'Blink of an Eye': Dale Earnhardt's death and Michael Waltrip's 2001 Daytona 500 win changed NASCAR

Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash in the Daytona 500 in 2001.

Blink of an eye isn’t just how quickly NASCAR changed on Feb. 18, 2001. It’s also how quickly Michael Waltrip’s life changed at the same instant on the same day. Neither racing nor Waltrip has been the same since Dale Earnhardt died in that afternoon’s Daytona 500, a race Waltrip won with help from teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his father.  

“Blink of An Eye” is the 90-minute documentary set for limited release in 800 theaters on Sept. 12. The film by writer/producer/director Paul Taublieb blends emotional interviews with archival footage to examine the relationships between Waltrip and Earnhardt; between Waltrip and older brother Darrell; between Michael and Dale; and between Michael and his record 0-for-462 losing streak. Finally, it examines the orchestrated finish of the 2001 Pepsi 400 in Daytona Beach, where Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip finished 1-2.

The film is based on Waltrip’s 2011 best-selling book of the same name, a book he calls “a story of friendship and love.” Taublieb has done a solid job chronicling’s Waltrip’s youthful quest to follow Darrell into NASCAR, his early struggles to reach the Cup level, his unlikely friendship with team-owner Earnhardt, and how he’s handled the hours, days and years since the most famous crash in NASCAR history.

Michael Waltrip shares his innermost thoughts about his former rival and boss Dale Earnhardt in “Blink of an Eye.”

“I lived it and I think about it every day,” Waltrip said in a recent interview with Autoweek. “I wonder so much about ‘what if’ and ‘why.’ It still hurts today (after 18 years) as much as it ever did. There’s no way I could have told the story without getting emotional, but that’s just who I am. People obviously are capable of handling the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. God made us that way. But I don’t know how many people have had to experience them within a few seconds of each other.”

Unlike most racing films, “Blink of An Eye” will appeal to more than just hard-core NASCAR fans. At its heart, after all, it’s the well-told story of friendship between an intensely serious racing icon and a somewhat-flighty career also-ran. Despite that contrast, Earnhardt had seen enough perseverance and talent during Waltrip’s earlier years to put him in a DEI car for the 2001-and-beyond season. Those instincts were proved spot on when Michael won just seconds after Earnhardt was fatally injured on the last lap of the 500.

The film has some riveting quotes but leaves some holes.

There is no mention of Teresa Earnhardt, Dale’s wife and Dale Jr.’s stepmother. Likewise, there is no mention of Earnhardt’s cause of death or the controversy surrounding the broken seatbelt that may have been a contributing factor. Other than the 2001 July race in Daytona Beach, there is no mention of Michael’s three other victories for DEI before leaving the organization after 2005. And there is no mention of DEI teammate Steve Park, who won at Rockingham the weekend after Earnhardt died.

Michael Waltrip made 784 starts in his NASCAR Cup Series career.

As for those riveting quotes:

From Michael: “Kenny Schrader came to victory lane (after the 500) and said, ‘I just want you to know that I saw Dale, and it ain’t – it ain’t good.’ ”

From Buffy Hawthorne, Michael’s wife at the time: “(The victory) was a flood of emotions and relief in a lot of ways. It felt like it was going to make a lot of things that had been difficult and challenging to live with day in and day out so much better.”

From Dale Jr.: “We got to the hospital and I walked right into Dad’s room. I knew right away when I saw him that it was just as bad as it could be. I turned around and walked back out of there and sat for 30 minutes in that hospital before they told us he was gone.”

From Darrell: “I helped him (early in Michael’s career) when I could. Quite honestly, in a selfish way, when it was convenient, I helped him. But not every day. He was a better brother to me than I was to him.”

Waltrip also spent time as a NASCAR team owner.

From team publicist Brooke Hondros: “Michael Waltrip had every excuse possible (for an 0-for-462 record) prior to the 2001 Daytona 500. Now, he had everything he needed. What was he going to do with it? That’s what everybody was waiting around to see.”

From team owner Richard Childress: “I thought it was just another crash. I saw it on TV and it didn’t look that bad; just another tough crash. I hollered at Dale a couple of times (on their radio link) and he didn’t answer back … which was a little unusual.”

From Michael: “I couldn’t wait for Dale to get to victory lane. I knew when he got there it would be the biggest hug ever. I was more excited about that hug than the trophy or the money. But that hug never came.”

From Dale Jr. after winning the July 2001 race at Daytona Beach: “There wasn’t any fear, I’ll tell you that. When you’re racing and your dad dies in a crash in the same race that you’re in, you don’t have much fear of danger or getting hurt. That empowered me.”

From Michael after the 2001 July race at Daytona Beach: “I’d come from the back and was all the way to second. We came across and took the white flag, and on the backstretch, I’m thinking, ‘There it is… I’m going to win this damned race; I’m going to win this race!’ And then I didn’t even try to make a pass. Instantly, I went from thinking ‘I’m blowing by this guy’ to ‘I’m pushing this guy; I’m going to push him.’ I never even tried to make a pass.”

From Michael: “If you take what happened on that February day and you look at it, it wasn’t tragic. That sounds hard to say, but it was a moment when a man was doing just what he wanted to do. He was taken from us, but he was racing with a purpose … helping his buddy and helping his son. He was right where he wanted to be. The result for us on Earth was still tragic, but for him, it might have been majestic … where he thought, ‘There you go; I’ll leave y’all with that; that’s my final act.’ ”

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