NEIL BONNETT'S DEATH
Bonnett and Earnhardt were close friends and hunting buddies. Neil had survived severe crashes at Charlotte in 1987 and Darlington in 1990 and retired from racing to serve as a TV commentator, but planned a five-race farewell tour in 1994. He crashed in Turn 4 during practice at Daytona in Feb. '94 and was killed instantly.
Not only did Earnhardt grieve, it affected his outlook on safety. Earnhardt refused to wear a closed-face helmet, because he incorrectly believed Bonnett's closed-face helmet served as a fulcrum that broke the driver's neck on impact.
PLAYING WITH PAIN
A week before the 1996 Brickyard 400, defending event winner Earnhardt suffered a terrifying high-speed rollover crash at Talladega, braking his sternum and collarbone. Earnhardt started the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, only to be relieved during the first caution period by Mike Skinner.
Earnhardt climbed out of the car, waved off pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch, who was seeking a comment. Then he composed himself and, choking back emotions, told Punch, “Dadgum it, it's hard to get out of there, Jerry. You know, it's my life right here.”
A year later at Daytona, Earnhardt endured another rollover crash, this one in the closing laps of the Daytona 500. As he sat in the ambulance waiting to go to the infield care center, he suddenly jumped up and yelled, “Hey, the wheels are still on that thing!” With that, he bolted from the ambulance, got back in his car and somehow finished the race.
1998 DAYTONA 500
At Daytona International Speedway, Earnhardt had enjoyed both tremendous success and heatbreaking failure. He won more races at DIS than any other driver but, until 1998, had never won the 500. He'd run out of gas, lost a tire on the last lap, crashed, been passed and lost the race in just about every way possible.
It all came good in '98, when Dale ended two decades of frustration with an emotional victory. What made it remarkable was that, as Earnhardt pulled the black No. 3 Chevy down pit road, crew members from virtually every team walked out of their pit stalls to form a receiving line of crew chiefs and crew members. It was a stunning sight.