Dale Earnheardt death: Darrell Waltrip opens up

Darrell Waltrip on "CBS This Morning." CBS

One of the worst days in NASCAR history happened in 2001, when the legendary racer Dale Earnhardt died in a crash at the Daytona 500.

Three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip was there.

He watched in horror as his friend was killed, and then saw his brother, Michael Waltrip, win the race.

Darrell has written his story of that day in the new memoir, "Sundays Will Never Be the Same: Racing, Tragedy and Redemption -- My Life in America's Fastest Sport."

On "CBS This Morning," Waltrip went back to that day and the moment when his brother won the race

"It was my first race do a NASCAR Sprint Cup race," he recalled. "And so I'm in the booth for the first time. My brother and I, Michael, who was driving for Dale senior... my brother Michael and I talked through the winter about, 'Man wouldn't it be cool if you won your first race.' He had never won a race. 'Wouldn't it be cool if you won your first race and I could call you home.' It would be like when Ned Jarrett called Dale Jarrett home. It's one of those moments. So here I am on the race goes off, we have the big one and the people are flipping over and they stop the race. We had some radio talk between Dale and some of spotters and things. They go back to green. And here my brother is with the white flag come out. The last lap of the race. My brother is leading the Daytona 500. It's the biggest race. It's our Super Bowl."

Charlie Rose then showed Waltrip video of that moment. In the tape, Waltrip is asked by a reporter if watching his brother is better than winning it. Waltrip replied, "This is great. I just hope Dale is OK. I guess he's all right, isn't he?"

On "CBS This Morning," Waltrip said, "It's 11 years ago, Charlie, and even today, I see that and I think about that moment in time, I could shed tears. It was tragic. One moment I'm excited for my brother. I'm going to victory circle with my brother. And the next minute I turn around and a friend of mine, Andy, was standing at the top of the steps with tears down his face. Big man. Deputy sheriff in Daytona. And he's shaking his head. I say, 'I'm going to Victory Circle.' He's going to take me. 'What's wrong?' He's shaking his head and crying. He said we got to go to the hospital. He said, 'I don't think Dale made it.' It was the biggest and most emotional roller coaster I had been on in my life. The excitement of Michael winning and then the fact, the reality that Dale probably got killed in that wreck. And the next thing I know, I'm sitting in the hospital with the family and friends and NASCAR officials and we're all stunned. Everybody is in shock. There were things that happened in that room that I don't even recall. I blocked it out of my mind. It was so devastating to me and the racing world, really."

Speaking of his friend, Waltrip said, "Dale was a character. I mean, you know, his image was one tough customer. He made sure that he lived up to it. He was all about risk and reward. He would take any risk to get that reward. You could go out on the track to practice, just some little simple thing like practice, he wanted to win practice. He was a man that all he thought about was winning races and you better not get in his way because he would -- as he would put it, he would rattle your cage. ... 'You're going too slow. Move over.'"

Waltrip said the book tells his story of his experience the day Earnheardt died.

"I never could understand why I even went to the hospital," he said. "I mean, my brother just won the Daytona 500. I would have probably in a normal -- I would have run to victory circle. Instead I ran to the hospital. Why I did that, I don't even know. But i was there and that experience has changed -- it was life changing for me. It has been for many fans. That's why the title of the book, 'Sundays Will Never Be the Same,' racing is better than it's ever been. We've had the best year we've ever had. Five first-time winners, a tie for the championship settled by who had the most wins. The cars are the best they've ever been, 2012 is going to be an awesome season. Sponsors are back. Fans are back. Things are looking pretty good."

Since Earnhardt's death many changes have been enacted to better protect drivers.

Waltrip said NASCAR did an "outstanding job," introducing new seats, barriers around the tracks and special headrests -- called the HANS device -- that protect drivers from impact.

"Because of Dale's death, there's been a lot of lives that have been saved," Waltrip said.

Charlie Rose said, "Some people think, though, that why they come (to the races) is to see an accident."

"It's like football," Waltrip said. "You want to see that guy go across the middle there and catch that pass and take that hard hit. That's part of the 'ooh.' You got to have some 'ooh.' That's what racing provides. It provides a lot of excitement. You sit on the edge of your seat. You anticipate things happening. But the thing about it today is, they're happening and guys are getting -- they're not getting killed, they're not getting hurt. They're walking away from them, and that's big gain."

While NASCAR has made gains, special correspondent Jeff Glor said, Indy Car recent suffered the loss of Dan Wheldon.

"Dan was a super guy," Waltrip said. "He's the other 'DW' by the way, people know me as 'DW.' They knew Dan as 'DW.' The ironic thing about Dan was he was helping develop a safer race car -- a new car for Indy car racing that would be much safer and he was in the process and that car will be on the track in 2012. But Dan was a great guy, sweet wife, couple of kids. It was a tragedy, man. One of the worst."

Rose -- a self-described "car guy" and North Carolina native -- asked Waltrip who he thinks is the greatest driver to ever sit behind the wheel.

David "The Silver Fox" Pearson is Waltrip's pick. "He was so smart. He won 105 races. He won three championships," Waltrip said. "But he never ran all the races. He had a limited schedule most of the time. So the 105 wins that David Pearson has. They're high-quality wins and I loved racing with him. He would be one of the guys, you wouldn't see him all day, but when the checkered flag was ready to fly, he was there."

Looking to this year's racing, Waltrip said not to count out female racer Danica Patrick.

Danica Patrick vows to be the "honey badger" of NASCAR

"The Daytona 500 is coming up on the 26th and Danica will be in the field. Don't count her out. Can she win? Could Trevor Bayne, the kid that won last year, who would have thought that he could have won? Don't count her out. I think she'll be a big surprise. Carl Edwards will be looking for redemption. He and Tony Stewart. Jimmie Johnson -- Mr. Five-Time. He's going to fight back in. Jeff Gordon is not done, Tony Stewart is not done, Kyle Busch and the Childress guys."

But does the racer wish he could rejoin the field?

"At times," he said. "I see Sundays when I wish I was out there and something happens and I remember why I quit."

Disclosure: Waltrip's memoir, "Sundays Will Never Be the Same: Racing, Tragedy and Redemption -- My Life in America's Fastest Sport" is published by Simon & Schuster, a division of CBS corporation.

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