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.
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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