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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

'01 Til Now, With Dale Earnhardt...

This week marks 12 years since the 2001 Daytona 500 which ended in the tragic death of NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt.  In the wake of Earnhardt's death, NASCAR embarked on the largest safety renovation in its history, resulting in the safety of the sport in 2013.  After NASCAR celebrated the coming Daytona 500 with a remebrance of Dale Earnhardt, one must think about what might have been.

How would the sport have progressed in the past 12 years had Earnhardt not died?  Would safety measures have been made and what other differences would their be?  Lets take a look back at how the past 12 years would have been with Dale Earnhardt around.

Imagine the victory lane celebration February 18, 2001 when Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Dale Earnhardt finished 1, 2, 3.  Earnhardt now has an established NASCAR Cup Series team, capable of winning and competing each week.  He just finished second in the points in 2000 and is on the upswing again in his career.  After winning a couple races in 2001 he finishes a close second to Jeff Gordon in the 2001 Cup Championship.

In the next couple of years, driver injuries and another driver death add to the recent deaths of Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty to force NASCAR into further safety measures.  Only a handful of drivers still use open-faced helmets, but all drivers use some form of head and neck restraining device.  NASCAR is also developing safety measure in the cars to absorb more force on impact.

After finishing 5th in the 2002 Cup Series Championship points, Dale Earnhardt decides to retire after the 2003 season.  Dale Jr. finished the 2002 season 3rd in points propelling him to a Championship challenge in 2003.  New talk by NASCAR about a wider, taller, safer car with identical front ends for all manufacturers is met by contention from NASCAR veterans.  NASCAR adapts the front ends to incorporate more brand identity.

In 2004 Dale Earnhardt joins Darrell Waltrip in the broadcasting booth for a few races to add commentary, but decides against a long term contract citing too much hot air in the booth coming from Waltrip as a reason to stay on pit road.  With late season coaching from his father, Dale Jr. wins the 2004 Championship, giving DEI its first Championship and the Earnhardt family its eighth. 

Over the next few years NASCAR sees many changes amongst teams.  There is an addition of a 4th DEI team, as Earnhardt has recruited Tony Stewart away from Joe Gibbs Racing, making the DEI stable every bit as strong as NASCAR powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports.  Hendrick, losing hardheaded driver Kyle Busch to JGR, adds newcomer Juan Pablo Montoya from F1 in a single car partnership with Chip Ganassi and adds Mark Martin from Jack Roush's stable, outbidding startup owner Ginn Racing.

Heading into the current decade, NASCAR has now begun to eclipse the NFL in total market share, and continues to expand into new markets, despite a steep downturn in the economy.  However, fans still appreciate NASCAR's roots, such as its annual Labor Day weekend at the Southern 500 at Darlington, South Carolina.

No, that is not how things turned out, and probably light years from how it may have happened, but one could definitely see how the sport would have been different had the '01 500 ended differently.  Dale Earnhardt was a huge part of the sport's success, not always perfect, but always a part of the conversation.  No doubt NASCAR would be different, but one can only speculate in what ways.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this wonder how long he would have kept racing.

Richard Petersen said...

I agree with most of this. I do think if Dale Earnhardt were still around, D.E.I. would be just as, if not, better than Hendrick Motorsports. I always wanted Dale Jr, to stay with D.E.I. too anyways, to me, he has never seemed like a good fit for Hendrick Motorsports. I don't know what other people are seeing that I'm not. But what I am seeing, I am seeing a guy with just 2 wins in his whole outing with Hendrick in 5 years. Pretty lousy if you ask me. Tony Stewart to D.E.I.? Now, that would have been a sight to see there. Though, Tony Stewart has did some races with the No. 8 and D.E.I. So that could have worked.

Kyle said...

The world of Nascar would definitely be different if Earnhardt was still around.

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