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AUTO RACING CAN CLEARLY distinguish between the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. It does so in a manner more dramatic, and too often tragic, than any other sport. Never was that distinction as clear as the first Sunday of the 2001 Winston Cup season.

Michael Waltrip, a charming but dogged competitor, had withstood a 462-race career without a single victory. When the breakthrough came, it figured to be one of the great feel-good moments in NASCAR's recent history. Because Waltrip's long-awaited spotlight shone upon his sport's biggest stage, the Daytona 500, the victory party would be even longer and louder.

For a few brief moments, it was everything that was hoped. But as Waltrip turned his victory lap then made his way to the winners circle, it became clear that something had gone very wrong over in the speedway's east banking.

The differences between what racing offers--from the very best to the very worst--were never more painfully obvious. Late in the afternoon of February 18--roughly one mile from the finish of the Daytona 500--the tone was set for the 2001 season. And what a depressing tone it was. Dale Earnhardt's death on the final lap at Daytona triggered a long chain of events that would eventually usher in a new era in NASCAR.

It began with disbelief. An attending, physician said Earnhardt "never showed any signs of life" inside the car. What a terrible irony, considering no one showed so much life while driving a race car.

The memorial service was held in Charlotte, four days later, on a cold, over-cast morning. "I've seen Joe Weatherly, Fireball Roberts, Curtis Turner, and other drivers die [while racing]," said the legendary Junior Johnson. "But none of 'em created the multitude of heartbreak this one has. Earnhardt was the greatest there's been. His special way of showing what a driver is made of can't be duplicated."

Less than a day after everyone filed out of the church--all wearing dark suits and long faces--sadness gave way to controversy, questions, and anger.

On another cold morning, in Rockingham, N.C., five days after Earnhardt's death, NASCAR held a press conference and lowered the dam for a flood of media attention never before seen in American auto racing. It announced that after inspecting Earnhardt's car on the day of the crash, NASCAR official Gary Nelson said he'd discovered a torn seat belt.

Was a torn seat belt responsible for Earnhardt's death? Would a HANS device have prevented the loss? And, given the furor over the availability of the autopsy results, would the public learn exactly what did kill him?

No one ever got definitive answers to those questions. Which isn't to say that NASCAR tried to lower the heat. In late spring, with media scrutiny of the safety issue showing no signs of slowing, NASCAR announced it was commissioning a study to determine the cause of Earnhardt's death.

In August, the report was made public at a two-hour seminar in Atlanta. NASCAR let it leak that it had spent more than $1 million on the study. While the streamlined, graphic-rich presentation was slick and professionally done, when the official curtain fell the causes of Earnhardt's death were still little more than educated guesses.

Many in the racing community were angered by the continued focus on the death of a sporting icon. Nothing could bring back Earnhardt (or the three who died the previous year of skull fractures--Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper). But taking away the emotional side of the issue, there was a purpose: To keep such a thing from happening to another driver in the future.

Many racing deaths, after all, result in safety upgrades that later potentially save countless of lives. There's no way of knowing for sure, but it's possible that Earnhardt's demise has already saved lives. There's no questioning that it saved serious injury.

When Earnhardt was killed, only a small handful of NASCAR drivers were using the HANS (Head and Neck Support) device, a collar-worn shell designed to minimize rapid head whip and the fatal basilar skull fracture that can accompany it. After Earnhardt's death, HANS manufacturers began filling more orders than they could handle. Bobby Hutchens, a member of Earnhardt's team at Childress Racing, even developed a head-and-neck restraint system of his own.

By midseason, an but a few Cup regulars were wearing either the HANS or Hutchens device. Eventually, NASCAR made head-and-neck restraints mandatory. With a nearly 100% compliance rate, that may not seem like a monumental event, but the mandating of personal safety devices was an earth-moving decision for NASCAR, which had always contended that personal safety was just that: personal.

Two months earlier--at the Earnhardt report in Atlanta--NASCAR announced it would allow crash-data recorders beginning in 2002. Officials also confirmed that NASCAR would open a research-and-development shop in North Carolina, with its major emphasis being safety innovation.

Black boxes. Head-and-neck restraints. RND shop. It was certainly dawning a new day for the leading name in American auto racing. "We're in a new age," says NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter. "Times change and you have to change with them, and I think we're very open to change. We're focused on safety now like we've never seen before. We're going to have to make alterations to things ... [it's] a different time and a different set of circumstances."

Due to the Earnhardt tragedy and everything that sprung from its aftermath, plenty of other big news from 2001 was overshadowed. Take away what happened at the Daytona 500, and the past season was still one of note. For instance:

* Controversy erupted during the opening days of Speedweeks in Daytona. Many Winston Cup teams felt their sponsors were being shortchanged by the Fox Network, which debuted as a NASCAR telecaster at Daytona.

Fox's graphics department, when showing computer-generated race-cars in pre-race lineups, would add the sponsorship logos for the teams whose sponsors bought ad time on the network. There were no logos for those sponsors who didn't buy time. This became a short-lived firestorm in the garage area, considering how team owners and their sponsors were accustomed to endless on-air mentions and visuals.

This drama was settled rather quickly, but it gave fuel to those who criticized NASCAR for divorcing its former longtime TV partners, and made everyone else suspicious of the new TV partners.

* It was clear early in the season that Jeff Gordon's "slump" would also be short-lived. Shaking off a 2000 season that wasn't up to his team's lofty standards, Gordon made his way to the front of the points standings early and stayed there.

Like Earnhardt, Gordon had become a polarizing figure in the sport--you either pull for him or against him; no one is neutral. His return to the front of the pack gave those in both camps someone to either cheer or jeer.

* Kevin Harvick's emergence didn't come in a desired manner--he replaced Earnhardt on Childress Racing's No. 1 team, but it was no less dramatic. Harvick won in his third start, at Atlanta, and ran up front so consistently that he remained a top-10 fixture, while leading the Busch Series standings practically all season.

Harvick's rookie season didn't come without problems, however. The fun-loving, smiling Californian was anything but neighborly on the track. He showed great natural talent on all types of tracks, along with a rare level of confidence and concentration he needed to compete full-time on both the Busch and Cup circuits. His aggressive tendencies, however, angered many of his counterparts along the way.

That same aggression, however, made quick fans of those who so passionately followed the career of the man who drove that car so well for so many years.

* The flip side of Gordon and Harvick was Jack Roush. The four-car team owner had his toughest season in Winston Cup. Jeff Burton found Victory Lane, but after several years on the fringes of the championship chase, he was never a factor.

Mark Martin struggled in the first year of his big Pfizer contract. Matt Kenseth didn't follow up his good rookie year. And rookie Kurt Busch, while turning in several good runs and showing signs that he'll be a star (soon, likely), suffered many of the growing pains generally associated with first-year drivers.

Off and on throughout the season, Roush drivers blamed the struggles on the team's inability to get a handle on the new tire compounds introduced this season by Goodyear. The tire company sought to streamline its NASCAR product in 2001, using fewer "recipes" and therefore bringing some consistency to the matchups of rubber and tracks. Some adjusted better than others.

Nobody, of course, adjusted better this season than Gordon. Now settled with Loomis--and into his role as a team leader--it appears he'll again be the driver to beat in 2002, and for many more years as well.

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