Close your eyes and imagine it's Sunday afternoon in sun-splashed Florida. In 10 minutes or so the green flag will be unfurled, unleashing the 43-car field at this year's Daytona 500. As polesitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. prepares to climb into his red-and-white No. 8 Budweiser Chevy, his car owner, sporting that signature bushy mustache of his, approaches and says, "This is our race to win, son. Just cruise around for the first 400 miles or so. Don't make any stupid mistakes. Work with your teammates, our M-boys: Martin [Truex], Mark [Martin], and Matt [Kenseth]. You can't win this by yourself. You know that. You've gotta have one of them get on your tail and push you through traffic. Remember, see the air, feel the air. Then, with 10 laps to go, turn it loose, boy. Don't back to down to nobody! You've seen me do it and I've seen you do it. Now let's kick some ass!"
What if Dale Earnhardt hadn't died 10 years ago? What if he had walked away from the crash that cruelly took his life at age 49? This is certain: The NASCAR world would look nothing like it does today if the sport's most important figure of the last half century were still alive. Close your eyes, and it might look something like this...
... Even though he's been retired from racing for seven years, Earnhardt still has a loud voice in the sport -- one to which NASCAR still responds. Largely because of Big E's frequently stated opinion that NASCAR needs to return to its Southeastern roots, the sanctioning body announced late in the '10 season that the circuit will go back to two of its oldest tracks this season -- Rockingham (N.C.) Speedway and North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway. Says Earnhardt of returning to the venues that NASCAR hasn't visited in years but were instrumental in growing the sport, "About damn time."
Earnhardt, like everyone else in NASCAR, saw the attendance declines at almost every track during the 2010 season and that TV ratings fell about 20 percent in every Chase race. In the offseason he visited Brian France, emphatically telling the chairman of the sport that NASCAR needs to appeal to the old school fans who flocked to the tracks in the 1980s and '90s. Days later France made a major announcement: NASCAR is scraping the Chase format and returning to its traditional points system.
"Dale convinced me that this was something we really needed to do," France says. "He also told me that our 'Have At Boys' policy just wasn't enough. Therefore, I'm announcing today that NASCAR will not fine any driver who chooses to express himself at the track and show some emotion, whether it be what he chooses to do at 180 mph or in the garage area. Instead of 'Have At It Boys,' Dale and I have agreed to call it, 'Anything Goes Boys.' "
Dale Jr., of course, is still at Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI), where his father is the owner. Yes, Hendrick Motorsports dangled an absurd amount of money in front of Dale Jr. in 2007, but he re-signed with DEI to stay close to his daddy. With Earnhardt Sr. leading the way, DEI has emerged as one of the superpowers in the sport -- never merging with Ganassi Racing. And thanks to the continued popularity and the marketing savvy of the Intimidator, the four-car team was immune to the economic recession that crippled the sport in 2009 as he enticed sponsors to plop down $30 million each to back his Chevys. Budweiser, instead of switching its alliance to Kasey Kahne in 2008, re-upped with Dale Jr. and sponsored his No. 8 car. The investment immediately paid off as Little E won his first Cup championship in 2009.
Why was Earnhardt so good that season? It started with his team. His crew chief was Tony Eury Jr., his cousin, and his car chief was Tony Eury Sr., his uncle. The Eurys have shared family dinners with Dale Jr. his entire life, and they know what he likes in a race car better than anyone or anything -- computer simulations programs included. With the Eurys and his father atop his pit box, Junior took a career-high eight checkered flags in his Cup-winning season.
Big E was particularly gratified that his son beat Jimmie Johnson, who by 2008 still hadn't won a championship but had finished runner-up three times. Johnson is the anti-Earnhardt -- polished, telegenic, well-manicured -- and while the two respect each other, they aren't particularly chummy. "I respect Jimmie as a driver," the elder Earnhardt says. "But that doesn't mean I'm not going to do everything in my power as an owner to make sure he doesn't come within a country mile of matching my seven championships."
The success of Earnhardt Jr., who has been voted NASCAR's most popular driver seven years in a row, has been a boon to NASCAR. TV ratings rose 13 percent from '08 to '09 as NASCAR, unlike other sports that experienced declines in ratings and attendance, flourished during harsh economic times. Said a beaming, but typically understated Mike Helton, the president of NASCAR, on the day that Little E won his championship, "You could say that we think pretty highly of Dale Jr. He's been darn good for us."
... Late in the 2008 season, Big E had held a news conference at Kansas Speedway to announce a major signing: Matt Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion and one of Dale Jr.'s oldest friends in the sport. Though Kenseth had driven for Ford-back Roush Fenway Racing his entire career, Earnhardt Sr. lured him to DEI with a big pile of money and the chance to run with Junior, Martin Truex Jr. and Mark Martin, one of Earnhardt Sr.'s old buddies.
The signing sent a powerful message through the garage: DEI will spend whatever it takes to win championships -- the same approach as Hendrick.
By 2010, Truex Jr. was a two-time Cup champion, narrowly defeating Johnson for the Cup titles in 2007 and '08. Ever since he signed with DEI in 2004, Truex had shown flashes of talent that were Intimidator-esque, especially the way he moved cars out of the way that were blocking him. But it wasn't until he spent a few years as Earnhardt's pupil that he developed into his generation's top driver. With Big E constantly in his ear, Truex, not Jimmie Johnson, became the most successful driver in the sport in the late 2000s. And DEI, not Hendrick Motorsports, became the top team.
Now, as 2011 begins, all eyes are on father and son again as yet another Daytona 500 commences.
We'll never know, of course, what impact Dale Sr. would have had on the sport if he hadn't died -- and how he could have molded his son's racing career. All we're left with are questions -- heartbreaking questions. As the American poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in the 19th century, "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been."