Race Weekend Central

Professor of Speed: Where Have All the NASCAR Legends Gone?

So I’m in the checkout line at my local grocery store. It’s the day before a major national holiday and the place is teeming with rushed shoppers. I looked over the pile of goods on the conveyor belt and matched it against my list when I noticed a smiling Dale Earnhardt Jr. near the end of the line. If I lived in Mooresville, N.C. it would not be a wholly unusual event. Given that I was shopping at a grocery store just outside Traverse City, Mich. that caused me to stop and take notice.

I quickly realized that I was not (on that day, at least) losing my mind. Junior’s grinning face was plastered across the cover of a TV Guide magazine. Text across the cover wondered if 2014 was, perhaps, the year when Junior might finally win his first Sprint Cup championship. One can only speculate as to the odds of such an outcome (they look pretty good given Brian France’s new-and-improved “Race for a place in the Chase” format), but there Junior was: grinning at the queue of hurried shoppers from over his right shoulder. If it’s Fourth of July weekend, it must be Daytona.

As my mind mulled over the notion that a return to Daytona just might mean a return to victory lane for NASCAR’s perpetually most popular driver, another sight caught my attention. This one was a few checkout lines away from where I stood scanning my credit card and answering the all-important question of “paper or plastic?” What I saw was a flashback of sorts.

A few checkout lines away, there stood an older man wearing a Dale Earnhardt Sr. t-shirt. It was one of those familiar black with red and white lettering shirts that used to be seen up and down souvenir row at every then-Winston Cup Series stop on the tour. The back featured The Intimidator’s autograph in white script and just below that was a line that said “7-time NASCAR champion” in red. It was worn by a man who appeared to be in his mid-to-late 60s, although physical age is difficult to judge around these parts given the severity of our winters.

Want an example? Snowfall for last winter measured a collective total of 22 feet across Leelanau County. Dealing with that much over nearly six months’ time is enough to make even the strongest back ache. That said, whenever I try to gauge age, I usually undershoot the target by half a decade or so.

Anyway, here’s this older man wearing a memento celebrating an accomplishment that seems – by 2014 standards, at least – to be little short of ancient history. Given that Jimmie Johnson will very likely etch his name into the record book alongside those of Dale Sr. and “King Richard” Petty, it got me wondering if the addition of a fairly young gun like Johnson will further dilute the successes of legendary drivers who were part of NASCAR’s inaugural Hall of Fame induction class?

Let’s face it: Jimmie Johnson has made winning six Sprint Cup titles looks pretty simple. Read any article about Jimmie and you will learn all the particulars about how long he’s been racing and how well he’s done in such a relatively short period of time; the statistics speak volumes for themselves. Toss in the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Cup championship countdown clock (Will it be 2014? Why hasn’t it been sooner?), and all of a sudden you see a limited perspective on big names in the sport.

I guess one contemporary big name is that of Jeff Gordon. The four-time Sprint Cup champion seems to be entering old-timer territory. When Carl Edwards told the media after his victory at Sonoma that he grew up watching Gordon race there on television, I wondered if Edwards wasn’t making a deliberate joke aimed at Jeff and his foray into middle agedom. Gordon will most certainly be regarded as a legendary driver, but can such a designation be valid when such a relatively-young driver is still racing each week? If Gordon is old at the age of 42, then I must be dead.

Hence my surprise when Aric Almirola won last Saturday/Sunday’s running of the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. My surprise had nothing to do with the attention given to Almirola’s victory; you don’t finish third at Bristol and not show potential for eventually winding up in victory lane. What caught my eye was emphasis put on the fact that the No. 43 of Richard Petty Motorsports had not won a race since 1999, when John Andretti finished first at Martinsville.

The car, in this regard, was more legendary than the driver behind the wheel. How long will it be until we see another famed combination of driver and car once again?

Surely this status is emerging for Jeff Gordon and the No. 24, as it is for Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48. Dale Jr. seemed headed for such notoriety until he went from the number eight to his current number of 88. While several of these combos may not ever match the mainstream acclaim of Earnhardt and the No. 3 or of Petty and the No. 43, it’s safe to say that future residents of NASCAR Nation will have their own memorable match-ups to fondly remember.

One of the most famous quotations in movie history comes from the closing scenes of The Man who Shot Liberty Valance when newspaper publisher Maxwell Scott explains “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” How long will it be until we again acknowledge the creation of another actual and authentic NASCAR legend? Will it come with Johnson’s seventh Sprint Cup title? Will it come from Dale Jr. winning his first? Will it be when senior citizen Jeff Gordon finally hangs up his helmet, or will it be when Danica Patrick finally wins her first Sprint Cup race?

Maybe having the No. 43 back in victory lane at Daytona is a subtle reminder of Maxwell Scott’s sage advice. When the opportunity presents itself, always remind folks of the legend. Legends mean more than facts because that’s how we tend to generalize our memories of the past, and maybe that’s the safest way to handle such things.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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