Reliving the Highs and Lows of NASCAR in the 2000s

Joseph Shelton@@JosephShelton88Contributor IIISeptember 3, 2013

Reliving the Highs and Lows of NASCAR in the 2000s

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    Make no mistake about it, the NASCAR landscape of 2000 and the landscape of 2013 are as different as north and south.

    During those years, we have reveled with the drivers in their victories, and we have shed our fair share of tears in their worst of defeats. Both have been etched in our memories so we can share with future generations how improbable Trevor Bayne's 2011 Daytona 500 win was, or where we were on February 18, 2001.

    As long as NASCAR is around, we will continue to see the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. We will share with our drivers their losses and gains, and we will continue to be along for the ride for the next several years.

    Here are the highs and the lows of the last 14 years to hold us over.

High: A Step in the Right Direction

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    The entire world was in shock following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But as with all things, no matter how painful, the best method of healing is to keep going. NASCAR knew that the show must go on, just like every other American who woke up in the days following 9/11.

    Although NASCAR postponed the 2001 New Hampshire 300, they arrived at Dover the next weekend ready to resume their business and put on a good race for the fans. 

    In the months prior to the 2001 MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had gone from being NASCAR's favorite son to America's favorite son as the nation became familiar with the Earnhardt name. They watched as he gained a degree of closure with his father's passing when he won the 2001 Pepsi 400 at Daytona in July, and they watched that day in September when he led 193 laps and held off Jerry Nadeau to win at Dover in the first race following 9/11.

    On that day, instead of doing a series of donuts to celebrate his win, America's favorite son grabbed an American flag and celebrated with the fans with a backwards victory lap. It was a moment of healing for the NASCAR community, and a step in the right direction for America.

Low: The Loss of a Legend

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    The 2001 Daytona 500 was supposed to be the beginning of a new era for NASCAR. A new superspeedway package, a new television deal and the reintroduction of a familiar NASCAR nameplate were what we had to look forward to when the green flag dropped on February 18, 2001.

    The race itself was amazing. Forty-nine official lead changes later saw perennial underdog Michael Waltrip win his first Winston Cup race in his 463rd start. The race also saw a terrifying accident that had Tony Stewart's Pontiac flipping wildly down the backstretch.

    But it was the final turn of the final lap that changed the sport. Dale Earnhardt, seven-time Winston Cup champion and arguably one of the greatest drivers of all time, was running third when his No. 3 Chevy lost control and went head-on into the outside wall.

    Just like that, the sport lost its biggest hero, a champion of the people. With that, NASCAR was never the same. February 18, 2001 was supposed to be a day of celebration. Instead, it became a dark day for American motorsports.

High: The Earnhardt Community Celebrates

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    When NASCAR returned to the Daytona International Speedway for the Pepsi 400 in July 2001, all eyes were on Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 8 Budweiser Chevy. A runner-up finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 gave many a reason to believe that Junior was going to be a formidable threat. Another reason was the Earnhardt history at Daytona, and the fateful Sunday in February.

    Given Junior's season to that point, many wondered if he would seal the deal. But in this case, Junior did not disappoint. He led 116 laps on his way to his third career win on the 10th anniversary of his father's first career-points win at Daytona. The entire Dale Earnhardt Inc. organization, as well as the fans, were elated as Junior's No. 8 spun freely in the infield grass, only to have teammate Michael Waltrip join him in the infield for an impromptu celebration. 

    That night, the Earnhardt community had plenty of reason to celebrate after such a tumultuous season.

High: Danica's Daytona Dream

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    Much like her boyfriend and fellow Sprint Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Danica Patrick has had a very dismal rookie season. With her only highlight being her eighth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 this year, her season has been a chorus of wrecked GoDaddy.com Chevrolets.

    But she has proven that she is a capable and talented race car driver, as her results in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and during her tenure in the IndyCar Series have shown. She managed to become the first woman to win an Indy race in Japan in 2008, although it was a fuel-mileage win. But she had been close before, so that win wasn't a fluke.

    When she won the pole for the 2013 Daytona 500, her accomplishment was heard around the world as she became the first female to win a Sprint Cup pole, let alone a Daytona 500 pole. The victory was a boon for her stock as well as NASCAR's stock, as people took notice of the woman who was keeping up with the men.

Low: Atlanta, 2010

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    Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards have had a tumultuous relationship over the years. Although they are able to get along on any given day, they have also been at the center of some of the nastiest accidents in recent memory. One of their more blatantly memorable accidents occurred at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March of 2010. 

    Early in the race, contact between the two sent the No. 99 of Edwards into the wall and into the garage for lengthy repairs. The incident, clearly an accident, came and went, and although Keselowski also suffered damage in the incident, he went on to run in the top 10 late in the race. 

    When Edwards came back onto the track, he took his time until the No. 12 was within reach. Citing the recently instituted "Boys, Have At It" rule, Edwards turned into Keselowski with the intention of simply spinning him. Instead, air got underneath Keselowski's Dodge, sending it airborne and hurtling towards the catch fence.

    Instead, the car slammed roof-first into the section of the track that meets the wall, crushing the support beams for the roof and narrowly causing serious injury to Keselowski. Edwards was parked for the duration of the race.

    With the negative national press this incident got, as well as the fact that several people were put at risk by Keselowski's airborne car, this was a low point for NASCAR.

Low: 2003 Season

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    Although there will always be ardent advocates of NASCAR's old days, it is a blessing that we have the progressive sport we do today. Why is that? Well, take a look at the 2003 Winston Cup season, and you'll understand why.

    Matt Kenseth, who won the title that year, did so in convincing fashion despite winning only once, in the third race of the season at Las Vegas. While he was doing what he was supposed to do by being the best man that year, the fans weren't as excited as he was. Kenseth had taken over the point lead in the fourth race of the season, and considering a typical Cup season is 36 races long, the fans were in for a long year as he never lost the point lead. The race for second in points was more exciting. 

    While I am among those who believe in letting a driver who is having a banner year break away from the rest of the field, in the long run it was understood that the sport needed more excitement. Dull, boring seasons do nothing to help the sport.

     

High: 2004 Season

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    Following the yawn-a-thon of the 2003 season, NASCAR decided that it needed a facelift. It said goodbye to the Winston Cup and said hello to the NEXTEL Cup. It threw away the old point system and came up with a playoff system that bunched the top 10 drivers after 26 races.

    The result was a season to be remembered. In a year highlighted by Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s victory in the Daytona 500, Jeremy Mayfield's Hail-Mary charge to make the Chase and Jimmie Johnson dominating the win column, it was Kurt Busch who barely avoided disaster to take home the championship trophy by eight points, which at the time was the closest margin of victory.

    The investment the sport put into the 2004 season paid dividends and was a good way to kick off NASCAR's new era.

High: 2011 Ford 400

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    The 2011 title looked to belong to Carl Edwards entering the Chase. He had a championship-caliber preseason and no other driver looked to be a threat. But beginning with the 27th race, he finally found a threat in Tony Stewart.

    The No. 14 crew, which was winless in the preseason, won the first race of the Chase. Then the second. A few weeks passed; then he won his third. A week later his fourth. All the while he continued to gain on Edwards, and by the time the two got to Homestead, it appeared that it was going to be a classic Chevy vs. Ford duel.

    While Edwards got the drop early and Stewart encountered trouble, the No. 14 soldiered on and eventually passed the No. 99 for the lead late in the going. Although Edwards never gave up, he failed to win the race and ultimately the 2011 title. Tony Stewart won his fifth race of the Chase and won the championship in what was a tie, with the deciding factor being Stewart's five wins to Edwards' one. Ultimately, this was the closest NASCAR championship race in the sport's history.

Low: Jimmie Johnson's 5-Peat

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    Part of NASCAR's allure is the close competition. Fans want to see a tight race, both on a weekly basis and a season-long basis. It is close racing that leaves us breathless and wanting more. Such battles like the 2011 and 2012 championship races can vouch for that.

    But from 2006 to 2010, we were subjected to the Jimmie Johnson dynasty, when he became the first driver to win five consecutive championships.

    The first two were fun to watch. Leading up to his 2006 title, Johnson had established himself as one of the most deserving drivers out there with his consistency. Meanwhile, his 2007 season was awesome to watch as he won 10 races, including four straight. We figured we left those days in the '90s, so watching Johnson assert his dominance was a sight to see.

    But from 2008 on, Johnson's dominance caused NASCAR's stock to drop. Fans lost interest when it became apparent that Johnson would be untouchable. Close competition can pay dividends for a sport, but that stretch was far from "close competition." That in turn hurt the sport. 

    It was no fault of Johnson's, though. He was just earning his paycheck.

High: Jimmie Johnson's 5-Peat

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    It is very rare when such dominance can be witnessed. Jeff Gordon wasn't able to win five straight championships. Richard Petty wasn't able to. Not even Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR's answer to Thor, could claim such a distinction.

    Jimmie Johnson was in a league of his own when he won five straight NEXTEL/Sprint Cup titles, establishing the No. 48 dynasty and solidifying his role as NASCAR's new king. But while NASCAR's stock may have dropped a little during that time, Johnson's stock rose during his historic title reign, and to this day his role as the most psychologically intimidating driver has put him in position to win several races.

    Although it is more than likely that this record will stand for several years, if not generations, we haven't seen the end of Johnson. He is fully capable of winning his sixth and seventh championships. 

Low: 2009 Aaron's 499

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    In a shocking accident that bears similarities to Kyle Larson's violent tumble at Daytona earlier this year, Carl Edwards' dramatic crash in the 2009 Aaron's 499 at Talladega will be in our memories for a long time.

    The race itself was tame, but as the laps wound down it looked like it was going to be a four-car battle between Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Edwards. But the four-car tandem quickly became a two-car breakaway as Keselowski and Edwards pulled away with Edwards leading.

    Keselowski made his move in the tri-oval coming to the checkered flag, and when Edwards moved to block, he was turned around and began to be lifted up the track. Newman's Chevy drove into the No. 99, sending it pirouetting into the fence.

    Seven fans were injured, although the injuries weren't life-threatening. Meanwhile, Edwards emerged from his Ford unscathed.

     

Low: The Hendrick Tragedy

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    NASCAR is a family sport. We revel in each other's victories, and we lament each other's losses.

    Perhaps no loss hit the NASCAR community as hard as the Hendrick Motorsports tragedy that happened on October 24, 2004.

    While the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series was battling out their Chase fortunes at Martinsville Speedway, word broke that a Hendrick Motorsports plane carrying 10 people crashed into Bull Mountain in Virginia. All 10 on board perished in the accident, including Rick Hendrick's son Ricky Hendrick, his brother John Hendrick and Hendrick Chief Engine Builder Randy Dorton.

    NASCAR, who didn't receive word of the plane crash until halfway through the Subway 500, summoned all the Hendrick teams to the NASCAR hauler following the race, and Victory Lane celebrations were canceled as Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson won the race.

    All Hendrick teams wore decals to pay tribute to those lost in the crash for the rest of the 2004 season. The next race at Atlanta, Jimmie Johnson took his third consecutive win in what was an emotional moment for the Hendrick community.

Low: NASCAR Loses Three Promising Drivers

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    2000 was a dark year for NASCAR as three promising drivers lost their lives during competition, including two at the same speedway.

    In May, 19-year-old Adam Petty suffered a fatal head injury when his No. 45 Chevrolet impacted the Turn 3 wall after his throttle stuck open during practice for the Busch Series event. Eight weeks later Winston Cup driver Kenny Irwin Jr. crashed in the same spot and also suffered fatal head trauma.

    In October, Craftsman Truck Series driver Tony Roper suffered a fatal neck injury while racing at the Texas Motor Speedway when his truck was sent hard into the frontstretch wall. He passed away the next day.

    It was a dark time for American stock car racing, as a total of five drivers perished while racing in the span of two years. 

High: An Emotional Day for Richard Childress Racing

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    As Earnhardt fans, we all felt lost in the weeks after the passing of Dale Earnhardt Sr. We turned to Dale Jr., rooting for him every chance we got, but early in the 2001 season he ran into a series of problems that weren't of his doing.

    While this was going on, Dale Sr.'s replacement Kevin Harvick was slowly making progress during his unexpected rookie season, and when they made the annual trip to Atlanta three weeks after the fateful last lap at Daytona, many expected the Richard Childress Racing driver to continue making progress.

    Considering it was the one-year anniversary of Dale Sr.'s thrilling 75th victory over Bobby Labonte, the sentiments were high. But they reached even higher when Harvick barely ousted Jeff Gordon at the line by .006 of a second for his first career win in just his third career start.

    The tears rolled and the smoke billowed as every fan in attendance at Atlanta cheered and celebrated with the Richard Childress Racing team in their improbable and emotional win. It was a healing day for the Earnhardt Nation. 

High: "Have You Ever?" "No I Never!"

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    Darlington Raceway was NASCAR's answer to Indianapolis before Daytona International Speedway was built. Before the rest of America witnessed the Allison/Yarborough rumble in 1979, the Earnhardt family saga, and Trevor Bayne's improbable 2011 victory, Darlington's rich history ran deep for many years.

    If there was ever a race that paid homage to the track's history, it was the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400.

    Kurt Busch was on an early-season roll and had a good shot to notch another victory in his No. 97 Ford, while permanent underdog Ricky Craven just looked to have a decent day at a track where he had posted some good results in the past.

    Thanks to the high attrition rate and superb pit strategy, Craven's No. 32 Pontiac was in the hunt late in the going, and as the laps wound down he was gaining ground on Busch's Ford. The two beat and banged on each other, and as they locked horns coming to the checkered flag, it was Craven who inched ahead through the crunched metal and tire smoke to take his second career win by .002 of a second. 

    That was 10 years ago, and when I hear the NASCAR on FOX excited jumble as the two crossed the finish line, my adrenaline still gets flowing.

High: An Earnhardt Redemption

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    When Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in the 2001 Daytona 500, many believed that Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have the same troubles his father did in The Great American Race. A crash in the 2002 edition and battery problems in the 2003 race only seemed to solidify those sentiments.

    The 2004 season rolled around in a flurry of new beginnings, for the sport and for the drivers, and considering that the Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Chevrolets were always strong at Daytona, many felt that Junior's chances of winning the 500 were good, as always. 

    When he took the lead for the last time late in the going, Junior Nation's heart rate began to climb. It soared when he led at the white flag. Hearts exploded when Junior beat Tony Stewart to the line to win his first Daytona 500, the third 500 since Dale Sr.'s death.

    Junior's win brought closure to the NASCAR community, which was still feeling the effects of Dale Sr.'s death. But nothing was sweeter than watching Junior carve an eight in the infield grass, cementing his own legacy in the process.