NASCAR: Earnhardt's death unrelated to rules changes
DAYTONA BEACH, Florida (CNN) -- Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip Monday said recent changes in NASCAR rules to create tighter races had nothing to do with the crash that killed legendary driver Dale Earnhardt.
Instead, Waltrip said, Sunday's accident was a display of racers' competitive spirit in the final lap -- "guys just wanting to get to the checkered" flag.
"When the checkered's waving, nobody is going to let off," said Waltrip, a member of Earnhardt's racing team.
"It was just hard racing on the last lap," Waltrip said at a new conference. "I think Dale was doing what he loved to do, and he was coming for the checkered."
NASCAR recently made aerodynamic changes to its vehicles in an effort to create closer, more exciting races. The 200,000 fans at the speedway and a national television audience witnessed 50 lead changes before the crash, a reflection of the tightness of the race.
NASCAR officials insisted Monday safety is a top priority of their drivers and that they are always studying ways to improve safety precautions.
At the same time, officials were still trying to cope with the death of what many called NASCAR's greatest driver.
"This is a tough period in NASCAR history. I can't think of anytime that's been more tough," NASCAR chairman Bill France said.
NASCAR president Mike Helton added, "Dale Earnhardt was the driver for NASCAR."
Facing tough questions about NASCAR safety, Helton said the stock-car circuit is "always investigating safety issues" and will continue to do so.
But he said it would be premature to implement widespread changes immediately.
"We're simply not going to react for the sake of reacting," he said. "We will do it when it's the right thing to do."
Among the safety procedures NASCAR is looking at is whether concrete walls should be replaced with a better material to further protect drivers and fans in the stands.
Officials also recommended drivers try out the Head And Neck Safety (HANS) device, a fixed restraining mechanism that supports the head, neck and shoulder and protects the neck and base of the skull. Many drivers have said the HANS is too bulky and cumbersome, especially in crashes where they need to get out quickly.
"Safety is our No. 1 concern," Helton said. "NASCAR recommends drivers to try it and to work with the developers of it to perfect (the device) for stock-car racing."
An autopsy performed on Earnhardt determined he died of blunt trauma to his head.
Dr. Steve Bohannon, a doctor at the scene immediately after the crash, said the HANS device most likely wouldn't have helped when Earnhardt's car hit the wall going 180 mph.
"The brain is injured, bruised, torn," he said. "And with an impact of Dale's nature, even if he had the device on, hitting the wall that fast may have resulted in the same injury."
Earnhardt's No. 3, black Monte Carlo is currently in the possession of NASCAR and crews have been checking it out to check for more clues as to what might have contributed to his death.
The family has yet to announce funeral arrangements.
Outside the Mooresville, N.C.-headquarters of Dale Earnhardt Inc., fans left flowers, notes and posters of the man known as "The Intimidator" for his aggressive driving style.
"A man like no other," read one sign. A similar makeshift shrine adorned the outside of the Daytona speedway in Florida.
Waltrip, while upset over the death of his friend and boss, said he knows Earnhardt is now in a better place.
"My belief is that in the twinkle of an eye, you're in the presence of the Lord. And that's where I think Dale is," Waltrip said. "And so instead of patting me on the back and having a (victory) party with me, he's up there hanging out with my dad. That ain't a bad thing either."
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