September 11, 2001. It's a date that all Americans will never forget. September 23, 2001 is a date that most folks in the United States, aside from hardcore NASCAR fans, may not be as familiar with, but it was on this day that NASCAR had its first Cup Series race following the devastating 9/11 terrorist attacks.
It was also an extremely memorable day for Dale Earnhardt Jr., as it marked his first win -- and only win throughout his NASCAR Cup Series career -- at Dover International Speedway. It's hard not to get chills watching Dale Jr. do a victory lap around the Delaware racetrack as he proudly displays the American flag out of the window of his No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet.
In an interview 20 years after that important day in NASCAR history, Dale Jr. recalled the patriotic magnitude of the Cup race at Dover.
"There was a part of me that felt NASCAR was helping the country," Earnhardt said. "You looked up in the grandstands and every person there was holding an American flag. That made your heart stop and you had a massive sense of pride well up inside of you."
"I don't think you will ever see a more patriotic moment in racing."
Everyone in the country was looking to return to a sense of normalcy after what happened on September 11th, when nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives following the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and the highjacking of Flight 93. Earnhardt remembers that being at Dover nearly two weeks after that tragic loss of life was an important small step in the right direction.
"It felt like this is where we belong," Earnhardt said. "This is what is comfortable and this is what feels right. With anything like that -- what happened to me in my life personally -- I always felt like when I got to the racetrack, it was like entering a family home. You're around people who love and respect you. Being at the racetrack, for me personally, was a very safe place."
As most NASCAR fans know, 2001 was a rough year for Dale Jr. Around seven months before the 9/11 attacks, he lost his father -- seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. -- to a devastating crash at the Daytona 500. The feeling of intense and sudden loss was personal to him, and he felt it on the day the Towers fell.
"We had this happen to the country, and there was a part of me that could relate in a way to a lot of people," Earnhardt said. "I think anyone who lost somebody that year can relate to the loss a lot of people were feeling in that moment and during the several weeks afterwards. It's hard for me to articulate it."
"I don't know if it's something I've ever come to understand. It's hard for me to understand how and why all of this happened in the short amount of time that it did. It was a really difficult time, and a lot of people were dealing with difficulties. In a way, I felt like when 9/11 happened and so many people lost their lives, a part of me was like, 'I know what that feels like.' It's the suddenness of it."
Despite all the hardship he faced during the terrible year, Earnhardt ultimately remembers that day at Dover as a day of healing and hopes that others, particularly NASCAR fans, felt the same.
"I felt like we were helping all of the people in attendance that day -- maybe even the people watching at home -- to understand that it's OK to stand up and move forward," he said. "That was what the message was from NASCAR that day."
"Hopefully, us having that race and doing what we did that afternoon, helped some people realize they had to take care of themselves and of each other."