The Frontstretch: The Frontstretch Five: Ways NASCAR Might Be Different If Dale Earnhardt Was Here by Amy Henderson -- Wednesday February 19, 2014

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Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. In the latest edition, Amy takes a look back at the crash that took one of the sport’s biggest stars… and how the sport might be different if that moment in time had never happened.

1. DEI would be among the sport’s elite teams

Remember, this is simply a list of what might have been. We can never know for sure, of course. But we can speculate based on the way things were in the sport on February 18, 2001, and on how they have changed afterward. Dale Earnhardt, Inc. was just coming into its own as a race team in 2001. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was the heir apparent, coming off a strong rookie season; Steve Park was a rising star, winning his first Cup race the previous year; and Michael Waltrip was a journeyman being given what might have been his last, best chance. Waltrip won that day for the first time in his 462-race career, showing that, at least on a plate track, he could run with the best in decent equipment. Park won the very next week at Rockingham, then held steady in the top 10 in points until he was injured later that year at Darlington (and it’s also entirely likely that Earnhardt would have handled his subsequent comeback differently as well, forever altering both Park’s and Kenny Wallace’s careers for the better). Earnhardt, Jr., meanwhile had two points wins in his impressive rookie season, and would win three more in 2001. This was clearly a team on the upswing, and for Earnhardt, everything was going as planned.

Now, the stunning race shop once known as “the Garage Mahal” is closed, with just a museum to remind fans of what had once happened inside its doors. Earnhardt’s widow, Teresa, sold her remaining shares in Earnhardt Ganassi Racing to Chip Ganassi last offseason and, in 2014, the last vestiges of a team on the brink are gone.

It didn’t have to happen. It was no secret that Earnhardt’s intent was for his four children to inherit his team one day, with the ones who wanted to working with the day-to-day operations. Earnhardt, Jr. was to be the organization’s marquee driver. Teresa didn’t agree, and the empire is gone. But it’s likely that with the Earnhardt name behind it, DEI would have become a powerhouse in the sport, and a rival to Hendrick, Gibbs, Roush and even Childress.

There was a day when everyone in Mooresville knew when a DEI car won because there would be a checkered flag on the pole outside the race shop. It was something special… and it could have been something great.

2. Dale Junior…Champion

There are fans who would scoff at the notion today, but Earnhardt, Jr. was coming off one of the best rookie seasons in years when 2001 began, and he would go on to win three more races that same year. He entered the Sprint Cup series on the strength of back-to-back series titles in the then-Busch Series, beating future Cup champ Matt Kenseth both times in the days before the Cup drivers were winning most of the races. He won the Winston as a rookie, beating a future Hall of Famer to the line. His stock was rising, and he was surrounded by nothing but optimism and hope.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has won only one race in five years, but could he have been a champion had his father not passed?

That’s what changed after February 18, 2001. As time went on, DEI became a team with direction, and the results suffered. Earnhardt, Jr. didn’t have the faith of the front office, and it seemed as though he lost his faith in himself along the line. Only recently has he recovered his confidence and his fire to win. Those qualities seemed to be missing for Junior in his final years at DEI and he had to find them again at Hendrick Motorsports before he could think of being a contender again. Along the way was a generation of race cars he never learned to finesse. Now, staring down his 40th birthday, Junior has the desire back…but it could be too late. And that’s a shame. He was good enough, once upon a time.

3. No Chase

One thing about Dale Earnhardt: he was never afraid to voice his opinion to NASCAR on a variety of issues, and he was one of only a few drivers the bigwigs actually listened to. While there is no guarantee that Brian France would have listened even to the influential Earnhardt, there is that possibility. Had the changes France has made been ones Earnhardt opposed, it isn’t out of the realm to think they might never have been implemented. That includes the Chase, but also the top-35 rule that reigned in qualifying for many years, changes to the race cars themselves, and schedule changes. The drivers’ voice seemingly died with Earnhardt, and perhaps the fans’ voice as well.

Of course, it’s also possible that Earnhardt would have embraced the Chase system, and then, perhaps, so might have many longtime fans. And had that happened, NASCAR might not have had to make any other changes to try and draw new fans to replace them. Instead, the Chase looked like it was created for a new generation of drivers and fans, and the old ones were no longer valued. Could one man’s opinion really have changed all that? It’s an intriguing question.

4. Three-time, not Four-time

At the end of 2000, Bobby Labonte was writing his name in the history books, but Dale Earnhardt was dogging him, looking for the opportunity to capitalize on any mistakes. Labonte didn’t make any and would go on to win the title, but Earnhardt entered 2001 as a title favorite coming off of his strongest season in years, following back surgery and rehab that seemed to rejuvenate him. Earnhardt opened 2001 with a strong run in the Daytona 500, until the final lap unfolded and the crash that would take his life happened as his drivers finished 1-2 in fairytale fashion.

Could the driver, who would have turned 50 years old later that spring, have made one last title run? Well, yes. It’s impossible to say definitively that he would have won, but not to say he had a chance. And with that possibility comes the possibility that Earnhardt could have ultimately dethroned Jeff Gordon, the very driver who ended Earnhardt’s reign in the 1990’s. The ripple effect of that would still be felt in the sport, because we would not be talking about Jimmie Johnson joining Earnhardt and Richard Petty in NASCAR immortality. Instead, he’d still simply be chasing Earnhardt.

5. Austin Dillon in the 3, without controversy

The reality here is that the No. 3 car almost certainly ended up in the same hands it would have had Earnhardt survived that day. Earnhardt and Richard Childress had already discussed what would happen to the car when he stepped down, and he almost certainly would have by now. They agreed that it should go to a family member of either Earnhardt or Childress, and Earnhardt, Jr. would most likely still be driving for DEI and getting ready to take the reins at that company. Kerry Earnhardt was a journeyman driver and was never being prepped for the ride. That leaves Childress’ son-in-law, Mike Dillon, who was also a journeyman racer at the time, or his young sons, Austin and Ty. Sure, there might have been a driver in the seat as a stopgap in the interim between Earnhardt’s retirement and Dillon’s taking over, but ultimately, Dillon in the seat was the most likely scenario all along.

The difference is that if Earnhardt was still alive, the talk of retiring the number or questioning who was good enough to drive his car wouldn’t be happening. Earnhardt would have had no reason to let it happen, and probably would have laughed the notion off with Childress over coffee. It’s easy to understand fans’ sentiment regarding the No. 3 car, but in the end, this is what Earnhardt and Childress had agreed on.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
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Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
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Bad Wolf
02/19/2014 02:46 AM

Dale Earnhardt would not have embraced or endorsed the “Chase”. Of this I am certain.

02/19/2014 08:06 AM

I agree with Bad Wolf, if Dale was alive, the idiot chase wouldn’t have happened and certainly this crapshoot/demolition derby 1 race finale style wouldn’t be happening!

I wasn’t a Dale Earnhardt fan since if you were a Gordon fan, we all had too much fun with the rivalry. However, I cried when he was lost. I remember watching the 2001 banquet when they did the tributes to Dale and seeing Richard’s grief written on his face. I have no doubt that Richard & Dale had talked about the future and that Dale would trust his decision. I wish Austin the best in driving the 3.

02/19/2014 08:14 AM

Amy, you said DEI became a team with direction when Theresa took over. I think you mean “without” direction.

I don’t think Brian France would ever have listened to Dale. Brian is too impressed with himself for that.

02/19/2014 01:50 PM

Dale would’ve had edged out Gordon in 2001. Think about how good Harvick did as a 25 year old rookie with no Cup experience. Imagine if it were Dale in that car.

I think Brian France would still bring in the Chase, thus Earnhardt would retire after 2003.

02/19/2014 02:48 PM

I it would have been interesting to see if Brain Fart would have even taken over if Earnhardt was still alive. Pretty sure some of the stupid decisions would not have taken place though since ratings and attendance issues may not have materialized in the first place until 2008 when the economy went to hell.
Also, Gordon may not have even been 3 time if Davey Allison had not died at Talladega landing his helicopter. So that one particular point actually has an issue 7 1/2 years before that. It would have been interesting to see if DEI and RCR would have merged at some point and gotten to 5 or 6 cars with one team.
How about adding would Hendrick be as successful with the loss of Earnhardt? Would Chevy been more supportive of DEI and RCR vs Hendrick? If true then the talk of chasing anyone these past few years with the 48 team winning 6 goes down the tubes as well since Hendrick likely would not have been winning as much and Chevy likely would have provided more support to DEI.
Of course this is all speculation but based on what was known at the time. These are likely or not far fetched scenarios.

Tommy T.
02/19/2014 03:10 PM

Just out of curiosity, what business decisions of NASCAR’s was Earnhardt influencing before his untimely death that make some believe he would have had some kind of veto authority over establishing the Chase?

02/19/2014 03:39 PM

Tommy T, Earnhardt had the ear of Bill France Sr and Jr and was more than willing to make his opinions known and the other drivers knew he would do that. I don’t know about any specific business decisions, but having a successful driver like Big E speak up allowed for open discussion. Under the Brian France era, drivers are fined for making any comments at all and they all just make happy talk which also negates their credibility IMO. I understand why they do it, but it doesn’t mean I have to believe it. Remembering Dale and the way he was, it might have been that Brainless would never have taken over, but as has been pointed out, it is all speculation.

Tommy T.
02/19/2014 07:49 PM

Thanks GinaV24 – Agreed that Earnhardt was the unofficial spokesperson for the drivers. Admittedly though, I can’t think of one particular issue that he changed NASCAR’s mind on (not to say there weren’t.) However, I think as the legend grows some folks are overshooting if they believe we would not have had the Chase had Dale lived. I’m reasonably certain Dale’s influence did not extend to the marketing of NASCAR.

02/19/2014 10:12 PM

I agree with most of your points but I’m not convinced he would have won another title.

One thing you missed. I agree that Dale had the ear of NASCAR management. He resisted the safety measures that were put upon him at the time and would have vehemently opposed the HANS device. We would have several more deaths if he had been spared.

02/20/2014 07:42 AM

I remember a Daytona race that big E threw a fit with the way the cars were racing and couldnt pass. The next plate race they changed em. They did listen to Dale, no doubt!

02/20/2014 10:24 AM

I would have to believe Dale Jr would not have joined Hendrick if his dad were still alive.

I too, don’t quite understand how big Dale would have so much influence. Nascar for years beat to their own drum regardless of any one driver. I think his legend is far bigger than his actual pull with Nascar.

02/21/2014 02:47 PM

This article could have been written about Richie Evans too and the modified division. Richie was consulted all the time on any changes to the division. For him, if it was good for the modifieds it was good for him, even if the rules hurt his chances of winning. If you don’t believe me, read his book. It’s REALLY good.

I’ve said it before. Look at what has happened to NASCAR since Dale died and the modified division since Richie died. Brian has “helped” NASCAR deteriorate faster.


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

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Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.