Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Gone in an Instant, Earnhardt’s Death Still Reverberates in NASCAR

It’s hard to believe that 10 years – an entire decade – has come and gone since the day the NASCAR world stood still. That day is etched in the minds of many race fans like it was yesterday: the blue car flashing across the line as the black one spun across the track in turn 4 and came to rest in the infield. It didn’t look that bad, really; certainly not any worse than the wrecks we saw all the time. Definitely not worse than the wild airborne ride that Tony Stewart had taken earlier that day.

But it was worse.

Dale Earnhardt, the toughest hombre in NASCAR, didn’t walk away. NASCAR’s last hero was gone before the car came to rest in the grass, before Ken Schrader was the first witness to the horrifying scene. Though Earnhardt’s memory lurks everywhere, the void he left behind has never been filled. The empire he was building has crumbled; the sport he helped shape is a mere shell of what it stood to become.

In one moment, NASCAR became a sport with no hero.

Longtime Dale Earnhardt Inc. employee Steve Hmiel said it best in the days after Earnhardt’s death: “It’s like a compass that’s lost its true North.” In that one moment, the course of NASCAR was forever altered and without Earnhardt, the sport lost a measure of direction.

No driver since Earnhardt has had the impact the Intimidator had on race fans. He was at once polarizing and uniting – you loved him or you hated him. But everyone was talking about him on Monday and the sport was booming. In those days, drivers still hit concrete walls, and on a day when NASCAR at last was back to drive away a long, cold winter, the chill winds of change blew cold and cruel, throwing the sport into a tailspin from which it has never been able to recover.

At a time when NASCAR needed a hero and a villain to move the sport into the 21st century, Earnhardt was both. As blue collar as it gets, Earnhardt represented an America that is all but gone – an America where you made your own way and if you worked hard enough, long enough, you just might make it. We were a nation that built things and Earnhardt symbolized the American Dream – factory worker-turned-magnate, a pauper who built a kingdom. He was everyman.

NASCAR doesn’t have that anymore. Blue-collar champion? We have that in Jimmie Johnson, but he’s not loved for it. Villain? Sure, there’s Kyle Busch, but the ire he draws isn’t the same. Juan Pablo Montoya drives so much like Earnhardt did sometimes that it’s scary, but it’s not the same and Montoya’s not accepted because he’s an outsider from the open-wheel ranks. Dale Earnhardt Jr. shoulders a heavy burden with his father’s legacy and he has legions of fans, but he doesn’t inspire the same excitement on the racetrack as his father did. He shouldn’t have to, either, but there it is.

Earnhardt’s influence in NASCAR went beyond the fans who, often in equal parts, cheered and booed him. He was the driver that NASCAR listened to, the one who influenced the decisions made within the sport. Ironically, Earnhardt’s influence may have played a role that fateful day: NASCAR hadn’t yet mandated head and neck restraints, something which the hard-nosed Intimidator opposed. But his clout was undeniable, and because of that, we are left to wonder about what the sport would be today if that crash could be rewound.

Would we have the Chase? The Top-35 rule? On the flip side, would there be SAFER barriers at every track and head restraints on every driver? We can only speculate and wonder. Where would Michael Waltrip be today? How about Steve Park? Kenny Wallace? Dale Junior? Lives that may have been very different took the road that was dictated to them by a loss and its aftermath.

Earnhardt was 49 years old on the day he died. It’s likely he’d be retired from driving a decade later, but the race teams he was building were meant to fill that void. While you can’t really blame his widow for not wanting to run the business on her own, it also never ended up where Earnhardt intended all along – with his children, as his legacy in the sport, meant to be there long after he was gone. Sure, his name’s on the operation, but everyone knows it’s only the name, and beyond perhaps the car manufacturer the team’s aligned with, it’s Chip Ganassi’s deal now.

There is no part of the sport that hasn’t been changed since that February day. Even its core – the racing – doesn’t look the same at many tracks. Two-time champion Stewart hadn’t made his first title run. Three future champions were barely a blip on the radar: Matt Kenseth was entering his sophomore season in 2001 and though he’d had a stellar rookie campaign, nobody thought he’d blow them all out of the water in 2003. Kurt Busch was a raw rookie with just a few Cup starts under his belt.

Johnson, perhaps the best of all in the post-Earnhardt era, had yet to make his Cup debut and was racing for a second-tier Busch Series team. Earnhardt never saw the Nextel/Sprint Cup trophy, never drove the new car, never saw the ugly end to his driver Park’s career.

Perhaps it was fitting that the biggest rival of a large part of Earnhardt’s career won the title in 2001. Jeff Gordon was in many way the antithesis of Earnhardt – young and of a different background, but with a hard, aggressive style that made Earnhardt an admirer even if the fans loathed him. 2001 was Gordon’s last title to date and in 2011 he finds himself no longer the young rival but the wily veteran.

Perhaps Gordon should be the hero, then; he’s the one driver who raced with Earnhardt when both were in the best years of their careers, at once loved and hated, admired and admonished. The obvious choice behind that is Dale Junior, but that’s not fair-he’s his own man, and the legacy shouldn’t be thrown in his face, shouldn’t be the burden it often is. Sure, it’s a part of him, but it doesn’t define him – and it shouldn’t.

Perhaps it should be Stewart, then, who is as bold and brash as Earnhardt but isn’t as easy to identify with. Or maybe Busch, who, like Earnhardt, takes the shortest way around the track, often regardless of who is already there? Busch is even harder than Stewart to identify with, though, coming across as spoiled and with an air of entitlement that Earnhardt didn’t share. Maybe Johnson, who grew up in a trailer park and is as blue collar as anyone in the sport? No, because Johnson is well spoken and doesn’t seem like that kid from the trailer park anymore, even though at heart he is.

In many ways, Earnhardt’s death was the beginning of the decline of NASCAR. Oh, the sport boomed alright and boomed for a few more years, but when Bill France Jr. also passed, there was so little left of the NASCAR that he and Earnhardt represented that many fans found nothing left of the sport they once knew. New rules followed and the attempted transformation of the sport into something it wasn’t.

That, perhaps, was the last straw. Even as he built an empire in the sport, Earnhardt didn’t change much in the eyes of the fans. He was still blue collar, still everyman, the guy everyone felt like they somehow knew. Someone they could relate to. Today, the sport is different and fans don’t have that feeling anymore – they don’t know these drivers, not like they knew, or thought they knew, Dale Earnhardt. Maybe, really, that’s the crux of the decline – the heart of the sport is gone.

There is no hero in NASCAR anymore.

Since that February day – the one that at first made the heart of winter seem like a sunny day in Florida – when the NASCAR we knew changed forever, irrevocably and undeniably, nothing has been quite the same. Something from the heart of NASCAR was taken ten years ago today, something that can never, ever be put back. The sport changed forever in an instant and the impact of the instant has reverberated through a decade.

But it still seems like yesterday.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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