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Elliott, Burton, Labonte remember NASCAR's dark day

February 10, 2011, Rick Houston, Special to NASCAR.COM,

Elliott, Burton, Labonte remember NASCAR's dark day, share thoughts on life

Look close, and it's almost possible to see the steam coming out of Bill Elliott's ears in the moments following the 1987 edition of The Winston at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

That's just how angry he was with Dale Earnhardt. The superstar drivers had pounded the daylights out of each other in the race, with Earnhardt eventually making the famed, if incorrectly named, Pass in the Grass. Earnhardt's maneuver had not been to take the lead; rather, it was to keep it out of the hands of a now incredibly riled Elliott.

Dale Earnhardt - 3 - A Look Back

In many ways, this was the race that sealed forever Earnhardt's reputation as One Tough Customer, the Intimidator, or a mean-spirited S.O.B., take your pick. Not that any of it mattered at the time to Awesome Bill From Dawsonville, whose post-race interview was a study in fury. Lord, he was mad, and then some. It cut Elliott deep that Earnhardt was celebrating just over there, in the Victory Lane that could've been his.

They'd run many a lap against each other before The Winston in 1987, and there were many more to come afterward. A certain rivalry remained in place, if for no other reason than Elliott was the consummate Ford driver pitted against Earnhardt, the standard-bearer for Chevrolet.

Elliott finished fifth in the 2001 Daytona 500 that took Earnhardt's life, and was close enough to the accident to have to check up when the fabled No. 3 Chevrolet flashed up the track sideways in front of him. It wasn't supposed to end like that. They were supposed to grow old, if not together, then certainly at the same time, at least. They would one day share a laugh about that afternoon at Charlotte, and so many others.

A decade later, Elliott continues to race. For the past several years, he's done a limited schedule and will do so again in 2011 driving a -- good grief, what has this world come to?!? -- Chevrolet fielded by James Finch. There's nothing at all left to prove for Elliott, so why come back for more, especially in light of the Earnhardt tragedy?

A philosophical response

"My God, I still feel safer on a race track than I do driving down the interstate or a two-lane highway," Elliott said. "The only thing that gives you comfort in anything we do is that when it's your time, it's your time, whether I'm driving a race car, laying in bed asleep at night or if I fall off my back porch."

On Nov. 24, 1987, Elliott was a passenger in an Air Force F-16 when it clipped a Georgia Air National Guard F-16 in the skies over Jefferson County, Ga. While Elliott and his pilot landed safely at Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta, Ga., the pilot of the F-16 was forced to eject. The incident left an indelible impression on Elliott, who had been, quite literally, just along for the ride.

"You know, I should've been killed 20-some-odd years ago in that military aircraft, in my opinion," Elliott said. "Fate, luck or whatever was with us enough that we got back to the airport that day. You can't question, 'Why?' Whether people believe in God or not, there's somebody out there that has their hand on us. You're here for a reason and for a period of time, and we don't know when [the end] is going to be or how it's going to end."

The roadside breakdown

Ward Burton got the heck out of Dodge, literally and figuratively.

After leading the most laps in the 2001 Daytona 500, Burton was involved in a huge, late-race, multi-car crash on the backstretch. The day done for his Bill Davis Racing Dodge, Burton left Daytona behind. He did not learn of Earnhardt's accident until after he and wife, Tabitha, landed at a small airfield in Roxboro, N.C.

Both had cars at the airport, so they separately began the trek home to South Boston, Va. In the February darkness, Burton followed his wife to the side of the road when he noticed her pulling over. It was then and there that Burton learned that a legendary life had ended.

"She heard on the radio that Dale had been pronounced dead," Burton said. "When I got to the car, she was sobbing. The reason she was so upset was, one, for the loss of Dale and what his family was going through; but, also, she knew that could've been me just as easy."

The defending champ

There wasn't much left for Bobby Labonte to do, not after his run in the 2001 Daytona 500 was ended in the same mishap as Burton.

Just leave this one behind and forget about it. Head to the airport, go home and get ready for Rockingham. In a perfect world, that's exactly what Labonte would have done. But sitting in his airplane on the Daytona tarmac, just behind the track's backstretch, Labonte got a phone call. Earnhardt had been involved in a bad wreck on the last lap.

It didn't look good.

"You get that cold chill over your body," Labonte remembered. "I remember sitting in the airplane with my wife and my kids, just crying my eyes out. I just couldn't believe what happened, and I just cried like a baby. Finding out sitting there like that, there's nothing you can do. It didn't matter what had happened to me a few laps earlier."

The 2000 Cup Series champion, Labonte had looked forward to defending his crown at each stop on the circuit the following season. Instead, for most everyone involved in the sport, the rest of 2001 was a dark nightmare of tragic sadness, accusations and conspiracy theories. There were perks for Labonte along the way, but it just wasn't the same.

"You kinda say, 'We're going to defend our championship. We're going to have a good year, but it's going to be tough,' " Labonte said. "Ultimately, the story is whether you can repeat or not. As it turned out, that wasn't a story at all. That's fine. We were all worried about safety. We were all concerned about how to make the cars safer. It really is amazing how much these cars have changed through that.

"When I left to go to Daytona, I was just thinking about how I was going to defend the championship. Then, when the Daytona 500 was over with, you were concerned about what had happened. That's where your mind was at a lot of times, because we were all sitting there trying to figure out how to make the cars safer."