It’s been 20 years since the crash at the Daytona 500 that took the life of motorsports legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. and there are still a few folks out there that believe Sterling Marlin is to blame. The accusations started flying almost immediately following the announcement of Earnhardt’s death, which came just a few hours after the fatal accident, accusations that weren’t true then and obviously aren’t true now.
Things got so bad in the days following the wreck that Marlin received death threats, which he essentially had no choice but to address. The two-time Daytona 500 winner clearly (and accurately) believed that it was simply an accident and made that point clear in his first interview following the accident.
Sterling Marlin and Dale Earnhardt Sr. were both in contention coming down the stretch of the 2001 Daytona 500
The final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 was absolutely crazy as a plethora of drivers had a chance to win. Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who were running 1-2 when the white flag dropped, had separated themselves a bit as the pack hit turn three, which is always a madhouse as every NASCAR driver worth his salt wants to make that one last push to win.
Such was the case that day as Dale Earnhardt Sr., Sterling Marlin, and Ken Schrader went three-wide as turn four approached. Marlin went low, Earnhardt was in the middle, and Schrader was on the outside while Rusty Wallace positioned himself right behind Earnhardt’s famous No. 3. Bill Elliott, Ricky Rudd, Jeremy Mayfield, and Bobby Hamilton were right there in the mix as well.
As Marlin had the inside track, it seemed as if Earnhardt Sr. went to block, which led to his left rear getting bumped by Marlin’s No. 40 Coors Light car. Earnhardt, seemingly trying to straighten out without slowing down, went to the apron for the briefest of moments before veering back up the track into the outside wall, hitting it nearly directly head-on before being pushed by Schrader’s No. 36 into the infield grass. Sterling Marlin went on to finish fifth behind Waltrip, Earnhardt Jr., Wallace, and Rudd.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital a few hours later but Ken Schrader later admitted that he knew Earnhardt had passed the moment he looked in the car.
The death threats started almost immediately following the passing of Dale Earnhardt Sr.
It certainly didn’t take long for fans of Dale Earnhardt Sr. to begin threatening Sterling Marlin following the fatal accident.
One fan wrote “I’ll kill you Sterling” on Marlin’s trailer and his website was flooded with disturbing e-mails in the days that followed the Daytona 500. Some even made phone calls to the shop that Marlin owned in Mooresville, North Carolina. And the calls were even more disturbing as some not only threatened Sterling Marlin himself but his family as well, which essentially left him no choice but to fire back.
Sterling Marlin simply told people to ‘come back to their senses’ and ‘watch the tape’
In a teleconference from Dodge MotorSports just a few days after the accident that killed Dale Earnhardt Sr., Sterling Marlin told his side of the story and explained that “definitely didn’t do anything intentional” on that final lap.
As his good friend Earnhardt was doing, Marlin was simply trying to win the Daytona 500. He clearly understood that people were heartbroken over the death of such a legendary figure and perhaps that’s why they were lashing out. But what happened was clearly an accident and Marlin made sure to get that point across (h/t Motorsports.com).
“It was just strictly a racing accident. Things happen and people are going to look for somebody to blame.
“Them high-speed race tracks, you know you don’t touch anybody because it’s going to hurt when you hit. It’s no way in this world I would do something like that knowing the consequences and put myself in jeopardy, too.
“I think if people just come back to their senses and listen to what everybody is saying, and watch the tape, there’s no question. That’s all I ask. Just use common sense and look at the tape. That’s all you’ve got to do.”Sterling Marlin on the Daytona 500 crash that killed Dale Earnhardt Sr.
For those who ever made death threats to Sterling Marlin following the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr., shame on you. And for those still blaming him for the accident, it’s time to let that go. Racing is a dangerous way to make a living and these things are going to happen. It’s just the nature of the sport.
Thankfully, in the 20 years since that fateful at the Daytona 500, NASCAR has made vast improvements as it pertains to safety harnesses within the vehicles, which was ultimately the cause of Earnhardt’s death. If only it had happened sooner.