By admin | February 9, 2009
By Richard Allen
As a history teacher I realize the dangers of asking what if questions in regard to historical things that cannot be changed. That being said, as a NASCAR fan I often wonder what Dale Earnhardt, Sr. would be doing if he had not tragically lost his life on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Each year as the Daytona 500 approaches, many often turn their thoughts to the seven time Sprint Cup champion and winner of the 1998 ‘Great American Race’.
Personally, I was never a huge fan of ‘The Intimidator’ but I had and still have great respect for his accomplishments in the sport.
At the time of his death he was about to turn 50 years old. Unlike several other great drivers who raced into their late 40s and further, Earnhardt was still very competitive. He was just coming off a second place finish in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings in 2000 and he was on his way to a solid Top 5 finish in the Daytona 500 until the accident that claimed his life.
And more, Earnhardt had won two races in 2000 including a stirring victory at the Talladega Super Speedway for his last career win.
How much longer he would have raced competitively will never be known. He would be about to turn 57 if he were still living. Even for Earnhardt, it would seem a bit unlikely that he would still be driving at such a high level, at least on a full time basis.
One thing is for sure, whether still driving or not he would be immensely popular. That is evidenced by the fact that his souvenir sales remain high even in death.
Another thing that would seem a certainty is that Earnhardt would be serving as the leader and guiding force of the company he founded, Dale Earnhardt, Inc. It would be inconceivable that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would be driving anything other than the #8 car for DEI.
Earnhardt appeared poised to make a run at an unprecedented 8th championship in 2001. As was said earlier, he was coming off a second place points run of the previous season. His cars would have been capable of running up front as was demonstrated by the fact that Kevin Harvick, then completely unproven in the Sprint Cup division, went on to win twice in 2001 and finished 9th in the overall standings despite missing one race.
How much longer Earnhardt would have driven will forever remain a mystery. Perhaps he would have retired very soon after 2001 to guide his company and his son. Perhaps he would still be racing, either for Richard Childress Racing or his own team.
And furthermore, it would be interesting to see how the sport would have been different as well. Earnhardt had a great deal of influence when Bill France, Jr. was at the head of the sport. However, that leadership has changed since then. And, the television networks and powerful corporations now wield substantial power due to the lucrative contracts they have with NASCAR.
Some argue that the Car of Tomorrow would not exist today if Earnhardt were living. Of course, the CoT was indeed developed largely out of a reaction to his death. But, there almost certainly would have been at least some change to the vehicle used in the sport.
Also, it has been suggested that the Chase for the Championship would not be used to determine a champion if ‘The Intimidator’ were still with us. Again, there is no way of knowing that for sure, but it must be considered that television and those massive corporations are the power players in NASCAR today. And, Bill France, Jr. is no longer here either.
This is a topic that could be discussed forever without coming to any conclusions. History teachers like myself realize the danger of asking such questions but also love the many what if scenarios that come along with those questions.
Dale Earnhardt died in February of 2001. There is nothing that will ever change that. However, the thoughts of what might have happened had he lived are at least worth considering.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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