NASCAR: 20 years after the Intimidator – The post-Earnhardt era

Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

It has been 20 years since we lost Dale Earnhardt. What has happened since then? Has NASCAR gotten better or worse since 2001?

It’s hard to believe, but 2021 marks 20 years since the passing of Dale Earnhardt Sr., aka “The Intimidator”. Sunday, February 18, 2001, to be exact. It is a red-letter in the NASCAR universe, the day they lost their biggest star.

To put it in perspective, “The Intimidator” was the face and vibe of NASCAR during the late 1990s heyday. His nickname and equally impressive black paint scheme were totally badass, as was his attitude.

Unlike today’s sanitized, corporate-friendly robo-personalities, he was unapologetically rough around the edges. He was equally loved and hated by the fans. He never thought twice about wrecking someone if it meant a trip to victory lane. Feelings were non-existent and he wasn’t especially emotional. At least that’s the image we saw publicly.

He embodied the classic American cowboy spirit and image: Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots, trucks, and even a cameo in a Brooks and Dunn video.

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In short, like his Wrangler ads from the 1980s, he was “one tough customer”. All this and more was the sales pitch for Earnhardt-era NASCAR. His loss left NASCAR confused about their identity. No one really stepped into fill that role other than his namesake son.

And now when you think about where the sport is, compared to 20 years ago, not only have there been significant cosmetic changes, but the culture has transformed as well. If he were alive today, Earnhardt may not quite recognize the NASCAR of 2021.

Perhaps the most noticeable thing is the absence of an Earnhardt full-time in NASCAR’s top series. Actually, there hasn’t been one since 2017.

In 2001, that would have sounded ridiculous, as Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (DEI) was on its way, and Team Earnhardt, led by the Dales, looked like the second coming of the Petty dynasty. Ultimately, DEI dissolved and Dale Earnhardt Jr. wound up moving to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.

It’s important to note that Dale Jr.’s nephew Jeffrey Earnhardt looked to be the next in line, with a full Cup Series season under his belt in 2017. With the exception of sporadic Cup appearances, he has been primarily been an Xfinity Series fixture (and MMA fighter) since 2009.

I would also argue that 2001 was the beginning of a paradigm shift with the drivers themselves. Little by little, the traditional southern-based drivers were finding themselves outnumbered by drivers from all over the country — and the map, in some cases.

Since 2001, there have been more drivers coming to the sport from South America and the west coast of the United States. And Danica Patrick. The old NASCAR driver stereotypes have steadily become a thing of the past. That is especially apparent in driver interviews.

Those good ole’ boys made way for guys who never wore boots and are from nowhere near the south, either culturally or geographically. This made the unparalleled success of Jimmie Johnson feel different.

Not only is he a champion, but he is a seven-time champion, tying Richard Petty and Earnhardt for the most championships. And he is not from the traditional NASCAR stronghold of North Carolina, but rather El Cajon, California.

It could be argued that none of that would have been possible, or perhaps delayed if possible, if Earnhardt had been around longer to give Hendrick Motorsports a run for their money.

As Johnson was on his incredible run, which included five titles in a row from 2006 to 2010, he kind of left Jeff Gordon in the dust. As fate would have it, Gordon won his fourth and final championship in 2001, and he spent the next 14 years steadily transitioning into one of the sport’s elder statesmen.

Gordon retired in 2015, closing out a memorable and highly successful 23-year career with four championships. Maybe without his long-time rival, Gordon lost some of his edge.

The introduction of a playoff system in NASCAR was a seismic change as well. Prior to the Chase/Playoff system, the point system could determine the champion with multiple races still left on the schedule. The current format is designed to decide the winner in the season finale.

Another thing to consider is that in 2001, Toyota in NASCAR wasn’t even an afterthought — probably more of a punchline, and something that would never, ever happen.

And with that, Joe Gibbs Racing, established in 1991, were an up and coming team with one championship under their belt. Gibbs switched from Pontiac to Toyota in 2007, becoming the first team to do so. It was a move met with mixed reactions.

Now, in 2021, Joe Gibbs Racing sit second only to Hendrick Motorsports in terms of success since 2007, and Toyota is firmly entrenched in the Truck, Xfinity and Cup Series.

It is impossible to talk about changes and not mention safety, especially based on the nature of Dale Sr.’s untimely passing. Head and Neck Support (HANS) devices became mandatory, and now all tracks must have a Steel and Foam Energy Reduction Barrier (SAFER) barrier to lessen the impact, especially on direct hits.

The cars themselves have become much safer as well. One only needs to watch Ryan Newman’s horrific crash in the 2020 Daytona 500 and then see him walking out of the hospital just days later to fully realize how far safety has come.

Following the loss of Earnhardt, the sport found itself in a state of decline from the mid-2000s through the 2010s. In the early 2000s, building on the sport’s momentum from the late 1990s, NASCAR was seeking to expand their footprint on the west coast at the expense of some of the southeastern tracks.

NASCAR was everywhere else as well. There were NASCAR-themed Chevrolet Monte Carlos sold around the country, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon were household names, and the Daytona 500 was on the radar of basically all sports fans.

For whatever reason, the crowds thinned and the popularity boom eventually fizzled out. Races like the Bristol Night Race were no longer selling out, and stands were looking emptier and emptier on TV. NASCAR has struggled to diagnose what has led to the lack of interest.

Despite a decline in popularity, the sport mostly retained its core fans. But for a time, it abandoned its core markets. In an effort to generate revenue, the plan was to expand NASCAR’s presence on the west coast into the valuable Los Angeles television market.

This expansion came at the expense of race dates at traditional racing meccas such as Atlanta Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway. Rockingham Speedway closed completely and these race dates were shifted to other tracks such as Phoenix Raceway and then California Speedway. Attendance was getting to be a problem as well.

By the 2010s, tracks such as Dover International Speedway and even Daytona International Speedway removed entire grandstand areas.

In 2021, as we reflect on Dale, what he meant to the sport, and the state of NASCAR 20 years later, it’s encouraging to know that despite whatever pitfalls befell the sport at different times since then, someone got smart and decided to return the sport to its roots.

Atlanta Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway got second dates back for this year, the Cup Series is set to return to Nashville and is set to visit Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas for the first time.

Auto Club Speedway is slated to reconfigure its two-mile speedway into to a half-mile short track, modeled after the high banks of Bristol Motor Speedway, mercifully ending the trend of adding monotonous 1.5-mile intermediate tracks to the schedule.

Despite the current popularity decline, NASCAR has been thrust right back in the mainstream with the addition of not one but two big-name celebrity team owners in NBA legend Michael Jordan and Latin rapper Pitbull, with a third potentially on the way.

This development may not be welcome news to some, but there is no doubt that NASCAR will get exposure to a new generation of race fans.

With this and the wild new schedule, including converting the Bristol spring race into a dirt race, we have seen the boldest move ever to bring the sport back to its former glory.

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I think it is safe to say that if the Intimidator were alive today, he would like what he’s seeing through those mirrored Gargoyle sunglasses.