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Capturing a special Earnhardt moment on fateful day

Photographer captures Earnhardt and his 3 drivers up front in the 2001 Daytona 500

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011

Mike Shay was watching. Michael Waltrip was racing.

Unknown to each other, Shay, in the grandstands of Daytona International Speedway, and Waltrip, in his No. 15 Chevrolet on the track, would together help create and capture an enduring memory of Dale Earnhardt's final NASCAR race.

Not a memory of Earnhardt's death, which occurred in a last-lap wreck in the 2001 Daytona 500, 10 years ago today. Instead, it's a memory of what he had accomplished - the creation of a first-class NASCAR organization and the resurrection of a friend and fellow driver's career.

Earnhardt's Dale Earnhardt Inc. race team had expanded during the offseason to include teams for drivers Steve Park, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip, a longtime friend who had gone 462 races without a victory in NASCAR's Cup series.

With 30 laps left in the race on Feb. 18, 2001, Waltrip and Earnhardt were running 1-2. When Earnhardt Jr. gave Park a shove, they moved up as well. Earnhardt Jr. quickly ducked in line in front of his father as they all entered Turn 3, leaving Park in the high line.

As the field exited Turn 4, there it was: All three DEI drivers and their leader running 1-2-3-4 in the Daytona 500. Nikon camera in hand, Shay took the photo from his seat in the Oldfield Tower, Section N, Row 31, Seat 7.

The best anyone can tell, the drivers ran 1-2-3-4 for about 18 seconds during the 500-mile race.

Shay didn't have a sense of what he was witnessing.

"I had Steve Park in a race pool and it looked like he was going to finish well. That's why I took the picture," he said.

An 'amazing' moment

On the final lap, Earnhardt was killed in a wreck in Turn 4. Waltrip went on to score his first career Cup victory in the sport's biggest race.

Waltrip first got a hint of Earnhardt's death in Victory Lane. Shay learned as he and his friends were leaving the track.

Five days after Earnhardt's death, before the next race, the members of DEI took part in a news conference in Rockingham. While recalling the imprint Earnhardt left on the sport, Waltrip mentioned a special moment in the 500.

"Another memory that I'll always cherish is me and these two (Park and Earnhardt Jr.) and Dale were running 1-2-3-4 in the Daytona 500. Just to be able to orchestrate that, to put that all together and give us cars to do that with, was amazing," Waltrip said.

"If you ever wondered about Dale's grasp on this sport and where he was headed with these teams, all you have to do is find a picture of the four of us going across the start/finish line in the Daytona 500 lined up. I think that was real cool and I'm real proud of that."

15 cars, 14 signatures

Shay was watching that day, too, from his home in Wilmington, Mass., just outside of Boston. When Ty Norris, then-executive vice president of DEI, made a plea during the broadcast for anyone with the photo to come forward, Shay did.

He eventually got the photo to Norris, as well as other drivers who asked for a copy. But he wanted to make the picture even more special.

There are 15 cars in the photo, including Earnhardt Sr.'s. Over the course of six years and five months (and many visits to race tracks), Shay collected the signatures of all 14 surviving drivers on the photo.

It has remained a treasured possession since.

Now, 10 years later, as tributes to Earnhardt Sr. gathered steam, Shay decided to share his picture with others.

Last month, he made the 14-hour drive from Massachusetts to Charlotte to meet with officials at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, to see if they wanted to include his photo in the Hall.

They did, and a digital copy of his photo will soon be included in a kiosk display in the Hall, with the approval of Earnhardt's widow, Teresa Earnhardt.

"As a lifelong fan of the sport who always was on the outside looking in, to think that I made it to the inside is truly amazing," Shay said. "And to think that I have something worthy of being in the hall of fame is just incredible.

"I took about 200 shots that day. This is one picture. But it says so much."

Doing right by Dale

Waltrip recently completed a book about his friendship with Earnhardt and the 2001 Daytona 500 called, "In the Blink of an Eye: Dale, Daytona and the Day that Changed Everything." It's currently 11th on the New York Times' best sellers list.

In Chapter 29, Waltrip recalls the Rockingham news conference and his quest to put his 500 victory and Earnhardt's death in perspective.

"Instead of showing up at Rockingham thinking about a championship, I was there to do a press conference about our lost leader, my lost friend. I was there to explain that although Dale was gone, we were going to keep racing because that's what he would have expected us to do," Waltrip wrote.

"I was there doing the right things - saying the right things - because of Dale and for Dale's fans. I wasn't there because I wanted to be. I was there because I needed to be."

It was much like Shay felt after his visit to the hall of fame last month.

"I couldn't bear to think that I had this amazing tribute to Dale and it would largely go unnoticed," he said. "I just felt like I needed to do everything I could to make sure all his fans could see what he meant to NASCAR."

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