Race Weekend Central

2-Headed Monster: Are We Overdoing The Dale Earnhardt Tributes?

Stuck In The Past

In the two races this season, we’ve heard a lot about tributes to Dale Earnhardt. There was the No. 3 car of Austin Dillon winning the Daytona 500 on the 20th anniversary of Earnhardt’s triumph. There was a lucky penny glued to Dillonʻs dash, given to him by a young fan, which mirrored what Dale Sr. had done in 1998. Then, Kevin Harvick wins at Atlanta Motor Speedway, holding three fingers aloft during his victory lap, just as he did for his first career Cup victory at the same track. All moving nods to the seven-time champion who lost his life on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001.

That would be 17 years ago. Maybe it’s time to give the constant Earnhardt homage a break.

Now, before I’m assaulted as “anti-Earnhardt,” understand that I grew up a fan of The Intimidator. The first race I remember watching, back in 1995, ended with the black No. 3 in the Winner’s Circle. I was crushed when he passed away and spent a few weeks wondering if I would even be able to watch NASCAR anymore. Thankfully, I stuck around.

The 2001 season was a year of change for NASCAR, even without taking Earnhardt’s death into account. A new TV deal featuring Fox and NBC; Dodge returned to competition; and the events of September 11th all shaped it into one of the most notable years in the sport’s history. Other unique occurrences may not have been immediately realized, such as Jimmie Johnson making his Cup debut and Jeff Gordon winning his final championship. There’s no doubt that 2001 played a big part in shaping NASCAR into what it is today.

Part of the tribute issue stems from the fact that fans often don’t want to move on from one era to another. When you grow up watching a certain group of drivers doing things a certain way, it’s understandable that you wouldn’t be thrilled to move on. But even improvements are, by definition, changes. Whether it’s good or bad, nothing lasts forever.

For a fan base that largely struggles to accept change, this failure to move forward simply perpetuates the assumption even more that NASCAR fans are so hung up on the past that they don’t enjoy the present. Complaints resound about a driver being “vanilla,” a “crybaby,” a “bully,” or some other unsavory label. Yet, these same people look back on the good old days as if drivers like that didn’t exist. Which they most certainly did.

Just as every era of the sport had all types of personalities, each era also had drivers of considerable talent who were lost under tragic circumstances. Yet I can’t recall anyone every paying tribute to Fireball Roberts after a win. I don’t believe I’ve heard Tim Richmond’s name mentioned in Victory Lane lately. I’m pretty sure no one held a Davey Allison flag out of their window after a race since 1993. Surely, those drivers are deserving of an emotional tribute during a post race celebration.

You won’t see it though. Earnhardt was so beloved that the mere mention of him evokes a flood of memories for longtime fans. Drivers know this and some might be seeking some free popularity points with the crowd by doing such things. However, it’s potentially taking away from some of the authenticity of these moments. It’s as though the first thought is “How can I incorporate this into an Earnhardt tribute?”

Perhaps instead, a driver could use it as a tribute to someone who was instrumental in their own career. Maybe a family member or a mentor. For most, that wouldn’t be Earnhardt. Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch are the only current full-time Cup drivers who ever competed on track against Earnhardt’s Goodwrench Chevrolet – hardly what I would consider to be a deep personal connection.

I’m not in favor of forgetting about Earnhardt. New fans need to be educated about the past of this great sport. But that means more than just one driver. More importantly, I’d like to see drivers create some new memorable moments rather than clinging to ones from years ago.

Mainly, enjoy the sport for what it is. We don’t need the next Earnhardt, Gordon or Tony Stewart to replace the ones we had. We need the Johnson, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr that we’ve got.

We need the sport to continue moving forward, which can be hard to do if we’re always looking back. – Frank Velat

Raise Hell and Praise Dale

There is no such thing as too many tributes and you can never pay too much respect to a legend.

When those who come after you display such homage, it means that you made such a difference in your lifetime that you will never be forgotten — I would certainly say Dale Earnhardt did that for NASCAR.

Look, if every driver in the starting lineup came out at every driver introduction in an Intimidator costume and thanked Earnhardt for all he did for them, then yes, that would be excessive. But there really is not an abnormal amount of Earnhardt tributes.

Sure, there was a whole lot of Earnhardt being thrown around at the Daytona 500, but you’d be ignorant to ignore what a magical sports moment that was.

Dillon was in Victory Lane for Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 win; he is the only active driver who can claim that. He is one of the only drivers around who grew up around Earnhardt and it just so happens that he won the same race in the same number for the same owner 20 years later.

Also, Dillon won on the day of the 17th anniversary of Earnhardt’s death at the very same place where the NASCAR Hall of Famer died. The stars aligned so perfectly that Dillon’s burnout left a No. 3 carved into the frontstretch grass — Dillon said he did not realize he did that until after.

Fast forward to Harvick’s win at Atlanta this past week.

That was not really an Earnhardt tribute. Harvick did a Polish Victory Lap while holding up three fingers out the window to recreate the image of his only other Cup win at Atlanta.

That win came in Harvick’s rookie year, only three weeks after he took on one of the toughest tasks in the world and replaced Earnhardt in the cockpit. Since then, Harvick has carved out a NASCAR legacy of his own that will one day have him enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

In the 2001 race at Atlanta, Harvick was paying his respects to Earnhardt, but this past weekend, Harvick was casting a tribute to his own career and his teams and fans that have been with him along the journey. It was another beautiful moment in racing.

There will likely not be any sort of tribute for Earnhardt at this weekend’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, as he never won there and barely even raced at the track.

I do agree that there are plenty of other drivers just as worthy of tributes as Earnhardt. David Pearson, for example, may have been the greatest driver ever — he had a higher winning percentage than Earnhardt, Richard Petty or Jimmie Johnson and he won the championship in three out of his four full time seasons.

Despite that, we hardly hear anything about Pearson from today’s drivers.

I’m not saying this to say that the Earnhardt tributes should cut back. The tributes to the other legends and pioneers of the sport just need to be honored just as much.

NASCAR has such a rich history that we cannot let it be forgotten. We must continue to educate the younger fans about the drivers of old if they are to truly become embedded with this great sport.

Darlington Raceway’s throwback weekend at the Southern 500 is one of the most popular spots on the calendar because it has transcended into a night of tributes. It is a chance for fans to see paint schemes of each era’s legends duke it out on the racetrack.

A large reason fans have gravitated toward Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Blaney is because of their love of old NASCAR. Earnhardt Jr. is always posting or commenting on pictures from well beyond his racing era. When Blaney is not in a driver suit, you will likely catch him in a 1980s racing T-shirt.

Blaney grew out a mullet and mustache last year as a tribute to Kyle Petty and other racers from that era, and many were sad to see him cut it all off. That just shows how much people yearn for the throwbacks and tributes. Fans enjoy getting a NASCAR education.

It is important to dig up the roots of racing to have a better understanding of today’s competition, as well as to navigate where this sport is heading in the distant future. -Michael Massie

About the author

Frank Velat has been an avid follower of NASCAR and other motorsports for over 20 years. He brings a blend of passionate fan and objective author to his work. Frank offers unique perspectives that everyone can relate to, remembering the sport's past all the while embracing its future. Follow along with @FrankVelat on Twitter.

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Overdoing is an understatement. Earnhart was not all that. Cale Yarborough was a better driver. Davey Allison did more in a shorter time. Everybody that used to talk junk about Earnhart felt so sorry when he was killed and put his boy on a pedestal. Earnhart was probably the dirtiest driver out there and everyone was “scared” of him but Ricky Rudd and Geoff Bodine. Frankly, I am glad the Earnhart “Era” is over.


I remember one of the announcers (I don’t remember which one, but it was still while Earnhardt was alive) saying that “people either loved Earnhardt or hated him. If he was your favorite driver you loved him. If someone else was your favorite driver you hated him because at some point he likely has wrecked your favorite driver.” After his death, he has achieved a certain amount of NASCAR sainthood, but back in the day he was equally hated as much as revered. For my money, I think David Pearson was the best to ever to turn a wheel.

Bobby DK

Half of these things would have been forgotten if it weren’t for the media dredging it up again. Do you think it’s the fans that go up him and say “Hello Mr. Former Daytona 500 Winner Derick Cope”

Tom B

I was thinking the same thing. When Ward Burton (Black & Gold 22 Caterpillar Car) won Daytona did the media mention Fireball Roberts?

Bobby DK

Was that the one where Sterling got out of his car and pulled the fender out? That is the kind of things that I don’t think will ever be replicated.

Al Torney

I don’t mind hearing things about Dale. What I mind is the total ignoring of the other great drivers if the past. The constant reminder of him is because there has not been a driver to really replace him. Granted Junior became popular but he never was as polarizing as his dad. Senior had a genuine love-hate relationship with the fans. Junior never developed anything near that. Like I was not a Junior fan but I still liked him. And I think everybody did. He never created any controversies. He has always been the good guy. And there’s nothing wrong with this. He’ll do well in the booth.

What NASCAR has done to the current crop of drivers is to discourage them from being like Dale Earnhardt. They want everybody to be squeaky clean and speak the corporate lingo. Newman, Keselowski and Hamlin stepped out of line and got nailed for it. The new kids on the block all give the same interviews. They look alike, talk alike and act alike. Boring. Fans demand a genuine personality and they are not getting it. NASCAR just doesn’t get it. When fans se something wrong they want to hear drivers agree with them. Not schmooze things over. Dale did that.

Until the sport comes up with another genuine article like Dale Earnhardt the tributes. to him will continue. . There just isn’t enough currently there now to talk about.

Bill B

Al, you are right of course but you have to realize that what is happening with NASCAR and the drivers is mirroring what is happening in the country. Would Dicks have stopped selling guns 20 years ago because of the shootings in Florida? Would North Carolina have faced backlash for not allowing transsexuals to use the bathroom they wish 20 years ago? Would a cake maker been sued for refusing to make a cake for a gay couple 20 years ago? Things have changed and it seems the PC thugs have frightened Corporate America to the point where everyone toes the line. Since NASCAR and the race teams are so dependent on sponsorship dollars they have to toe the line as well. This is why the drivers don’t speak out. Because if they do they will lose sponsorship because at the first sign of controversy the sponsor will take their money and run to appease the PC warriors that are constantly looking for the next thing to get offended over. That is reality and the driver’s behavior is mandated by that reality.


Well said.

Tom B

I agree.
PC (offended) is so easy to do, especially when the media gives you the podium.


I think Kyle Bush (Rowdy) and brother Kurt Busch (Outlaw) are doing an admirable job of love hate.


I know for one I am sick of anything Earnhardt from Junebug, the wife, (as if she does anything important) the deceased father, the dog Gus…..the nieces and nephew of Junebug, hell the whole family. Was a fan of Sr. when he was racing, but these tributes go on and on and on, I find it insulting to better drivers that have not gotten THEIR PROPER DUE. NASCAR mistakenly feels that the overwhelming number of fans they have left are part of EARNHARDT NATION. That could not be farther from the truth! High praise for others please!!!! There is still an EARNHARDT racing but I guess he does not count. NASCAR is so desperate I am surprised they have not had “TODAY IN HISTORY DALE SR. LOST HIS FIRST TOOTH” tribute. Tis embarrassing!


lets watch Earnhardt win in vagus this week win pole win race win most laps win most sunshine on him win most wind in the stands hell just win everything Earnhardt Earnhardt earnhardt

Rich Miller

Well obviously, not even one of you have ever been any type of and Earnhart fan. Just another pack of Earnhardt haters all piling on whenever and wherever you can .


NASCAR has contributed to its own demise with its constant obsession with everything Earnhardt. Dale Sr. was a dirty driver who died making a bonehead move. That’s called hubris, when you think you are so great you can defy the laws of physics. It was no tragedy. It was hardly even an accident.

Then NASCAR decided to promote Dale Jr. to hero status. He may be a nicer person than his father, but he was a crappy overrated driver. As Kevin Harvick pointed out, the superstars of other sports actually ACCOMPLISH something in their careers. Junior was nothing but a mush-mouthed clown and that hurt NASCAR to a degree it will never recover from. Instead of featuring Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch, all we heard was Junior this, Junior that. Reminds me of the song Radio Ga-Ga. “All we hear is Dale Jr., Dale Junebug, Dale Da Da.” But of course, Junior himself, once he realized his career as a driver was going nowhere, engaged in self-promotion we have perhaps only ever seen from our current President. The “Dale Earnhardt Performance Report?” Seriously? We should care that Dale is now running 16th way up from 18th 50 laps ago? it was all pure BS and no sport can sustain credibility by featuring mediocrity.

And the whole inane popularity contest that is NASCAR’s marking strategy is laughable as well. Tiger Woods, LeBron James and Tom Brady are not universally loved, but when they compete, people tune in and turn on. Hell, if Tiger had made the cut in the obscure tournament he was playing in two weeks ago, that GOLF tournament would have had higher TV ratings than NASCAR’s premier event.

NASCAR deserves to die. And the Earnhardt name deserves to be linked with the ultimate failure of the sport.

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