Amy Henderson · Wednesday February 19, 2014
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.
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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