It’s been an interesting summer for a race fan. The world tilted on its axis when Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he was leaving Dale Earnhardt Incorporated and practically jumped out of orbit and headed for the Sun when he announced he was going to Hendrick Motorsports; a decision that for many fans was akin to Luke Skywalker saying, “Sure, Darth-I mean Dad, I’ll join the dark side. The good guys aren’t really much fun.” In some respects the point standings look like they did 10 years ago, with Jeff Gordon running away with the lead. The cast of characters in the rest of the top 10 has changed significantly; only Jeff Burton was even in the Nextel Cup Series then.
It was that summer of 1997 when I saw my first Winston Cup (now Nextel Cup) race. I knew who many of the drivers were – I’d seen them on television before, of course. But until that day, I didn’t understand. It wasn’t about going fast as much as stalking the next car like prey and then making a carefully executed pass. It was the music of those motors and the smell of leaded fuel (I admit I do miss that) and the ballet of the pit crews. I got to looking at that season and the drivers who were NASCAR’s best. Here’s a look at the top 10 then, and where today’s top 10 were in the summer of ’97.
In 1997, Gordon won his second Cup championship. He went on to win two more in 1998 and 2001. He’s looking to win number five this year. He has divorced and remarried, and welcomed his first child this year. For Gordon, as for me, these 10 years have been quite a ride.
Dale Jarrett finished second in points, a harbinger of things to come as “DJ” would win his own Cup title in 1999. At the end of 2006, Jarrett left a struggling Robert Yates Racing team to join a fledgling operation with the new Toyota racecar. He has struggled, but still has the walk of a champion. Third-place Mark Martin announced his retirement in 2004, yet is still racing, although this year’s partial schedule eliminates Martin from a title hunt, keeping his title of the best driver never to win it all. Jack Roush’s next big thing, Burton, finished fourth in Cup points, a spot he holds today heading to Pocono. Burton has earned the reputation of a smart, perceptive racer, and he could just prove to be Richard Childress’ next big thing. Fifth place in 1997 belonged to Dale Earnhardt, who was also my first racing hero. Earnhardt perished in 2001 racing at Daytona, but both his team and his son carry his banner proudly. Still, racing will never be the same.
Sixth and seventh place money went home with two brothers; two-time champion Terry Labonte, now semi-retired save the occasional race, and brother Bobby, who would win a title of his own in 2000 before moving on to Petty Enterprises when personal ties became more important than monetary ones. Awesome Bill Elliott finished eighth, and the 1988 Cup champion is driving a ride with as storied a history as his own. Rusty Wallace finished ninth 10 years ago, and is now retired, broadcasting Cup races for ESPN and helping his son Steve Wallace build his own racing career. Ken Schrader finished 10th, the last of his eight top-10 seasons. Schrader’s still racing as much as ever, though it’s mostly on dirt these days after he gave up the seat in the No. 21 to Elliott earlier in the season.
The whole roadmap of racing has changed drastically in 10 years (figuratively of course, they DO still go fast, turn left). Only Gordon and Burton are in the top 10 from that group (ironically in the same positions where they finished the 1997 season) the rest have changed dramatically in 10 seasons. Most were not even racing in NASCAR’s top ranks. Denny Hamlin, currently second, was enjoying his first season in stock cars, racing mini-stocks, and the 16-year-old Hamlin was the youngest champion ever at Langley Speedway. Third-place Matt Kenseth was called on by old rival-turned-car owner (and current crew chief Robbie Reiser) to fill in for Reiser’s injured Busch Series driver Tim Bender. Kenseth has since won Rookie of the Year honors in the Cup series and is the 2003 Cup champion. Tony Stewart is currently fifth in Cup points, coming off back-to-back-wins, but in 1997, he was busy with another pursuit-namely winning the IRL championship.
Carl Edwards hadn’t yet perfected his winning backflip in 1997. The current sixth-place driver was learning the ropes of dirt racing on the advice of cousin Schrader at the age of 17. Kevin Harvick was just beginning his NASCAR career in the West Series, and would win that series title one year later. Harvick is the reigning Busch Series champion today in addition to his seventh-place standing in the Cup ranks. Eighth-place Kyle Busch is one of the youngest drivers in the Nextel Cup Series, and 10 years ago, the 12-year-old Busch was too young to race a full-sized car. Reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson wasn’t even driving in circles in 1997; the 21-year-old Californian was too busy racing off-road trucks for Stan and Randy Herzog, who would later field Johnson’s ASA and Busch Series cars. Johnson also worked as a field reporter for ESPN at the time. Clint Bowyer occupies 10th place in the Nextel Cup standings this year, but in 1997, the 18-year-old Bowyer was racing street stocks at Thunderhill Speedway in Mayetta, Kan.
The faces have changed in the 10 years since I attended my first live race, but the drive has not. The desire is the same, and so is the music of the motors. But oh, what a ride it has been.