NASCAR Sprint Cup: From Dale Earnhardt to Jimmie Johnson, What a Decade

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NASCAR Sprint Cup: From Dale Earnhardt to Jimmie Johnson, What a Decade
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Next week, a handful of Sprint Cup drivers will take to the track at Daytona International Speedway. It will be the first test on the newly paved surface in preparation for next year’s Daytona 500, and the test marks the beginning of the 2011 season.

The test will symbolize the beginning of a new decade in NASCAR, and the end of one that has brought devastating losses, incredible performances and huge changes.

Ten years ago, Bobby Labonte was basking in the glow of his 2000 championship run, and Dale Earnhardt Sr. had confirmed his continued competitiveness in the series with a second-place points finish.

His next points race would be his last.

Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 still stands for many as a landmark moment in NASCAR.

His passing seemed inconceivable, and set off a chain reaction in which NASCAR found itself taking an introspective look at how it had conducted its races and enforced its ruled package to that moment.

Even now, in 2010, the effects of that moment in time can still be seen in NASCAR.

The very car used in the Sprint Cup Series, and in 2011 in the Nationwide Series, is in use today to a large degree due to the investigation into that crash.

Jason Smith/Getty Images
The driver who took over for Earnhardt uses the harness, helmet, and seat that were the fruits of Earnhardt's accident investigation.

The helmets and neck restraints we see on all the drivers when they strap into these 200 mph bullets come as a result of the secrets that Dale Earnhardt’s death revealed.

The seats used today by just about every driver in the three national touring series are in the car because NASCAR discovered just how fragile human life is inside an incredibly durable race car designed to take enormous punishment and still earn points.

Ten years ago NASCAR didn’t have a Chase for the Sprint Cup. It didn’t even have a Sprint Cup. It still had a Winston Cup, which became a Nextel Cup, which became the Sprint Cup.

We’d grown accustomed to rewarding the driver who had cumulatively assembled an incredible season and was able to finish largely free of the specter that he would be caught down the stretch.

Never in our wildest dreams when this decade began did we imagine NASCAR would have a playoff.

When the decade began, we didn’t really know who Jimmie Johnson or Chad Knaus was. We sat in the stands and on our couches, wondering if anyone could capture the magic of the Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon pairing.

Gordon kept on chugging, won that 2001 title and it seemed inevitable to many that he would take his place alongside Petty and Earnhardt as seven-time champions.

John Harrelson/Getty Images
Jimmie Johnson has become the gold standard as this decade comes to a close.

Now, he’s just like everyone else, chasing Jimmie Johnson and trying to unlock the mystery of the Chase format, where the unique mix of performance and timing are keys to winning a title.

At the start of the decade, Gordon’s immortality in stock car history seemed secure. At the start of the new decade, the question seems to be whether anyone will ever dethrone his protégé Jimmie Johnson.

The student has become the master in an all new game.

The last decade began with the staggering loss of one of the sport’s icons, and ended with a staggering accomplishment by a driver who is poised to take his rightful place among the icons.

Hopefully, this new decade won’t bring the losses.

But maybe we can be just as hopeful that the new decade will again bring us the gift of excellence behind the wheel of a race car.

Oh, what a decade it was.

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