Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 17, 2011

Remembering Senior, And Still Hoping For Junior

Ten years ago, in the final turn of the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt was running third, leading a pack of cars chasing Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., both of whom were driving for Earnhardt’s DEI. Although a car owner through Dale Earnhardt, Inc., as a driver Earnhardt continued to race in the black #3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.

That 500 was Earnhardt’s 677th race in NASCAR’s premiere stock car series. In his 27th year behind the wheel, he had recorded 76 wins and 428 top ten finishes. His 7 Winston Cup championships tied him with Richard Petty for the most in NASCAR history. But at age 49, with his last championship seven years distant in his rearview mirror, “The Intimidator” was considered by many to be entering the latter stages of his driving career.

It’s not at all clear that Earnhardt shared that opinion. His last victory had come the previous October, when he stormed through the final five laps of the Winston 500 at Talladega in his trademark aggressive style, making up a phenomenal 17 places to take the checkered flag. Now at Daytona, on lap 85, Earnhardt made contact with rookie Kurt Busch as the two raced side by side out of turn four. Both cars managed to stay on the track, and as Earnhardt accelerated to 185 MPH down the front stretch he made an obscene gesture to Busch, causing the television announcer to comment that Earnhardt was just saying, “Kurt, you’re number one.” But after a dramatic crash on lap 173 wiped out the leaders, Earnhardt found himself in third with two of his own cars in front of him. That was the point at which he appeared to make the fateful decision to act more as the owner of DEI than as a driver for RCR.

Through the final circuits of the 200-lap race, Earnhardt defended Waltrip and Junior rather than pursue them. He repeatedly blocked attempts by other drivers, in particular Sterling Marlin, to get by him and chase down the two leaders.

On the race’s final lap, as Waltrip in his very first race for DEI headed for victory, Earnhardt raced three wide into Daytona’s final two turns; Marlin’s Dodge inside him and Ken Schrader’s Pontiac to his outside. Suddenly the #3 edged a couple of feet down the track. Earnhardt’s left rear quarter panel appeared to make ever so slight contact with Marlin’s front bumper. It was just enough to cause Earnhardt’s car to get loose, and the Chevy slid first down and then up the turn’s 31 degree banking. For a moment, for one last hopeful moment, it appeared that Earnhardt might either not hit the wall, or might slide into it broadside. But then, in far less time than it takes to describe, it all went wrong. Schrader’s #36 rammed into the right side of the #3 just behind the door, snapping the car around. At 160 MPH, Earnhardt’s car plowed nose first into the wall. At a press conference several hours later, NASCAR President Mike Helton made the dreaded announcement, telling the sport and its fans that “after the accident in turn 4 at the end of the Daytona 500, uh, we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”

This week, NASCAR returns to the Daytona International Speedway for the 2011 running of the Great American Race. The 10th anniversary of the Earnhardt tragedy has led to numerous remembrances and considerable discussion over how the sport has changed in the last decade. For starters, racing has clearly gotten safer. From the design of the cars, to mandated safety equipment worn by all drivers, to the installation of SAFER barrier walls designed to absorb impact at every NASCAR track; it is not simply good luck that Earnhardt remains the last driver killed in an accident in any of NASCAR’s top three divisions.

But while no one could be unhappy about that fact, many longtime racing fans argue that in the decade since Earnhardt’s death the sport has become corporate and colorless. They point to declining track attendance and television ratings as proof of the validity of their complaints.

It’s true that none of the current drivers have claimed fans’ loyalties in the way that Earnhardt or Petty, or the Allison’s or Labonte’s did in another era. Jimmie Johnson is a fantastic driver who has dominated the sport in recent years, winning five consecutive championships; something neither Petty nor Earnhardt ever did. While JJ has plenty of loyal fans, the raw passion that was part of the “old” NASCAR does seem to be lacking. This may be so in part because while various drivers are generally liked or disliked, there aren’t any obvious bitter rivalries among the current teams. In short, it isn’t as personal as it used to be.

On the other hand, if the NASCAR flame doesn’t burn quite as hot, it does burn in a lot more places. The sport has become truly national in scope, acquiring fans in all regions of the country. And not withstanding the recent downturn, which is likely as much a reflection of general economic conditions as it is an indication of anything fundamentally wrong with NASCAR, that broadening of appeal has been money in the bank. In 2000, the top ten drivers collected on average a bit less than $3.5 million in winnings. Last year the average was nearly $6 million, an increase nearly three times the rate of inflation over the decade. NASCAR may have some issues, and long-time fans of any sport will always be around to lament how much better things used to be, but the sport is hardly in crisis.

The one thing that would give NASCAR a sure boost would be sustained success by its most popular driver. That of course is Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who crossed Daytona’s finish line in second place a decade ago, only to have to jump out of his car and go running back to the scene of his father’s fatal crash. Partly because of a transfer of allegiance from Dale Senior’s fans, and partly because he attracted a new generation of young people to racing, Junior is far and away the best-liked driver in the sport. What he’s not, unfortunately, is particularly successful. Junior has 18 victories overall, but he’s won just 3 times in the past 6 years, and not at all since June, 2008.

When he signed on to drive for powerful Hendrick Motorsports three years ago, fans thought that Junior would at last have the engineering and crew resources to become a consistent winner. Obviously that hasn’t happened yet. Over the winter Rick Hendrick announced a shuffling of crews and a reallocation of garage space among his four teams. Junior’s #88 car will now be built and housed in the same shop as Jimmie Johnson’s #48; and starting this week his crew chief will be Steve Letarte, who has headed Jeff Gordon’s crew for the past 5 years. Johnson and Gordon have nine championships and 135 Sprint Cup wins between them. Rick Hendrick is obviously hoping that some of the magic will rub off on Junior. If it does, then a young man known so far mostly as his father’s son will at last come into his own. Everyone associated with NASCAR will be a winner; and somewhere, a ghost will be proud.

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