ATLANTA -- The 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season was the best in the sport's history.
It also was the worst.
The 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season will be remembered for everything that is good about racing: dramatic finishes, new winners, packed grandstands, record ratings, compelling story lines, stirring comebacks and fresh talent.
It also will be remembered for everything that is bad about racing: death.
The season-opening Daytona 500 proved to be a microcosm of the racing season. The race was incredible, with 49 lead changes among 14 drivers, and it provided Michael Waltrip with his first and only career victory.
A season that started with such drama, such promise, ended with unimaginable pain. Ten seconds before Waltrip took the checkered flag at the Daytona International Speedway, Dale Earnhardt's car slammed head-first into the fourth-turn wall, instantly killing the seven-time series champion.
Ten seconds separated the very best of 2001 from the very worst.
As teams prepare for the first round of testing for the 2002 season in two weeks, here's a final look back at the best and worst of the 2001 campaign:
BEST TEAM: Jeff Gordon didn't win his fourth championship by being lucky. He was surrounded with a knowledgeable and supportive car owner, a premier engine program and a crew that was well versed in every detail.
The result was six victories, more than $10.8 million in earnings and a championship that essentially was wrapped up before the football season started.
WORST TEAM: Any of the Petty Enterprises teams. The Pettys had one of the worst programs under the Pontiac banner in 2000, and it didn't get any better in 2001 with the new Dodge Intrepid. Between Kyle Petty, Buckshot Jones and John Andretti, the three Petty teams failed to qualify for a combined 19 races. The best of the bunch was Andretti, who finished 31st in the point standings.
BEST FINISH: Kevin Harvick's photo-finish victory over Jeff Gordon at the Cracker Barrel 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
One year after Earnhardt beat Bobby Labonte by 6 inches at the same race, the man hired to replace Earnhardt won by less than 3 inches.
WORST FINISH: Joe Nemechek's runaway victory at the Pop Secret 400 at North Carolina Speedway. Not only did Nemechek lead most of the day, but he also finished nearly a quarter-lap ahead of runner-up Kenny Wallace in the least-competitive race of the year.
BEST MOMENT: In a season of tragedy, Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to Daytona in July and won the Pepsi 400. Memories of him dancing on top of his car in the infield grass at the finish line helped put to rest some of the pain from his father's crash.
WORST MOMENT: Nearly three hours after Earnhardt's crash, NASCAR president Mike Helton uttered the words nobody could believe: ''We've lost Dale Earnhardt.''
BEST QUOTE: ''He's trying to fill Earnhardt's shoes, and thinks he is Dale Earnhardt. But he wouldn't make a scab on Dale Earnhardt's butt right now.'' Bobby Hamilton, after being spun out by Kevin Harvick at Martinsville, Va., while Hamilton appeared to be heading toward a victory
WORST QUOTE: ''Safety is a work in progress.'' Helton, responded to questions about safety after Earnhardt's fatal crash
BEST COMEBACK: Bill Elliott jumps to the Dodge camp and wins at Homestead, Fla. It was his first victory in more than seven years.
WORST COMEBACK: Former two-time series champion Terry Labonte, despite working with crew chief Gary DeHart, not only fails to win a race, but he also fails to lead a single lap.
BEST STATISTIC: Nineteen drivers a record since NASCAR went to its ''Modern Era'' in 1972 won races, including first-time winners Waltrip, Elliott Sadler, Ricky Craven, Robby Gordon and Harvick.
WORST STATISTIC: As many as six Winston Cup Series teams have folded or face closure if they don't find sponsorship in a struggling economy.
BEST TRACK: The Atlanta Motor Speedway continues to provide the best finishes in the business. In the past four races, two have been decided in photo finishes, one produced a first-time winner in Jerry Nadeau, and one ended with a leader running out of gas in the fourth turn of the final lap.
WORST TRACK: Indianapolis Motor Speedway might have history working for it, but it has yet to produce a race worth watching. The long straightaways and flat-banked corners don't allow for much side-by-side racing, so the Brickyard 400 becomes an afternoon of follow the leader.
BEST COMMERCIAL: Dale Jarrett popping the cheeks of a little boy who vows to hold his breath until he agrees to drive the truck for UPS.
WORST COMMERCIAL: Part of NASCAR's ''How Bad Do You Have It?'' promotions where the father and son videotape a ride through the city, then fast-forward it to simulate racing conditions.
BEST ONE-LINER: ''Now I have enough money to buy my own blooming onion.'' Ricky Rudd, to teammate Jarrett while accepting a check for more than $800,000 at the NASCAR Awards Banquet
WORST ONE-LINER: ''Maybe if they cloned me, there'd be enough of me to go around.'' Tony Stewart, on the way to handle the demands of the sport
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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