Darrell Waltrip: Unlike the World Series or Super Bowl, which close the season, our biggest race, the Daytona 500, is unique because it opens our season. Last season, it was a barnburner, with tons of passing. Then we had an incredible finish, with my brother, Michael, and Dale Jr. leading and Dale doing some incredible blocking, protecting the lead for them. Our audience was on the edge of its seat when cars tumbled, flipped, and rolled. I knew it was a scary-looking accident, that Dale was hurt, but it didn't seem anything to get alarmed about. Michael won his first [Winston Cup] race. We did our victory circle interview, then in that euphoria, we learned of Dale's tragedy.

Because of Dale's death … fans continued to watch to see what was going to happen next. Because we were able to hang onto that 29 percent bigger audience, telling a story week in and week out, and because we knew what Dale meant to the sport, I think it all mesmerized the die-hard fans and it brought us a bunch of new ones.

American Way: Dale Earnhardt was the face of NASCAR. Can anyone replace him?
Waltrip:
Dale was the connection to the past. Most of the guys from our era have pretty well moved on, but Dale still represented what our sport was when it began. Even though we've worked on our image, got the big TV contract, Dale never changed. He was just who he was from day one - one tough customer who didn't make any excuses for who he was. That's the connection we lost - to our heritage.

As for individuals, you line 'em all up now and nobody sticks out … guys are a lot slicker than they used to be. They argue a little about someone pushing them on the track, but there's just nobody single-handedly representing what the sport is all about.

American Way: What helped Jeff Gordon win the 2001 championship?