It’s been 11 years and a week since Dale Earnhardt died. It’s one of a handful of sports moments that you instantly remember where you were when someone mentions it.
The actual changes from that tragic Sunday afternoon, mainly in safety concerns and equipment, have been overwhelmingly successful and universally applauded.
But how would NASCAR be different if Earnhardt, easily one of the sport’s greatest ever, had not died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500?
It’s difficult to know of course, because the lasting imprints of Earnhardt’s persona were so strong even in his absence.
1) Earnhardt would have won at least one more points championship. He finished second in the points race in the 2000 season and was running in the top five when his fatal crash occurred on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. And that one more title would have given Dale a record eight titles and secured the title “Best of All Time.”
2) Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have won at least one points championship by now. Sometimes it’s easy to pick at Dale Jr., but he was a much more fearless driver before the wreck, and that’s completely understandable on all levels. Plus, Daddy would have kiboshed a whole bunch of the free-wheeling, off-the-track stuff that some believe has slowed Junior’s progression as a driver.
3) NASCAR would be closer to its roots. Dale Sr. had a strong enough presence — and a direct enough approach — that he would have spoken out against some of the knee-jerk changes and style makeovers that NASCAR embarked on and now is trying to correct. It’s hard to know if Earnhardt would have been able to help NASCAR avoid the disaster that was the original version of the Car of Tomorrow, but his voice surely would have been heard about a variety of issues. And with that weight — and his respect and passion for NASCAR’s tradition — it would have certainly helped the sport avoid at least a few of the speed bumps that slowed its progress.
4) Bratty “bad” boy Kurt Busch would be (a) driving in ARCA; (b) scared to come out of the driver’s trailer; or (c) a grown-up who knows how to act and drive like an adult. Here’s saying a bunch of the wannabe tough guys would have gotten an education or two from Dale Sr. in the last 11 years. Earnhardt also could have saved all the Brat Pack tens of thousands of dollars in fines, because he certainly would have made postrace trips to the NASCAR penalty trailer a far rarer occurrence. Let’s just assume Earnahrdt would have practiced a Vegas brand of racing justice — what happens on the track stays on the track.
5) With Earnhardt’s presence — he’s the rare sports figure whom everyone had an opinion on and cheered either for or against — and influence, NASCAR would be a slam dunk in the No. 3 spot as America’s third most popular sport behind the NFL and college football. Seems fittingly ironic, huh?
Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...