It’s now been 14 years since that fateful day in February 2001 Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500. There’s now an entire generation of race fans whose only connection to the NASCAR Hall of Famer is through YouTube clips, hand-me-down stories or watching son Dale Jr. wheel around the track. The driver many attribute for the sport’s epic growth is no longer with us as stock car racing fights hard against a gradual decline.
It’s important to note that as the Earnhardt name resurfaces this week in the wake of an emotional victory at Talladega. The track that was once so good to the father finally fell back into the son’s good graces, as Dale Jr. captured a checkered flag there for the first time since the fall of 2004. Afterwards, he was clearly thankful and aware of how people in the Alabama area seem to rally around the Earnhardt name.
“It made me think about his birthday, how much I miss him, how much he meant to me and so many more people that I can't even fathom the number of folks that he had a relationship with in this sport,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “All his fans out there really enjoyed seeing him compete.”
It’s a nostalgic victory bound to make any longtime fan happy with the outcome; stories of glory races past are all over the place this week. But old memories don’t make new race fans; competition does. Lost in the Earnhardt Sr. connection was the fact ‘Dega had just 27 lead changes, the fewest for any restrictor plate event there since 2002.
The dance back to the finish line, often a nail-biting affair saw Earnhardt running on cruise control, many of the drivers behind him content to rest on their laurels after already punching a playoff bid earlier in the season. The anti-climactic battle at the front was about as appetizing as the cookie-cutter, blasé endings we’ve seen this season at 1.5-milers like Las Vegas, Texas and Atlanta.
So while having Earnhardt, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver in victory lane again may seem like a boost, an overreliance on one famous name is a tough way to brand your future. You don’t see people using Michael Jordan’s name these days in order to grow the NBA, right? Earnhardt’s win still coincided with yet another decline in TV ratings; no Sprint Cup race has posted a true year-to-year audience increase since mid-March. That’s the other problem with past memories, you see; they can’t be used to cover up present problems.
Earnhardt Jr. turns 41 this year. His father, if alive today would be 64 and long since retired. At some point, no Earnhardt will be racing at the sport’s top level. Jeff Gordon, one of the sport’s other big names is leaving after this season at the age of 44. Who will be the names people will call on next? Who will be the fan favorites the current 18-34 generation will follow?
It’s a question to ponder these days when the biggest story is remembering a driver, well, some people never saw. Through The Gears we go…
FIRST GEAR: Hendrick Motorsports Perfects Their Plate Package
Earnhardt Jr., Gordon and Jimmie Johnson dominated Sunday’s race at Talladega, combining to lead 164 of 188 laps. With Earnhardt leading the final 27 circuits, it was clear what organization had a leg up at a track where restrictor plates typically keep any of the 43 cars that start from having an advantage.
“From a team dynamic, I'm real happy,” said Johnson. “It strengthens our race shop. To finish 1-2 with the cars, the morale boost it gives the company, our shop, that's where my mindset is.”
Earnhardt, once a plate race expert now has won Daytona and Talladega within the last two years, a huge confidence boost after a series of oh-so-close performances. It also gives HMS confidence they can run up front during the Chase at the one track where bad luck can bite anytime. Following Gordon’s pole-winning run at Daytona, a race where he had the dominant car back in February and it’s clear the rest of the field has catching up to do.
On another note, the win was great not just for Earnhardt but first-year crew chief Greg Ives who almost didn’t stay for the race. Ives’ eight-year-old daughter broke her arm this weekend but convinced her father to stay for the main event. His reward? A bid in the Chase and a sigh of relief that the No. 88 team won’t be one of those trying to sneak into the field on points.
SECOND GEAR: “Big One” Puts Bayne In the Spotlight
Talladega had only one “Big One,” the multi-car wrecks that come with the territory in plate races. This incident saw Trevor Bayne spin out on his own, the air sucked from him down the backstretch as Paul Menard made a move to the outside. The resulting spinout collected a dozen cars and left the No. 6 car a smoldering mess.
“I hate that a lot of cars got torn up,” he said afterwards. “When you get too close to somebody, it just pulls you around.”
It was a clear low point for a driver whose only Cup claim to fame is a victory in the 2011 Daytona 500. Bayne, who has yet to score a top-5 finish since that race now sits a lowly 29th in the Sprint Cup standings, a whopping 217 points behind leader Kevin Harvick. With several strong drivers in Roush Fenway’s XFINITY Series program, Bayne’s leash is getting shorter as a once promising talent seems overwhelmed running the Cup Series full-time.
THIRD GEAR: Parity Shaping Up Playoff Field
As we disengage from Talladega and move forward, the first 10 races have filled up half of NASCAR’s September postseason field. Eight winners during that stretch are reasonable, but what’s interesting is they’ve come from four different organizations. Two drivers apiece have qualified through the following teams…
Penske Racing (Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski)
Hendrick Motorsports (Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.)
Stewart-Haas Racing (Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch)
Joe Gibbs Racing (Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin)
So while certain drivers have led more laps (Harvick, Busch) or run up front more consistently, no organization has a true advantage on paper as the playoffs begin to take shape. More notable are the teams shut out of victory lane, a group that includes Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway Racing (see above) and Michael Waltrip Racing.
FOURTH GEAR: The Underdog Effect
Talladega wasn’t as good as it usually is to NASCAR’s underfunded crowd, brought back to equality through restrictor plates. But several drivers in the middle tier came out of the race with a fresh start. Sam Hornish Jr. earned his first top-10 result (sixth) since returning to the Cup Series full-time with Richard Petty Motorsports. Josh Wise earned a top-10 result (tenth) with a Phil Parsons Racing team that is rumored to be sold as early as this week. Sophomore Cole Whitt (13th) led the race for a bit in his strongest performance yet for Front Row Motorsports.
Having these names run close to the front gives a slight blend of variety NASCAR badly needs. Drivers like Wise and Whitt need to pray for a top-20 finish at almost any other track on the circuit, leading to far too much predictability. That’s why fans enjoy these events; they know anyone within the 43-car field is capable of winning under the right circumstances.
Danica Patrick, her future in question is clinging to the last spot in the current Chase standings. With GoDaddy not returning to the No. 10 Chevrolet, it could open up a spot at Stewart-Haas Racing for 2016. NASCAR, of course would want Patrick to return but keep an eye on what’s developing at Joe Gibbs Racing. Erik Jones is scheduled to sub for Kyle Busch this week and if the 18-year-old does well JGR’s hand might be forced to move him up. That could put a driver like Denny Hamlin in play, a veteran who has far more statistical success in this sport than Patrick… David Ragan was a disappointing 38th in his final substitute race for Busch. He’ll move over to the No. 55 Toyota starting this week and fill in for an ailing Brian Vickers the rest of the season at Michael Waltrip Racing… What is wrong with Austin Dillon? The sophomore, whose engine went up in flames at Talladega, has no finish better than 10th this season. He’s clearly slumping while teammates Menard and Ryan Newman have scored top-5 finishes and contended for wins.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.