Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins to finish fourth overall and second in GT class. When NASCAR Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway rolled around, the 50-year-old Earnhardt, with Hamlin calling the shots as crew chief of the No. 3, finished second in the Shootout, third in the first 125-mile qualifying race and started seventh in the Daytona 500.
It should come as no surprise, Hamlin said, that this easy-going energy surrounded Earnhardt.
Three years earlier, he had won the Daytona 500 for the first time after two decades of failed attempts, lifting what seemed to him the weight of the world off his shoulders. One year earlier, Earnhardt finished second in points and was primed for a run at his record-breaking eighth Cup championship with Hamlin. And that season, Earnhardt's own team of three cars — Earnhardt Jr., Michael Waltrip and Steve Park — were strong contenders in the 500.
It was an effortless Daytona. It was like we couldn't do anything wrong.
"It was an effortless Daytona. It was like we couldn't do anything wrong," remembered Hamlin, now on the competition side of Red Bull Racing Team. "Ever since '98, after he won the 500, it was way easier being in Daytona. He had been there, done that. He finally won that race. All that pressure was off. So it was now about going down there and enjoying yourself and having a good time. Having fun at the race instead of being aggravated by not ever winning it.
"Everything seemed like it was going to be good the whole time."
‘SOMETHING HANGING WITH HIM ALL WEEK’
Hamlin, 51, left his native Michigan in 1989 to work for Travis Carter's Cup team. Then came a stay at Richard Jackson Racing, where he helped Rick Mast win the pole for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994. The Hamlin-Mast duo totaled 19 top 10s in 93 starts, which eventually led him to Richard Childress Racing in 1997.
He started on the pit box of Mike Skinner, winning the pole for the 1997 Daytona 500 and the exhibition race in Suzuka, Japan. A year later he found himself calling the shots for Earnhardt, and they had five victories together leading into 2001.
Things were so good during Speedweeks, in fact, that Earnhardt dragged Hamlin up on stage during pre-race driver-crew chief introductions and eased the uncomfortable, on-the-spot moment by cracking a few jokes.
They're really gonna be booing us at the end of the day after we kick their ass.
"He was in one of the best moods ever," Hamlin said. "The driver and crew chiefs for the introductions had to walk across the stage, something different. I was like, 'Ahh, I'm not going up there for that crap.' Earnhardt was like, 'You’re going.' We go across the stage, and Earnhardt's cracking up because they're booing and cheering, the whole thing. He got both. He's a few steps ahead of me and stops and turns around. He goes, 'They're really gonna be booing us at the end of the day after we kick their ass.'"
The engines fired and put the day — Feb. 18, 2001 — and its events in motion. Earnhardt led 17 laps, but Hamlin recognized long before the race that his driver seemed content with finishing third behind his team cars of Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr.
"He had something hanging with him all week. I kind of understood that," Hamlin said. "He and Michael (Waltrip) talked a lot about it. From what I have figured out, one of those three cars was going to win the race. We bashed the front of our car in right away, and it wouldn't lead as good. It pushed good still, but didn't lead as good."
That left Earnhardt playing, as Hamlin put it, "tail gunner" for Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. in the closing laps.
I knew he had some strange agenda.
"I can't say, but it sure looks like and everybody has speculated since then of course, that he did a lot more defensive driving that day that he did in his whole life," Hamlin said. "Before the accident, I would have said the same thing. I remember Richard (car owner Richard Childress) kept looking at me and asking, 'What in the hell is he doing?' I was like, 'Don't worry. Don't worry.' I kind of new what he was doing, having been around him most of week. I knew he had some strange agenda."
'SON OF A BITCH'
Entering turns three and four on the final lap, Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. had checked out in their own nose-to-tail draft. Earnhardt, running third with his friend leading and son second, was left to fend off all comers. The chief challenger was Sterling Marlin, who had a stout piece all afternoon. Earnhardt knew that, and drove with a rear bumper as wide as two cars.
He blocked Marlin for the final time approaching the exit of turn four. The left rear of his No. 3 connected with the right front of Marlin's car. Earnhardt clipped the banking, shot back up the track, hit the wall nearly head-on and absorbed a passenger's side hit from Ken Schrader. As the car came to rest in the turn-four grass, Waltrip, driving an Earnhardt-owned car, crossed the finish line to win his first race in 463 tries.
I still wasn’t even alarmed at that point.
"I said, 'Son of a bitch,' because we had a third-place run going in the Daytona 500, a good start to the year for points," Hamlin said. "And then of course, seeing it, it looked normal, no big deal, just another wreck. It didn't seem like a big deal. As soon as the car comes to rest the spotter asked, 'You OK, Dale?' That normally goes on. Richard got down, and said, 'Hey, Dale.' There was no response there, either. I just looked down at Richard and said the radio came unplugged or something. That happens. Teresa (Earnhardt) got on the radio and asked him if he was OK. I still wasn’t even alarmed at that point.
"Richard asked Skinner to stop down there to check on Dale. That's when they told me we need to go to the infield care center. That's when it was evident that something serious was going on."
'JUST A SHAME IT HAD TO GET CUT SHORT'
Ten years after Earnhardt died of a basilar skull fracture during that last-lap, last-turn wreck in the 2001 Daytona 500, Hamlin still goes back to how "loose" Earnhardt's attitude was that fateful day.
Hamlin went on to win two races as crew chief with Kevin Harvick, Earnhardt's replacement, before moving in 2002 to the No. 31 car driven by Robby Gordon. Together, they claimed both road-course events in 2003. Hamlin's successful stay at Richard Childress Racing ended in 2005 as crew chief for Jeff Burton. He served as Dave Blaney's crew chief at Bill Davis Racing in 2006 and early 2007 before joining Red Bull Racing Team in 2008.
"That whole week I still remember," Hamlin said. "It had such a terrible ending you want to forget all that, but the whole problem is leading up to that it was nothing but great. You just kind of look at it as God blessed us with this fantastic guy. Off the track he could be just like anybody could be, but he could also fantastic, over-the-top fantastic compared to a lot of people. He had the means to do be able to things for people. He did a lot of things for people that no one will ever know or hear about — even today. It's just a shame it had to get cut short."
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