Michael Waltrip’s victory in the 2001 Daytona 500 was the biggest story to be overshadowed by the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in a crash on the final lap. But the day also included a wild, 18-car crash that changed the dynamics of the race and helped introduce “The Big One” to the NASCAR Cup Series vernacular.
‘The Big One’ existed long before it had a name
Multi-car wrecks are a fact of life in auto racing. NASCAR races are particularly susceptible with their 40-car fields; they’re closely bunched for long durations on the shorter tracks and lacking a margin for error at 200 mph on the straightaways of superspeedways.
While there are multiple smaller crashes in each race involving one or two cars, it’s a given that some incidents over the 36-race schedule will be bigger and potentially more dangerous. Up until shortly before the turn of the century, they were simply “wrecks” or “The Big Wreck.”
“The Big One” may have originated with ESPN announcer Bob Jenkins describing a crash at the Winston 500 in 1998 as “the big one that we had hoped we would not have.” (See the video.)
The biggest “The Big One” in recent memory would have to be what happened in the 2002 Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. Although it only ended the day for seven drivers, the incident resulted in 25 cars tapping the wall or other cars, starting with Tony Stewart brushing the wall. Amazingly, all of the drivers escaped injury.
‘The Big One’ at the 2001 Daytona 500
Michael Waltrip had never won a NASCAR Cup Series in 462 starts when he won the biggest of them all in the 2001 Daytona 500. Understandably, the achievement became a footnote to the race’s big story – the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in a crash as Waltrip was coming up to the checkered flag.
Had the race not ended in tragedy, the incident that everyone would have been talking about for days would have been “The Big One” on lap 173, all but eliminating 18 cars. It began with Robby Gordon turning Ward Burton at the top of the back straightaway. Burton hit Tony Stewart, triggering a chain reaction behind him. Stewart’s car was squeezed against the wall and pushed airborne over Gordon’s vehicle and onto the top of Jason Leffler’s car.
The track was littered with debris, necessitating a red flag. Jeff Gordon and defending champion Dale Jarrett were among the big names taken out of contention. The race restarted with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the lead before Waltrip took command with 15 laps remaining.
Virtually a rerun in the 2002 Daytona 500
Three-quarters of the way through the 2002 Daytona 500, Kevin Harvick tried blocking Jeff Gordon at the front of the field entering the first turn. Harvick slid to the apron, back up into the wall, and then down into into the infield. By the time the chain reaction was over, “The Big One” was an 18-car incident for the second consecutive year in the season-opening race.
The luckiest driver in the race was Ward Burton, who narrowly escaped being clipped by Harvick’s car and went on to win the race. (See the video.)