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In Trading Paint, veteran NASCAR writer Jerry Bonkowski gets inside the sport's most contentious issues and gives you fuel for the debates that drive NASCAR lovers around the bend.
So the next time you're arguing with your friends over whether NASCAR races should be shorter or whether double-file restarts are good for the sport, read Trading Paint and you'll be ready to argue—and win.
Whether you're new to NASCAR or a longtime fan, this insider's guide will get you up to speed on controversies and concerns of your favorite sport.
NASCAR Commentary from Jerry Bonkowski
What Would NASCAR Be Like Today If Dale Earnhardt Hadn’t Died?
February 18, 2001, was a day that NASCAR will never forget. For it was on that Sunday afternoon that Winston Cup's most renowned driver, the sport's biggest superstar, was killed in a last-lap crash in the season-opening Daytona 500.
By NASCAR standards, it wasn't that serious a wreck. Others had caused far more mayhem, injury, and yes, even death. But the way his infamous black Chevrolet hit the turn 4 wall almost head-on and at a speed of approximately 190 mph, the failure of his seat belt, the open-faced helmet he wore, and the angle at which his head flew forward upon impact all contributed to the death of a man most thought invincible.
Dale Earnhardt wasn't just another driver. He was The Intimidator, the most feared and revered man in racing. He was also the only man other than The King himself, Richard Petty, to earn seven Cup championships. Through 2009, no other driver has won more than four Cup crowns in his career, and only two have done that: Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.
Earnhardt’s death made front pages around the globe, just as Elvis Presley's and Michael Jackson's had. He was no less beloved and influential.
I remember writing my first column for ESPN.com on the day Earnhardt died; what a great way to start my new beat, huh? Throughout that column, I found myself using the same phrase over and over: "It wasn't supposed to happen this way."
Yet it did. And in the process, it was left to us to make sense of it all, something that many of us, nearly ten years later, still have a problem understanding.
But what if Earnhardt hadn't been killed that bright and sunny Sunday afternoon? What if NASCAR president Mike Helton, with tears welling in his eyes, had never had to announce to the world less than two hours after the fateful wreck, "We've lost Dale Earnhardt."
What would have happened to him and the company he formed with his wife (Dale Earnhardt Inc.)? What path would his son Dale Jr. have taken? And, most important, where would NASCAR be today if Earnhardt hadn't perished?
To start, Earnhardt was a pioneer. Virtually everyone in the sport followed his lead because it usually meant something would go well for them also, from the line he took on the racetrack to the trails he blazed in marketing. His multi-million-dollar souvenir and branded merchandise network made him far richer than racing ever did, and his fellow competitors were quick to emulate him.
The then NASCAR chairman, Bill France Jr., was one of the first to realize Earnhardt's leadership within the sport. If France wanted to gauge potential reactions to rules changes, schedule expansion, and other things, he almost always went to Earnhardt first to get his take.
But Earnhardt was first and foremost a driver, and a darn good one at that, one whose skills still matched the sport's best even though he was at an age when most drivers had already retired or were close to it.
Given that Earnhardt had finished second in the standings in 2000 at the age of 49, retirement didn't seem to be in his vocabulary, and he would likely have raced for several more seasons.
Some say that Earnhardt's uber-competitive streak, his win-at-all-cost nature, and the way he kept himself in outstanding shape would have kept him racing until today, when he would have been 59. Frankly, if anyone could have done that and remained one of the sport's top-performing drivers, it would have been Earnhardt.
When he won his seventh Cup championship in 1994, Earnhardt was 43 years old. By that point he didn't need to race any longer, didn't need more money, and definitely didn't have to put his life on the line every time he got behind the wheel of his car.
But in addition to being driven by his competitive nature, Earnhardt was driven by a number of goals after winning his seventh, and what would ultimately prove to be his last, Cup crown.
First, he said on several occasions over the years that he wanted to race 25 full seasons (his first full campaign was 1979)—which would have taken him through the 2003 season—as well as to try and reach 100 wins. Unfortunately, when he died, he was still 24 triumphs short of that goal.
Could Earnhardt have won 24 races between 2001 and 2003? It's doubtful, given that he had won just five races in the previous two years before his death, and six overall from 1997 to 2000. But I still think Earnhardt could easily have reached 80 wins in that period, with an outside shot at passing Bobby Allison and longtime nemesis Darrell Waltrip, both tied for third on NASCAR's all-time wins list with 84 apiece (Cale Yarborough is fifth with 83 wins).
Second, he wanted to establish Dale Jr.’s racing career, then retire from competitive driving to oversee Junior's future. He also had big plans to expand DEI into a consistent Cup-contending company upon his retirement, wanting to emulate the success his own team owner and best friend, Richard Childress, had achieved when he stepped out of his own race car to make room for Earnhardt to follow him. Sadly, since Earnhardt passed—and particularly when his young son and namesake, Dale Jr., left the organization after the 2007 season to race for Hendrick Motorsports—DEI has progressively gone downhill and become nothing but a shell of its former self. Numerous outstanding employees have left, sponsorship has dried up, and Dale's widow, Teresa, was forced to merge DEI first with Ginn Racing, in a short-lived partnership in 2007, and then with Chip Ganassi in 2009 to form Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Had the elder Dale still been with us, I'm 100 percent convinced that none of the things that befell DEI after his death would have occurred. He still would be in charge, DEI would have grown to become a super team, Dale Jr. would have won at least a couple of Cup championships by now and never left for the Hendrick camp, and Chip Ganassi would have remained a competitor rather than an ultimate business partner with Dale's widow.
Third, knowing how he'd deprived his first three offspring—daughter Kelley and sons Kerry and Dale Jr. —while they were growing up of the most valuable gift he could give them, his time, while trying to become the best racer ever out there, Earnhardt wanted to try and make up for his shortcomings as a father during his racing career with young daughter Taylor, who was just 12 years old when her father was killed. He used to talk fondly of looking forward to spending time with Taylor and Teresa once he hung up his firesuit for good, whenever that might have been.
Furthermore, few people realized that Earnhardt was a grandfather when he died. In addition to spending time with Taylor, it's a strong likelihood that Dale would have gone on to spoil his grandbabies rotten in an attempt to make up for all the times he wasn't there for his first three children. He also would have been around to help shepherd the racing career of grandchildren like Jeffrey Earnhardt (Kerry's son), who was supposed to be racing in the Nationwide Series in 2010 on a full-time basis, only to watch his ride and sponsorship dry up, leaving him on the sideline. If he were still with us, and in much the same way he was when Junior began racing, the elder Earnhardt would have found a way to keep his grandson behind the wheel, most likely for DEI, of course.
Last, but arguably most important, Earnhardt kept driving because he wanted that eighth career Winston Cup championship. By beating Petty, he would have a record that would likely never be broken, given how competitive the sport has become.
And while some had approached Earnhardt about retiring after both 1999 and 2000, including his beloved wife, Teresa, what Dale did in the 2000 season by finishing runner-up to champion Bobby Labonte—albeit by a distant 265 points—and finishing second in the final race of the season to Jerry Nadeau gave Earnhardt an invigorated feeling that Cup title No. 8 was still within his grasp.
He couldn't wait for the 2001 season to begin.
And then there's NASCAR. Had Earnhardt not been taken from his fans and the sport, I'm convinced that the failings NASCAR has had in recent years would have been significantly lessened. TV ratings would not have dropped as much, at-track attendance wouldn't be down as much, and Earnhardt would have continued to be the number one figurehead and de facto spokesman for the drivers, as well.
Given the multitude of changes that have taken place in NASCAR in recent years, particularly since Brian France assumed chairmanship from his father in late 2003, it's my belief that many of the younger France's ideas to "improve" NASCAR would have met with strong resistance from Earnhardt. Further, if Earnhardt had resisted or hadn’t liked an idea, it’s a fairly safe bet that many of his competitors would have followed suit, in contrast to the virtual blank-check approval they give to Brian France's overall leadership, as well as changes in NASCAR rules and practices that we now see in the sport.
But with Earnhardt gone, no other driver has stepped up to the plate to hold a comparable leadership role, essentially allowing NASCAR carte blanche to make changes with little or no input from the drivers, crew chiefs, and team owners. As Tony Stewart once told me, "It's NASCAR's way or the highway."
The Chase for the Sprint Cup? My guess is Earnhardt would have been against it, and likely could have swayed enough of his fellow drivers to challenge NASCAR about its viability as a so-called playoff.
The Car of Tomorrow (COT)? I could almost hear Earnhardt say the first time he saw it, "Hell, that there ain't no damn race car." He'd also likely point out that all Cup cars, regardless of brand, look alike. "Hell, the Chevys look like Dodges and the Fords look like Toyotas. What the hell is going on here?"
The loss of Winston as series title rights sponsor? My guess is that even with all the federal laws and regulations that hamstrung it, RJ Reynolds and the Winston brand would have remained in the sport if Earnhardt were still around as either a driver or team owner. But when the sport's biggest superstar was killed, it was also the beginning of the end for RJR's involvement in the sport. Had Earnhardt lived, I'd say there'd still be a good chance RJR would have remained involved and the championship would still be called the Winston Cup.
And, as NASCAR has muddled through the economic downturn the last few years, watching as TV ratings and at-track attendance have declined with very little initiative from the sanctioning body to try and change things, I'm convinced Earnhardt would have taken a strong leadership role. I can just imagine him telling France, "Okay, Brian, you've got to stop being like Nero, and stop fiddlin' around while Rome burns. You've gotta do something. Cut ticket prices [shock!], you've gotta give some tickets away, if need be [double shock!], and you've got to do more to make folks want to come to the track or watch races on TV. This ain't rocket science. It's racin'. So, start thinkin' like a racer, Brian."
Face it, Earnhardt was a magnet to draw fans through the turnstiles and in front of their TV sets. Whether you loved or hated him, cheered or booed him, you couldn't help but want to see him. Sadly, no driver has stepped forward to replace Earnhardt as the sport's figurehead, its leader, or its overriding image. Jeff Gordon wasn't able to (or didn't want that pressure to try and fill Earnhardt's shoes as the sport's leader), Kyle Busch has tried (but without at least one Cup championship, he's still a wannabe in many people's eyes), and Dale Jr. has proven without a doubt that while he is his father's son, he is far short of possessing his father's talent—regardless of the fact that he's been voted the sport's most popular driver the past seven seasons.
When the senior Earnhardt died, many of his fans switched their allegiances to his son, Dale Jr. But others who didn't want to follow Junior moved on to support other drivers, or eventually got tired of the sport without Earnhardt and simply left it. NASCAR was blessed and honored to have someone of Earnhardt's persona and character in it; it's that much weaker and less of a sports powerhouse without him.
If only he had survived, I guarantee NASCAR would look a lot different than it does today. Dale would have made sure of it.
In Trading Paint, veteran NASCAR writer and radio host Jerry Bonkowski takes you inside 101 of the sport's most contentious issues and gives you fuel for the passionate disagreements that NASCAR lovers live for. Packing in plenty of historical facts, stats, and terrific stories about NASCAR greats both on and off the track, Bonkowski lays out all of the strongest arguments for every point of view, then gives his seasoned—and often controversial—take on each subject. If you disagree, all of the ammo you need for a counterattack is right there in front of you.
Tackling every hot-button controversy in the sport, Bonkowski answers big questions such as:
Who was the greatest NASCAR driver ever?
Is Dale Earnhardt Jr. overrated?
What are the best and worst NASCAR cities and racetracks?
How will Danica Patrick fare as a NASCAR driver?
Why are today's young guns not as good as young drivers from past eras?
What's right and what's wrong with the Chase to the Sprint Cup?
How did Dale Earnhardt's death change NASCAR forever?
Are crashes good for NASCAR's ratings?
What are NASCAR's best and worst rules?
Read Trading Paint and the next time debate heats up with your friends over whether NASCAR races should be shorter or whether double-file restarts are good for the sport, you'll be ready to argue—and leave them in the dust.