Dale Earnhardt: What Might Have Been
Greetings readers, and welcome back to what I plan on being the final edition of my series, “What Might Have Been.” This week, we will focus on a driver whose impact continues to be felt long after his untimely passing… Dale Earnhardt.
Writing about how things would be different if Dale had never been killed on that fateful February day back in 2001 is tough. On one hand, he won 76 races and 7 championships and had easily achieved legend status many years before tragedy struck in turn four at Daytona that year. On the other hand, even at 49 years old, “The Intimidator” was far from through battling the best NASCAR had to offer. In the last season before his death, Dale had visited Victory Lane twice and finished second in the Sprint Cup points standings, so “The Man in Black” was far from fading away.
Since his death, Dale has in some ways taken on a near-mythical status. If you read the comments sections and message boards on the various racing sites, you’ll read things like “If Dale were still alive, Winston would still be our title sponsor and NASCAR never would have (insert random change here).” Unfortunately, Winston was forced out of our sport by the one entity more stubborn than the driver sometimes known as “Old Ironhead”… the U.S. Government. As for the changes to the sport, sports and the business models that drive them constantly change and evolve over time, so it’s impossible to really say how things would be different in that regard. There are a few things, however, that I think we call agree would be different if Dale were still alive today.
As I mentioned above, Dale was still very much on top of his game right up until the end. Eighty wins are pretty likely and that elusive eighth championship was a definite possibility. Dale would have eventually retired, and he’d have done a retirement tour befitting a man of his stature. It would have been after 2005, because if you remember that is the year Rusty Wallace hung it up, and as competitive as Dale was, there is no way he’d have let his friend and former rival race in the Cup Series longer than he did. That last season, the gifts and tributes from the tracks, drivers, and dignitaries would have poured in, and on the track Dale would have battled his competitors the same way he always did, right up until the checkered flag of that season’s final race.
After his retirement, Dale would have stepped back to run his prized business venture… DEI. Today, DEI would still be around, and we’d have been spared the pain of watching it be dissolved into Ganassi Racing. Junior would still be in the number 8, and he’d have inherited his father’s fan base naturally, the way he should have. Kevin Harvick would have ascended to the Cup Series when he was ready instead of being thrust unexpectedly into Dale’s ride and spending the next 13 years as The Intimidator’s replacement. Lastly, the number 3 would have sat unused for a while until finally being bestowed upon Austin Dillon with the blessing of Dale himself.
Something that is more difficult to speculate on in all of this is where the NASCAR fan base would be if Dale were still with us. The farmer, the hunter, the mechanic, and the factory worker all rooted for Dale because he was one of them, and his death left them feeling alone in the world of NASCAR. Even though the current crop of drivers would probably be pretty much the same, Dale would still be at the track running his team, and his fan base would be right at home rooting for one of the drivers in his stable.
Readers, I’m going to close out this piece - and this series - with a musical tribute that I feel is most appropriate: Little Texas and “What Might Have Been.” Enjoy