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10 Years Later: NASCAR Still Remembers “The Intimidator”

Posted on February 16, 2011 by A.J. Foss

Ten years after his death, Dale Earnhardt is still casting a shadow over NASCAR.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the darkest day in NASCAR history, the death of Dale Earnhardt in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

“The Intimidator” is considered by many as the greatest NASCAR driver of all time as won 76 races and seven season championships, a record he shares with “The King” (Richard Petty), in his illustrious career.

Earnhardt’s death sent shockwaves throughout the sports world as the biggest star of the nation’s fastest growing sport was suddenly gone.

While they have been numerous safety advances in the decade since his death, there has been no driver that has captured the imagination of NASCAR fans throughout the world like the way Earnhardt  and his famous #3 black Goodwrench Service Chevrolet did.

With their beloved icon no longer on the race track, the many fans of the “Man in Black” had to find a new favorite driver to root for.

The most logical choice was Earnhardt’s son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who drove for his father’s racing team, Dale Earnhardt Inc. in the #8 Budweiser Chevrolet.

Since the 2003 season, Junior, as he more commonly known as, has been named the sport’s most popular driver every year and has crossed into the world of entertainment by appearing in music videos and in movies, which included a cameo in the Will Ferrell 2006 comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and a voice role in the Disney/PIXAR film Cars.

While Earnhardt Jr has matched the popularity of his father, he has not able to match the success of his legendary father.

Dale Earnhardt Junior has struggled to live up to the legacy of his father.

Junior had some success from 2001 through 2006 as Junior won 15 races in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, including the 2004 Daytona 500, and finished in the top ten of the points standings four times, with his best finish being third in 2003.

But things took a turn for Earnhardt Jr. when a rift developed between him and his stepmother, Teresa, who took over as owner of her late husband’s operation, forcing Junior to leave after the 2007 season and join Hendrick Motorsports, the premier team in NASCAR.

What appeared to be a match made in heaven has turned into a nightmare for Junior and his fans as the driver was only one race in his three seasons at Hendrick, and has finished outside the top 20 in points the past two seasons.

Junior’s downfall has been seen by some experts as one of the reasons while attendance and television ratings have declined in the last few years.

While Earnhardt Jr has become the sport’s biggest star, Jimmie Johnson has become the sports best driver.

Johnson has won a record five Sprint Cup championships in a row and won 35 races dating back to the start of the 2006 season.

Though the media have recognized Johnson for his accomplishments, the majority of the NASCAR fans have not embraced the five-time series champion.

Some of the fans see Johnson as too much of a nice guy and not “a good old’ boy”, as he comes from California and not the South.

Plus his smooth, patient driving style does not match the aggressive, bump cars out of the way, drive every lap like it’s the last lap style that Earnhardt possessed during his career

Some experts believe that the driver that has been the closest to driving like Earnhardt is 25-year-old Kyle Busch.

Busch, the younger brother of 2004 Champion Kurt Busch, has compiled 86 victories over the top three divisions of NASCAR, the Sprint Cup Series, the Nationwide Series, and the Craftsman Truck Series, with an all-out style that some writers, such as ESPN.com’s Ed Hinton, to draw comparisons with the Intimidator.

Kyle Busch has posted lots of wins, but hasn't gained the popularity of either Earnhardt.

So, what is the fans’ problem with Busch? He is seen by most as a cry-baby or a spoiled brat as Busch is infamous for showing his frustrations when things go bad for him.

There is also the incident back in 2008 at Richmond when Busch knocked into the rear panel of Earnhardt Jr’s car, sending Junior into the wall, while the two drivers were battling for the lead.

That combined with a what-is perceived arrogant attitude, has made Busch the sport’s most unpopular driver as he is booed loudly when his name is mentioned and is cheered when something goes wrong for him.

There have been other drivers who have possessed an aggressive driving style such as Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, and Kevin Harvick, the man who took over Earnhardt’s famed #3 car after the number was switched to #29 following his death.

But some of these drivers are seen by some as Earnhardt wannabes, trying to prove a point with the fans that they can be aggressive and have personality unlike some other drivers.

So as the NASCAR fans prepare for this year’s Daytona 500,many of them think back to that awful day and perhaps reach the same conclusion that they would today.

Dale Earnhardt is irreplaceable.

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