2001 Season Review

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Earnhardt's Death Casts Long Shadow

The final-lap crash of Dale Earnhardt's car in the season-opening Daytona 500 took one of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series' greatest stars and changed the sport forever.

The death of Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup series champion, forced the sport's governing board to re-evaluate driver safety. Late in the season it made head-and-neck restraint systems mandatory equipment for drivers and next year it'll add "black boxes" to cars to better understand crashes.

For the fourth time in his nine Winston Cup seasons, Jeff Gordon won the series championship. Gordon moved into third place on the list of most championships, and now trails only Richard Petty and Earnhardt, who each won seven.

Gordon had six victories and won more than $6.5 million despite a season of series records for victors, first-time winners, and pole winners.

Richard Childress Racing chose Kevin Harvick for Earnhhardt's tragically vacant ride, and he responded with a top-10 finish in the final point standings-the highest finish ever for a driver who didn't start every race. Harvick also held off Kurt Busch and Casey Atwood for rookie of the year honors.

Dale Jarrett battled Gordon for the top spot throughout the summer before Gordon used his fourth career Brickyard 400 victory as a springboard to the title.

All signs were good for NASCAR's new television contracts. The deals, signed in 1999 at $400 million per year, took effect in 2001. Ratings for Winston Cup races shown on NBC and TNT in the second half of the 2001 season were up 34 percent over last year. And those same races were up 29 percent on Fox and FX.

The FedEx Championship Series has had better years.

The last-minute cancellation of the inaugural event in Ft. Worth, Texas, was a disappointment for series organizers that resulted in a multi-million dollar settlement.

Also, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks CART was one of the few bodies to hold its scheduled event the next weekend. The name of the German Open was changed to The American Memorial, but the race was marred by a horrifying accident in which two-time champion Alex Zanardi was seriously injured and needed his legs amputated.

Defending champion Gil de Ferran was kept in check for most of the season until back-to-back victories in the Rockingham 500 and the Grand Prix of Houston in the early fall propelled him to his second driver's championship.

Last year's rookie of the year, Kenny Brack, continued to excel, wining a series-best four races in 2001-good for second place in the final point standings.

In May, Brazil's Helio Castroneves became the second straight CART driver to win the Indianapolis 500.

New Zealand's Scott Dixon made a splash on the CART scene. In May the 20-year-old became the youngest driver ever to win an open-wheel racing title and held off Bruno Junquiera the rest of the year to win rookie of the year honors.

In December, CART President and CEO Joe Heitzler was removed from his position and one of the series' founders, Roger Penske, announced he's moving his team to the Indy Racing League.

Penske said he will take drivers Ferran and Castroneves with him to the IRL in 2002.

The 2001 Indy Racing League season belonged to Sam Hornish Jr.

The 22-year-old Ohio native had only eight IRL starts before the season began, but by the end of the 2001 season he had won three races, finished in the top-five in all but two of the schedule's 13 races, and totaled 503 driver's points and over $1.4 million in earnings.

Hornish's 105-point margin of victory over defending champ Buddy Lazier in the Indy Racing Northern Lights Series championship marked the widest in the series' six-year history.

The 85th Indianapolis 500 featured the largest purse in race history, surpassing $9.6 million. Brazilian driver Helio Castroneves took home the checkered flag, holding off a top-five that featured all CART series drivers.

Team Ferrari had plenty to smile about during the 2001 Formula One season.

Formula One defending champion Michael Schumacher won nine races and helped the Italian carmaker earn both the driver's and manufacturer's championships. Schumacher passed Formula One's all-time victory leader, Alain Prost, in October and finished the year with 53 career victories.

Schumacher, who also won back-to-back titles with Benetton in 1994-95, now owns four world championships.

Despite winning just one race, rookie Juan Pablo Montoya established himself as a threat to Schumacher's reign. The young Colombian Williams-BMW driver won three poles and finished second in three races. Mclaren-Mercedes driver David Coulthard finished second in the drivers championship, just ahead of Ferrari driver Rubens Barrichello. Barrichello did not win any races, but he did compile eight top-three finishes.

Two-time world champion Mika Hakkinen announced that he will take the 2002 F1 season off.

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