The day Earnhardt died burned an indelible image

In a way, it's hard to remember what NASCAR was like when Dale Earnhardt ruled the sport. It has been only five years since that tragic day at Daytona International Speedway, but so much has changed.

And much of the change can be tied, directly or at least indirectly, to his passing.

As cantankerous as they came, Earnhardt could have all the time in the world for an interview -- or reporters could find themselves perched along the end of pit road as a race wound down, hoping to catch him as he hopped out of the car. There were times when he'd have a crew member steer the car back to the transporter, allowing him to win the race among the drivers to see who could leave the track the quickest.

But on Feb. 18, 2001, people left the track in various stages of bliss, denial or grief.

When Earnhardt's black Chevrolet slammed the Turn 4 wall on the last lap of the Daytona 500, it seemed like an afterthought. Sure he was going to be ticked off, but that anger would be mitigated by the thrill of watching as a pair of the three Cup cars he owned finished first and second.

Earnhardt's surprising decision to put a winless Michael Waltrip into his new third team had been instantly justified, and the party figured to be raucous.

Some who were knocked out early in the race, or just those who changed and made a quick run to the airport, left before many realized that Earnhardt's accident was, at the least, much more serious than it initially looked.

Others quickly heard how Ken Schrader had walked up to Earnhardt's car, looked inside and quickly backed away to make way for the safety crews. That in itself told many something was drastically wrong.

Still, some headed to the airport, or to their cars for the drive home, thinking that surely Earnhardt would be OK.

The scene on pit road after the race was surreal. While Waltrip headed to Victory Lane, Dale Earnhardt Jr. parked on pit road, as drivers who finish in the top five do. That way, they're easily accessible to the network television and radio crews, as well as to print reporters.

My assignment for NASCAR Scene was to write a sidebar on the runner-up, also asking Earnhardt Jr. how exciting it was to see his new teammate earn the win. Included would be some comments from Waltrip's crew once the party in Victory Lane subsided.

It quickly became apparent, though, that something was amiss. A co-worker told me the accident was serious. Suddenly, someone came up and whispered something to Earnhardt Jr., who'd been standing with a member of his team on pit road.

Instantly, Earnhardt Jr. took off running, and no reporter was about to give chase at such a moment. It turns out he was running to get in a car to head to the nearby hospital where his father would be pronounced dead.

That announcement, though, still didn't seem possible while we were standing there on pit road. Heading over to Victory Lane, Waltrip's team was still celebrating, as it was isolated from the speculation flowing through the garage and media center.

It was nice that the winning team could have that moment. Waltrip's joy was unabated until Schrader walked into Victory Lane, letting a friend know Earnhardt was seriously injured, at the least.

The mood at the track was growing darker by the moment. Everyone there was asking each other for any updates, and although people had an idea the worst might have occurred, no one wanted to accept that reality just yet.

Still, talk grew of crewmen walking out with their heads down, some in tears. NASCAR, meanwhile, was saying little or nothing, and it remained that way until Mike Helton made things official shortly after 7 p.m. ET.

Dale Earnhardt had died -- and NASCAR would never be the same. Once the enormity of the situation sunk in, the media center turned surreal. My bosses at NASCAR Scene -- at the track and back at the office in Charlotte, N.C. -- started planning how we would revamp an issue largely completed, and reporters from papers around the country were in urgent contact with their bosses.

It was arguably the biggest story in the sport's history, and it's a story that's still unfolding today. Safety advances have come a long way: SAFER barriers cover the walls, and, beginning next year, NASCAR will be implementing a new car that's designed to be safer.

Earnhardt was always larger than life and perhaps never more so than on the unforgettable day he died.

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com .