Dale Earnhardt winning the 1994 Winston Select 500. What's heartwarming? The race was held on May 1st, 1994, the day Ayrton Senna died. Earnhardt acknowledged Senna's death at his victory lane interview and offered condolences to his family and fans. This shows how far Senna's reputation reached and how caring Earnhardt could be about fellow racing drivers, even if they raced in a completely different racing series like Formula One.
When Dale Earnhardt won the 1998 Daytona 500, after nineteen previously unsuccessful tries, there was a large show of respect for the man who had won seven championships but never the Great American Race: for instance, every crew member of every team lined pit road to shake his hand as he made his way to victory lane. A similar treatment had been given to Sterling Marlin when he won the 1994 Daytona 500.
After Dale Earnhardt died in the 2001 Daytona 500, it was a big Tear Jerker. But the heartwarming is that the fans and the drivers, even the rivals, all paid respect to his seven championship legacy. This involved raising and holding up three fingers on the third lap of every race for the rest of the 2001 season (the broadcasting teams also went silent), and the 2011 Daytona 500. And they soldiered on because they knew Dale would have wanted them to keep racing. Some of the more memorable wins of 2001 had to do with paying tribute to Dale's legacy:
Steve Park had one when he won the Dura Lube 400 at Rockingham the week after the crash, narrowly outdueling Bobby Labonte.
There was the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500 at Atlanta, where Earnhardt's replacement driver Kevin Harvick won the third race since Earnhardt's death. It was Harvick's third start as well. Harvick held off Jeff Gordon by 0.006 seconds, the second-closest finish in NASCAR history at that time. Harvick performed a burnout on the frontstretch, holding up three fingers. He would then win Chicago and finish ninth in the points standings, and win the Rookie of the Year award.
There was a big heartwarming moment when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won the 2001 Pepsi 400 (the first race to be held at Daytona after the Intimidator's death). His teammate Michael Waltrip helped hold off the field after Earnhardt, Jr. went from sixth place to the lead and overtook Johnny Benson, Jr. in the span of two laps. They finished in reverse order of the Daytona 500. It allowed Waltrip to celebrate his Daytona 500 win, which had greatly been overshadowed by Earnhardt's death. Both cars doing burnouts on the tri-oval grass is one of the most memorable moments of NASCAR's healing process.
Speaking of which, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. also won the MBNA Cal Ripken, Jr. 400 at Dover, which happened to be the first NASCAR race to follow the 9/11 attacks. He marked his victory with a Polish victory lap while holding an American flag in salute. Weeks later, Junebug would win the EA Sports 500 at Talladega, the race where a year before, his father had recorded his last Winston Cup win.
10 years to the day after Earnhardt's death, there was the 2011 Camping World Truck Series race at Daytona. Who won that race? Michael Waltrip in a black #15 (carrying the signature black of Earnhardt's GM Goodwrench Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and Waltrip's car number for his three Daytona and one Talladega Sprint Cup victories, now currently used by Michael's driver Clint Bowyer. Earnhardt himself used #15 from 1982-83 at Bud Moore Engineering, before taking over the #3 at Childress). Just like that fateful 500, Darrell was in the booth bringing him to the line. The truck failed post-race inspection, and the team was penalized, but they kept the win because Michael did not declare for points in the Truck Series.
And the 2014 Daytona 500, the race in which Austin Dillon (grandson of Earnhardt's team owner Richard Childress) returned the #3 car to the Sprint Cup for the first time snce Earnhardt's fatal crash, was won by Dale Jr. (breaking Junior's 55-race winless streak in the Cup Series to boot).
In the 2011 Gatorade Duels, Brad Keselowski, driving for Penske Racing and having a guaranteed starting spot in the Daytona 500 regardless of his finishnote based on the previous year's owner points, although Keselowski and Kurt Busch had switched rides, dropped well behind the pack to tandem draft with his brother Brian, who was driving unsponsored for the family race team and had qualified last of the 48 cars at the track. With Brad basically pushing Brian, the two were able to make their way to fifth and sixth on the grid, good enough for Brian to transfer into the Daytona 500.
After many mass killings, it hasn't been uncommon to see tribute paint schemes. After the Virginia Tech killings in 2007, VT logos were placed on many cars. Furniture Row's #78 Chevrolet driven by Regan Smith had a special tribute paint scheme at the Brickyard 400 in 2012 due to the Aurora, CO theater killings of the previous week (Furniture Row is based in Colorado). And in the 2013 Daytona 500, Michael Waltrip drove a Swan Racing Toyota numbered #26 to support the Newtown shooting victims.
For the first race after the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing, the STP 400 at Kansas, Michael Waltrip Racing re-stylized the number design on the sides of all three of their cars to resemble the placards used by the Marathon runners as a tribute. This had been done at Michael Waltrip's urging because he had competed in the 2000 Boston Marathon. All three cars finished in the top ten: Martin Truex, Jr. led 46 laps and finished in fourth place, Clint Bowyer finished in fifth place, and Mark Martin finished in ninth place.
Other teams had smaller stickers on their cars, too - for example a "B strong" sticker (with the B being stylized in the same way as the Red Sox logo) on the side of Roush Fenway driver Greg Biffle's car. Additionally, Jack Roush promised to donate $100 to a relief charity for each lap led by his cars, which totalled up to 45 laps or $4500 (19 laps by Carl Edwards and 26 by Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.) Of trivia note, this was Stenhouse's breakout race due to the 26 laps he led.
Some articles you can find on the NASCAR website show an outpouring of support in the NASCAR community for Denny Hamlin following the crash at Auto Club that sidelined him for five races.
2002 Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono: On literally the first lap of the race, Steve Park was struck by Rusty Wallace on the Long Pond straightaway. Park was sent into Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and both cars smashed hard into an old highway guardrail barrier. Earnhardt, Jr.'s hit was head on, and damage was mostly limited to the front part of his car. But Park hit at an angle and his car flipped over multiple times, coming to rest upside down. The heartwarming part is that Earnhardt, Jr. climbed out of his car and immediately rushed over to check on teammate Park to make sure that he was okay, and walked with him to the ambulance to take the mandatory ride to the infield care center.
Jason Leffler's death in a Sprint car race was tragic. The tribute that was given the following weekend after it happened, at Michigan, was that Denny Hamlin's car was repainted to utilize the paint scheme Leffler had used driving the #11 in 2005 before Hamlin had taken over the ride.
There have also been several efforts to raise money for Jason's family, particularly his son Charlie Dean, for whom a trust fund has been set up. Among drivers contributing to this include Kasey Kahne, who is helping set up a special merchandising line with the profits specifically earmarked for the fund. In July, a special online auction was set up by The NASCAR Foundation to help raise more funds.
At Indianapolis in late July, Justin Allgaier, a Nationwide Series driver for Turner-Scott Motorsports, drove a special memorial scheme for Leffler. Included on the doorpost was the car number (38) and sponsor (Great Clips, currently the regular sponsor for the JR Motorsports #5, a multi-driver effort) that Leffler drove to victory at the nearby O'Reilly Raceway Park (now Lucas Oil Raceway) in 2007, which was both his last NASCAR national series victory, and the first win for Toyota in the Nationwide Series. Turner-Scott actually provided Leffler with his last full-time ride in NASCAR, in 2011 after acquiring Braun Racing, with whom Leffler won the above-mentioned race.
At the July 2013 race at New Hampshire, TNT aired a segment on Martin Truex, Jr. and what he did in the week between it and the previous week's race at Daytona. One of the things he did was visit a children's hospital, where one child (who collects toy stock cars) asked him if he had any Dale Earnhardt, Jr. cars on him (prompting some laughter all around), a reference to how Truex and Earnhardt were roommates and were Sprint Cup teammates for a time. Then, at the end of that segment, Larry McReynolds showed that TNT had the boy covered — with three Sprint Cup models holding a box containing a toy of the #88 car.
The race itself had a pretty heartwarming finish, as Brian Vickers won in the Sprint Cup Series for the first time since blood clots forced him to sit out most of 2010 and was only a part-timer in the series for 2013. Vickers getting out of his car and high fiving fans who walked over to the fence to congratulate him sealed the deal.
The absence of Tony Stewart from Watkins Glen because of a broken leg from a Sprint car accident invoked this feeling as questions were raised as to whether Stewart should still compete in Sprint cars when he has Sprint Cup obligations. Many drivers defended Stewart, like Kasey Kahne. Speculation also circulated as to who would fill in for Stewart's #14 over the races where Stewart is out. Max Papis filled in at Watkins Glen, but many speculated that Regan Smith or Kyle Larson would come over from the Nationwide Series and fill in. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., for whom Smith drives in the Nationwide Series, vouched for Smith, in no part likely because Smith had driven Junior's #88 Chevrolet in October 2012 when Junior got a concussion at Talladega and had to miss two races as a result.
And who did they choose? None other than Mark Martin, and the way that happened was heartwarming in and of itself. Stewart and Martin have had profound mutual respect for one another ever since the 2002 season when both were contenders for the Cup, with Stewart beating Martin to the title, so Martin wanted to do it. And on every single level — the Toyota owners, Michael Waltrip Racing, and on — immediately gave him the green light to do so.
The 2013 Brickyard 400 saw Indiana native Ryan Newman fulfilled his dream by not only winning the pole, but also winning the race at his home track. Made even sweeter by the fact that his father was acting as one of his spotters.
Likewise, there's a similar reaction to both of Tony Stewart's wins at the Brickyard 400. Stewart is also an Indiana native, from Columbus, Indiana, about an hour southeast of Indy Motor Speedway.
2013 saw Furniture Row Racing, a satellite one-car team of RCR based out of Denver, Colorado, make the Chase with Kurt Busch.
After Martin Truex, Jr. lost just about everything (his Chase berth, his sponsor, and his ride) in the aftermath of the 2013 Federated Auto Parts 400 (see Scandalgate on the main page for details), the NASCAR nation was eager to see something finally go his way. He got it; a multi-year deal with the aforementioned Furniture Row Racing, and not just for him; his entire team is transferring to the #78 (save for crew chief Chad Johnston, who signed to crew chief for Tony Stewart), since they had also been displaced by the relegation of the #56 to R&D (and with pit stops being Kurt Busch's Achilles' Heel throughout the year, it comes as especially welcome news). Virtually the entire NASCAR nation cheered him and his team on when this happened.