February 18th will mark the five-year anniversary of the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt.
The last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 will be forever embossed in my brain. Seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt is in third place, trailing his long-time pal and newly hired employee Michael Waltrip, and his beloved son, his namesake. Knowing that a win was a long-shot, Earnhardt played defensive as he put the blocks on fellow-veteran Sterling Marlin and a pack of cars behind him. Coming into turn four, Earnhardt would block Marlin for the final time. What appeared to be an innocent tap turned into a heart-breaking, sport-altering crash.
Though the impact from the wreck seemed innocuous at first, the unsettled arrival of the safety crew, the silence and confusion in the grandstands, the panic in Darrell Waltrip’s voice, Dale Earnhardt Jr’s sudden sprint to the scene of the accident, the shock in Ken Schrader’s eyes during his demoralizing interview, and of course, the air-lifting to the hospital brought fear to every race fan in the universe.
As prayers were whispered and fingers were crossed, it was only a matter of time before we heard the pronouncement of the tragic passing of one of the greatest drivers the motor sports world has ever witnessed. February 18th, 2001 will go down as the darkest day in motor sports history.
After Earnhardt’s tragic passing, safety immediately became a widespread issue. Since then, precautionary measures such as the mandating of the HANS Device and the implementation of the safer barriers on several of the NASCAR circuit’s tracks have eased the minds of drivers and fans. NASCAR has taken safety a step further as they plan on phasing in the Car Of Tomorrow starting in 2007. This new prototype is significantly bigger and boxier than the cars they drive today, which gives the drivers more room in the cockpit. Of course they’ve made misjudgments along the way (levigating the surface at LMS), but they have continued to keep safety a priority.
The popularity of Earnhardt’s son has grown increasingly since 2001. Dale Earnhardt Jr hats and shirts dominate the grandstands. Jeff Gordon became the sports most accomplished driver and the driver that everyone loves to hate. Tony Stewart became driver who possessed that intimidating factor that only Earnhardt displayed.
The sport became flooded with hot-heads who seemed to yearn for controversy. Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Robby Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson have all played the role of the villain.
The faces of the NASCAR elite have radically changed since 2001. Former rivals of Earnhardt such as Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, and Ricky Rudd have retired from full-time competition. Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett, Sterling Marlin, and Ken Schrader are all on the threshold of hanging up their helmets. Drivers in their twenties (young guns) began to dominate the sport in 2002 and it has continued to be the trend in NASCAR. In 2001, the names Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, and Kasey Kahne were completely immaterial to most race fans. The marketability of a race-car driver became of the utmost importance. Teenagers are being signed to developmental contracts with big-time car owners. The Drive for Diversity has been in full effect.
Tradition has been replaced by dollar signs, especially after Brian France, the third generation of the France family, assumed the role of top dog in NASCAR. The traditional way of determining the champion has been declared history and replaced by the playoff style format called The Chase For The Championship. The North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham has been deleted from the NASCAR schedule and Darlington Raceway lost it’s long-established Labor Day date to the California Speedway.
NASCAR has welcomed Toyota into the family of manufacturers, as they’ll make their stock car debut in 2007. Could you imagine a Toyota Camry in the 1980’s competing against the Ford Thunderbird and the Chevrolet Monte Carlo? Hardly!
What would Dale Earnhardt have to say about the past five years in NASCAR? How would he have effected some decisions that were made? We’ll never know.
If the tragic accident at Daytona in 2001 never took place, how would Dale Earnhardt’s career played out.
Kevin Harvick became Earnhardt’s replacement after the accident. In his rookie year, Harvick enjoyed instantaneous success by winning in only his third career start. After the championship run in 2000, Earnhardt and company were ready to contend for the record-breaking eighth championship. Harvick won twice in 2001 and finished 8th in the standings. Imagine if there was over 30 years of experience behind the wheel of the GM Goodwrench Chevy that year. That team was about as good as they ever were in 2001, and Harvick did a great job as a rookie, but I’m convinced that 2001 was Earnhardt’s year in which he would ultimately become the all-time championship leader.
In 2002, RCR fell on hard times as the three teams suffered immensely. The turbulent year was manifest when Jeff Green’s 17th spot in the final standings was RCR’s highest. Early that year, Harvick was parked for a race due to his antagonistic actions on and off the track. Robby Gordon ruffled several feathers throughout the year and Green was just an also-ran. The difficult year was somewhat correlated with the after effects of Earnhardt’s absence, but the cars were just flat out slow that year. Even if Earnhardt were around in 2002, RCR would have had an off-year, however, not to that extent. Earnhardt could have placed somewhere in the top ten in points and definitely would not have been sat out for a race due to any detrimental actions.
Judging by the success that Harvick and Gordon enjoyed in 2003, Earnhardt would have ended his career just as planned, on top of his game. Earnhardt would have been a player in the championship race, but not even he could have topped Matt Kenseth’s 36-race consistency.
I believe that 2003 would have been Earnhardt’s last. He would have been 52 years old and accomplished everything he desired. His retirement would have been appropriate with what took place in 2003, the final year of R.J. Reynolds’ Winston sponsorship in NASCAR, as well as the final championship race under the traditional format.
Note that this is all personal opinion of the author