The legacy of Dale Earnhardt in the world of auto racing altogether is immeasurable.
You can go to just about any block in America and ask folks if they've ever heard of Dale Earnhardt. Undoubtedly, the percentage of people who say yes would be a very high number, almost certainly reaching in the 90 percent or above range.
Earnhardt is credited to the explosion that took place in NASCAR in the '80s, as Winston Cup Racing accumulated larger TV audiences as well as played host to sold out tracks every weekend.
As Earnhardt's success mounted, he invested more and more into a shop in his front yard while his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was winning stock car races at Myrtle Beach Speedway and various other tracks across the Carolinas.
DEI made its Winston Cup debut in 1996 at Charlotte with driver Robby Gordon in the No. 14 Racing For Kids Chevy.
Jeff Green also raced the car in 1996, but it was in 1998 when the team began its first full year at the Cup level.
Steve Park raced the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevy in 1998 for DEI for what looked to be a potential-filled, stellar rookie campaign.
Early in that season, however, Park broke his leg in a practice crash and was temporarily replaced by Darrell Waltrip.
Waltrip competed rather well in the No. 1 car, scoring a bevy of top-15 finishes scattered from Bristol to the July race in Pocono.
Park would return to his ride at Indy, but the team fell behind due to his injuries and crashes that continued to mount up.
2000 was considered the breakout year for DEI, as Park won two pole awards and his first-ever Cup Series race at Watkins Glen. As a result, the No. 1 team finished 11th in the points standings.
The No. 8 Budweiser Chevy made its full season debut in 2000 with Earnhardt Jr. at the wheel, impressing fans immediately by winning two poles and three races (which included The Winston All Star Race in Charlotte).
Despite the success, Earnhardt Jr. just missed out on winning the Rookie of the Year Award, finishing second to Matt Kenseth.
In 2001, DEI had a three-car operation full of sponsors, talent, and expectations of becoming one of the best overall operations in the racing world.
Earnhardt Sr. was reeling with praise and emotions, as he enjoyed the success of an organization he built from the ground up. This was his moment to shine.
What a feeling it must have been, to have it all right there in the palm of your hands and know that failure is not in your vocabulary and category.
Then came the Daytona Speedweeks of February that year.
DEI was among the best at restrictor-plate racing, seeming to have figured out the keys to winning at Daytona and Talladega.
The family-run organization came out with its new, third entry in the form of the No. 15 NAPA Chevy with Michael Waltrip.
With Earnhardt Jr. pushing and Earnhardt Sr. blocking, DEI had a one-two finish at the Daytona 500. It appeared as if the boss was going to finish behind his friend and his son in front of a massive track turnout and television audience across the States.
It was that day where we lost Earnhardt Sr. To this day, I don’t think NASCAR has fully recovered.
Dale was gone, unfortunately.
But Earnhardt fans had reason to feel some optimism, as we still had DEI.
This past Friday, my daughter and I were driving along Hwy 3 and passed by DEI.
I decided to turn around and see how things were doing.
The receptionist in the gift shop had a big smile on her face. We were two of maybe six customers wondering around the shop and lobby, admiring the museum and the trophy display of the seven-time champion.
Things seemed slow but joyful, at least on the surface.
However, I couldn’t help but wonder deep down inside how much of Dale Earnhardt was actually left in the business he died trying to protect.
Sure, the shop is full of Dale, as expected, but what has really become of what we saw in 2001, wheh DEI looked like one of the most promising teams in NASCAR racing?
Quite the adventure is how you could best sum it.
DEI has gone through multiple drivers, sponsorship problems, and plenty of rumors the last two years.
What does it say about this organization when it can’t even keep the prize of the operation, the son himself of the man who gritted his teeth and dirtied his hands building this empire?
The survival of DEI is in many other people’s hands now. DEI has merged multiple times in its quest to stay afloat. The future is in question, and the history is brief.
One of the most disturbing images ever captured in sports was the crash in Turn 4 on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
As I think about it, I cringe inside knowing that we watched a legend die doing what he loved to do.
But I sometimes wonder which is worst:Watching Dale, the man, die in Daytona, or watching Dale, the spirit, die slowly every Sunday as his promising empire continues to sputter along?
I think the answer is obvious.