NASCAR: 10 signature moments

Publish date:

1. Dale Earnhardt's fatal wreck at Daytona (Feb. 18, 2001)

Forget about the decade, this was a landmark moment in the history of the sport -- the death of NASCAR's biggest star in its marquee event. The sport has never been the same, and many of Earnhardt's fans -- who sport his number three on hats, t-shirts and bumper stickers -- mourn him still.

2. Jimmie Johnson's four-peat (Nov. 22, 2009)

No driver in history had ever won four straight Cup championships before Johnson did it in 2009. But his low-key personality and that he races for the most dominant team in the sport leaves some hard-core NASCAR fans cold. It's their loss.

3. The debut of the CoT (March 25, 2007)

If you make racing too safe, is it still racing? The Car of Tomorrow (now just "the new car") remains the most enduring -- and controversial -- legacy of the death of Dale Earnhardt. When the car made its debut at Bristol in 2007, race-winner Kyle Busch was less than impressed, responding to a question about the new cars with a pithy review: "They suck." Boxy and hard to handle in traffic, the CoT is mostly loathed by fans, but it is surpassingly safe -- Earnhardt remains the last driver to be killed in a Cup car.

4. Brian France takes over (Sept. 13, 2003)

Just a few months after the 41-year-old France completed a deal that replaced longtime Cup series sponsor Winston cigarettes with NEXTEL, he was announced by his father, Bill France Jr., as the new chairman and chief executive officer of NASCAR. France has spent most of his time at the head of the sport trying to broaden its appeal beyond the southeastern United States.

5. The bankruptcies of Chrysler and GM (2009)

Dodge and Chevy. Chevy and Dodge. Manufacturers have come and gone over the years in the Cup series, but the financial woes of two of NASCAR's most prominent sponsors was a serious blow to a sport already struggling in a tough economy. With money so scarce, Cup racing's most powerful teams -- each of which carry other gold-plated endorsement deals -- have managed the best so far. But the smaller teams are struggling. Richard Petty Motorsports left Dodge for Ford at the end of the season because the cash had long since dried up.

6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. leaves DEI (June 13, 2007)

The biggest free-agent transfer in the history of Cup racing had all sorts of attendant drama: Junior, the most popular driver in the sport, was mired in a major slump on the track, and the company his late father had built no longer had the resources to help him win a championship. So, Junior left to join Hendrick Motorsports, the most powerful team in the Cup garage and openly feuded with his stepmother, Teresa, over control of his father's team. In the end, Junior's car number and team colors have changed at his new home, but his results on the track haven't. He's won just once in his last 57 starts, and missed the Chase in 2009.

7. NASCAR's $2.8 billion television deal (Dec. 15, 1999)

Technically, the ink dried on the pact two weeks before the 2000s began, but there's no way this agreement, which vaulted Cup racing into the major leagues of American professional sports, can be ignored when taking stock of NASCAR's last 10 years. FOX, FX, TNT and NBC agreed to divvy up the Cup schedule over the course of the six-year deal, vastly increasing the bank accounts and the exposure of the lords of stock car racing. As usual, reviews of the arrangement from fans were mixed, with most leaning towards displeasure over the increase in the amount of commercials and the lack of focus on lesser-known drivers.

8. Debut of the Chase (Sept. 19, 2004)

Brian France's legacy in NASCAR hinges on the continued success of the Chase, his version of racing's postseason. By resetting the field of Cup racing's top drivers after 26 races, France hoped to goose the championship race by creating intrigue over the final 10 races. The first season was a smashing success, with Kurt Busch prevailing on the final day of the season by just eight points over Jimmie Johnson. There have been some format tweaks over the years (the field was expanded from 10 to 12 drivers, and bonus points are now awarded for regular season wins), but Johnson's dominance of the shortened schedule has many complaining that it is unfair.

9. The death of Adam Petty (May 12, 2000)

Petty's death marked the beginning of an inexpressibly sad decline. Though Richard Petty Motorsports lives on to this day, it is a shadow of the organization that dominated Cup racing for 30 years. When the 19-year-old Petty, the team's personable rising star, died in a crash during a Busch-Series practice session at New Hampshire, it was a devastating blow to the family and to the team. Short on sponsorship dollars and tied, until recently, to its out-of-date shop in Level Cross, N.C., the organization has been reduced to also-ran status, while Richard Petty, now the family patriarch, is little more than a figurehead.

10. The suspension of Jeremy Mayfield (May 9, 2009)

NASCAR was way behind the other major professional sports when it instituted its new drug testing program in 2009. Mayfield became the fledgling scheme's first victim when he failed a urinalysis in the spring and was slapped with an indefinite suspension. Months of ugly accusations and counter-accusations have followed, and the promise of even uglier legal proceedings. Whatever the outcome -- and Mayfield still vehemently denies any wrongdoing -- you have to hope the sport won't stop doing everything in its power to keep impaired drivers off the track.

11. The return of Mark Martin (Feb. 15, 2009)

Martin spent two seasons in partial retirement before joining Hendrick Motorsports and returning to Cup racing full time at age 49. And wouldn't you know it, the man can still drive. Martin won five races and finished second to teammate Jimmie Johnson in the final Cup standings. But more than that, he proved the enduring quality of the sport, racing wheel-to-wheel with today's young guns just the way he did 20 years ago.

12. The arrival of Toyota: (Feb. 17, 2008)

While foreign manufacturers have raced and won in the Cup series before, none had the resources of the world's number-one automobile manufacturer. NASCAR's fans are passionately provincial -- to them, NASCAR is an American game for American cars. They worried not just about Toyota's presence, but also about the prospect of its eventual dominance. That scenario hasn't come to pass, but with powerful teams like Joe Gibbs Racing in its corner, Toyota is a force to be reckoned with.

13. Tony Stewart single-handedly brings back the days of the driver/owner (2009)

As an antidote to an acute sense of JJ fatigue, Stewart was NASCAR's indispensable man of 2009. His debut season as an owner-driver was boffo from start to finish as he won four races and led the points standings for the bulk of the regular season. But even more startling than this was the way the 11-year veteran mellowed into one of Cup racing's more thoughtful -- and less combustible -- elder statesman.

14. The debut of Juan Pablo Montoya (Nov. 19, 2006)

An international Formula One superstar before he ever stepped into a NASCAR firesuit, Montoya created one of the most hyped rookie seasons in recent memory when he jumped to NASCAR. The series' first full-time international driver took a while to develop his skills, but seems well on his way to becoming NASCAR's first international champion.

15. Danica Patrick comes to NASCAR (Dec. 7, 2009)

Ending months --or years, depending on how you look at it -- of speculation, Danica Patrick announced that she would run a partial schedule in the Nationwide Series for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s JR Motorsports team beginning in 2010. In addition to allowing her to run a full season of IndyCar, Patrick's limited entry into NASCAR will give her some valuable seat time in stock cars before she makes the jump to Cup racing --presumably within the next three to five years. Almost nobody in the sport expects her to be very good right away, but the off-the-charts hype and attention she will bring to NASCAR could go a long way towards reviving flagging fan interest.