NASCAR: Rushing To Define A Bust Is Often A Tricky Road


To be published for local newspaper on October 21st, 1985

Dale Earnhardt has had great success on the Winston Cup circuit since his rookie season in 1979, but is he a bust? The 34-year-old holds fifteen race wins and a championship in 1980. On the surface he doesn’t, but below it you can’t avoid the ice burg of doubt.

The fact is that Earnhardt, who currently sits tenth in Winston Cup points after finishing eighth yesterday at Rockingham, has been constantly outperformed by fellow drivers Bill Elliott and Darrell Waltrip. Waltrip has won two championships and is currently leading the Winston Cup point standings while Elliott has already equaled Earnhardt’s fifteen wins in half the seasons as Iron Head.

Earnhardt is an incredible talent, but he has shown time and time again that he just can’t points race like Waltrip can. His 1980 season and last year in 1984 (Where he finished fourth in points) are the exceptions to the rule- finishing no better than seventh in points in all of his prior full time seasons. In 24 starts this season, he hasn’t finished nine of those due to engine problems- when it’s that high of a number the driver’s style has to be to blame.

There’s hope for Earnhardt- it’s still an upgrade over the start of his 1983 season, where his Bud Moore Ford didn’t finish eight of the first nine races of the year. It’s just that Bill Elliott has completely dominated this season so far, with eleven wins in 24 starts and is still in contention to win the championship this year. And he isn’t going away anytime soon- Elliott just turned thirty earlier this month. Elliott’s prime years are just around the corner, and that’s something everyone in the garage, good or bad, needs to worry about.

But when Earnhardt came out and won a championship in just his second season, many thought it would be the first of many. With how he and the no. 3 Richard Childress Racing crew race, it may very well be his last. Is he a bust? Well, if he wasn’t, I wouldn’t have these concerns.

Looking Back In 2015

A lot has changed in thirty years, as you can tell. Dale Earnhardt Sr., following that 1985 season, won six out of the next ten championships and outside of an off season in 1992 (Where the Intimidator struggled to a twelfth in points), never finished outside of the top three in points in that time frame. He was a part of the first class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and is tied for most Sprint Cup championships with Richard Petty as of right now.

But there was definitely a lot of wondering at the start of his career if he could actually accomplish what he did. It makes some of the drivers people point to as modern-day busts such as Trevor Bayne or Ricky Stenhouse Jr. look foolish in that regard. Just look at how many in the media and the fan base looked at Joey Logano, who after 2011 was generally seen as a 21 year old bust who had just one fluke win driving for one of the biggest teams in the sport. Now he’s leading the point standings after winning all of these big races, including the Daytona 500, the last three years.

Not everybody is going to just jump into a car and go. At the same time, you need to be patient if somebody doesn’t follow that success up immediately. Just look at Dale Jarrett- he went from being a bum in the late 80’s in his early thirties to winning 18 races and a championship in the late 90’s in his early forties. This is more impressive when you consider that he had to beat Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin at their primes as drivers along with other current/future Hall of Famers in Earnhardt Sr., Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd, and the Labonte brothers.

NASCAR team owners and sponsors have become more and more like children lately- let’s play with this toy for a few years before tossing him to the curb afterwards because he isn’t as good as Gordon or Kyle Busch were at that point. Then, let’s play with another new toy, repeating the cycle. Here’s a fun fact: David Ragan was higher up on the draft board for the no. 22 seat than Joey Logano, and the only reason Logano got the ride was because Ragan wanted a multi-year deal while the team wanted a one year contract. That’s pretty scary and makes you wonder if a guy such as Casey Atwood could have done what Logano has done if given the chance. It’s time team owners and sponsors stop focusing on the hunt for the next Jeff Gordon and instead focus on building for the future on younger talent while being patient. That’s not how it used to be- that article up there would never be printed in 1985 because that’s not how the sport had traditionally worked.

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