Three-time NASCAR champion Darrell"Jaws" Waltrip takes the wheel for an insider's lap of NASCAR 2002
All good sports stories must start with a recap. When NASCAR roared into its 2001 season at the Daytona 500 last February, flush with new sponsorships and a multiyear, $2.4 billion national TV contract, it was hoped to be the rousing start of a breakthrough year, one that would put stock car racing front and center.

It did, but not for reasons that anyone would have chosen. That particular race concluded with Dale Earnhardt's horrific last-lap crash. The 49-year-old "Intimidator" in his legendary No. 3 car was the face of NASCAR, but his death, while initially casting a pall over the Winston Cup Series championship, ended up focusing the public's attention on the sport as never before.

They saw 30-year-old glamour boy Jeff Gordon win his fourth championship title, and others complete unexpected victory routes - in a dogfight for first in the standings, there were 19 winners, including five first-time victors - more than in any previous season.

NASCAR champion and FOX commentator Darrell Waltrip (whose brother Michael won the race that took Earnhardt's life) buckles us in behind the wheel of this close-quarter, hard-charging motor sport for a review of the 2001 season and a road map of the 2002 season, which kicked off at the Daytona 500 last month (and ended with Ward Burton taking the checkered flag after a three-lap shootout) and finishes at the Homestead 400 on November 17.

American Way: What was the impact of Dale Earnhardt's death in that first race last season?