NASCAR's Landscape Drastically Different Since Dale Earnhardt's Passing

Christopher LeoneSenior Analyst IMay 1, 2012

16 Feb 2001: A close up of Dale Earnhardt looking out of the #3 Chevy Monte Carlo for Richard Childress Racing during the Daytona 500 Speedweeks, part of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona, Florida.Mandatory Credit: Jon Ferrey  /Allsport
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Dale Earnhardt would have turned 61 on Sunday.

Few NASCAR fans need a refresher on the career of the man they called "The Intimidator," a seven-time champion and 76-race winner in what is now known as the Sprint Cup Series. After all, his merchandise trailer still does some of the highest sales at the track each weekend.

But were Earnhardt to magically appear and survey the landscape of the sport in which he made his living, he would need more than a refresher—he'd need an entire class.

For one, the name "Sprint Cup" would be foreign to Earnhardt. He drove during the Winston Cup era that lasted through 2003, before tobacco laws dictated the need for a new presenting sponsor. Cell phone provider Nextel answered the call in 2004, lasting through 2007 before a merger with Sprint necessitated a re-branding.

Beyond that, anything that bore his name coming into the 2001 season is long gone. Obviously, the No. 3 car that he made famous with Richard Childress Racing went away immediately after his passing, to be replaced by the No. 29.

Young driver Kevin Harvick took over, and made quite the name for himself; he won in his third Cup start while competing in the entire Winston Cup and Busch Series schedules, something that many had previously felt impossible.

Harvick won the Cup Rookie of the Year award and Busch title that year, and has since established himself as one of the power players in the sport. His race team, Kevin Harvick Inc., won championships in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series before folding into RCR, while his Cup team has been one of the most competitive in the sport in the past few seasons.

DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 19:  Dale Earnhardt Jr. (R) of the Hendrick Motorsports Racing Team poses with Rick Hendrick and his new cars on September 19, 2007 at the Dallas Convention Center in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Layne Murdoch/Getty Images)
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

As for the race team he started, Dale Earnhardt Inc.? It merged into Chip Ganassi Racing before the 2009 season, creating Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Only the No. 1 car, the team's original Cup entry, has continued, and even then it took a two-year hiatus from full-time competition in 2004 and 2005. The No. 15 lasted through 2008, and the No. 8 ran a few races in '09 before a lack of sponsorship sidelined it for good.

Wait, how could Dale Earnhardt Jr. lose sponsorship and be forced to sit on the sidelines? Simple—the racing world saw something that would have never happened had Earnhardt been alive in 2007.

When Earnhardt Jr. looked to take a controlling interest in DEI from Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, negotiations were hotly contested and eventually fell through. Thus, Earnhardt Jr. did the unthinkable: he left the team that his father had established for him to inherit, and took his massive following to Hendrick Motorsports.

He hasn't won a Sprint Cup race since June 2008, but at second in points, he's poised to end his losing streak at any time this year (maybe even this weekend at Talladega, where his father won his final Cup race in 2000).

In fact, few of NASCAR's contenders these days were even active when Earnhardt ran his last race. Jeff Gordon is still in the No. 24, but DuPont has scaled back its involvement greatly. Jimmie Johnson was still a mid-pack driver in the then-Busch Series. Michael Waltrip, Earnhardt's new driver at the time of his passing, has gone from first-time race winner to major team owner and all-world media personality. Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, and Tony Stewart were just starting their Cup careers; Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, and Brad Keselowski weren't even close.

As for the schedule, it's nearly unrecognizable. The Southern 500 is now on Mother's Day weekend, which had always previously been an off-weekend. In fact, Darlington, its track, lost one of its two race dates, as did Atlanta, which currently occupies Labor Day weekend.

In their place, the schedule has added a series of events on 1.5-mile tri-ovals, and to top it all off, there's now some strange 10-race "playoff" system at the end of the year, like other major sports, called the "Chase for the Sprint Cup."

You got all that, Mr. Earnhardt?

Of course, there's plenty more to cover—new cars, greatly expanded media exposure, Mark Martin's many semi-retirement tours—but fans have had 11 years to digest all of these things. Only when they're taken all at once, do they become so overwhelming. Anyone who took the past 11 years off from following NASCAR would have a lot to learn upon coming back into the sport.

Kind of makes you nostalgic for the old days, doesn't it?