Dale Earnhardt�s 2001 Participation In Rolex 24 At Daytona Reintroduced Sports Car Racing To NASCAR Fans, Competitors

As fast as the media could report it, word shot around the world in the fall of 2000 when Dale Earnhardt announced he would compete in the Rolex 24 At Daytona on Feb. 3-4, 2001, barely three months away on Daytona International Speedway�s 3.56-mile road course.

In a race where many race car drivers must become one if the resultant team is to succeed at its task, come race time the busy seven-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion had been able to get in only a veritable handful of practice hours in his No. 3 Chevrolet Corvette he shared with co-drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins.

Yet, by the end of the traditional annual kick-off race to Daytona�s annual Speedweeks, the team had traveled more than 2,200 miles, and finished fourth overall behind their race-winning teammates in the No. 2 Corvette, Ron Fellows, Frank Freon, Chris Kneifel and Johnny O�Connell. (Those two teams also finished 1-2 in the production-based GTS class.)

Called the most grueling of the world�s endurance contests for good reason, surviving Rolex 24 teams � fewer than half typically make it to the finish � must endure more than 13 hours of night-time driving between Saturday�s setting sun and Sunday�s sunrise, as well as outlast whatever Mother Nature may hurl at them � whether sub-freezing temperatures or, in 2001, a hard rain by the time the elder Earnhardt got in the car.

In the car for his first of at least two, three-hour race shifts and without any practice time in wet-road conditions, Earnhardt nevertheless was sent onto the course which features more than a mile of curving infield asphalt onto DIS� famed 2.5-mile high banks.

�Keep an eye on my times,� Earnhardt said to his teammates over the radio. �If I�m going too slow, call me in and put Andy (Pilgrim) back in.�

Earnhardt � himself being for years the only driver he knew to lean on when the chips were down � had quickly become the consummate teammate.

�You�re doing fine,� Pilgrim recently recalled saying in response to Earnhardt.

�I just told him where and what to expect on some of the course�s most treacherous spots,� Pilgrim said. �He listened, he asked questions. Dale did a phenomenal job.�

At the end, a broadly smiling Earnhardt and his son joined their teammates as the two-car Corvette team, having scored first- and fourth-place overall, celebrated in Victory Lane.

Two weeks later, Earnhardt died following a last-lap accident in the Daytona 500. Thus, questions were never fully answered about why he had finally chosen to compete in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Why would one of NASCAR�s greatest drivers dare go compete in a race so different from that in which he�d proven himself time and again? People who were there for that magical weekend recall Earnhardt�s competitive nature as the catalyst.

�When we left that day after the Rolex 24, we hadn�t even gotten in the air when Big E already started making plans for the next one,� said Steve Crisp, now the director of motorsports at Dale Earnhardt Jr.�s� organization, JR Motorsports.

�In all the years I�d known him, Big E was one of the baddest guys in the jungle when we walked into any other place. Yet, when we went to the Rolex 24 he understood he wasn�t coming in as the 800-pound gorilla.

�Dale had a huge amount of respect for drivers who could jump back and forth from one kind of race car to another and it�s something he wanted to do, too. It was a challenge to him. He wanted to learn and he asked Andy (Pilgrim) and Kelly (Collins) and all of them a ton of questions. He was like a kid in a candy store.

�I wasn�t expecting that at all but it was pretty cool � especially looking back on it.�

Though Earnhardt wasn�t the first NASCAR notable to race in the Rolex 24 � in 1962 Glenn �Fireball� Roberts raced his Ferrari 250 GT alongside the Corvettes of Marvin Panch and Joe Weatherly in Daytona International�s first sports car race � he was without doubt the most accomplished, and his participation, in retrospect, has seemed to reintroduce the event to both NASCAR fans and competitors alike. Since 2001, than a dozen NASCAR stars and six NASCAR Sprint Cup champions have competed in the classic event.

�Back when Dale ran the 2001 Rolex 24 I hadn�t even won my first NASCAR Nationwide Series race,� 2006 and 2007 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said.

�But I knew he was in it. And I kind of hoped I�d be in it one day, too, because a driver always wants to test his limits and see where he can go and learn something new.�