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Five circumstances that might be different had Earnhardt lived

February 10, 2011, Joe Menzer,

Five circumstances that might be different had Earnhardt lived

It is a question that isn't pondered often by Kelley Earnhardt or Dale Earnhardt Jr., who long ago figured they don't have the time or energy to waste on trying to figure out the multiple and highly debatable answers to it.

But others in NASCAR have wondered about it often in the 10 years since Dale Earnhardt's death. How would NASCAR be different today had he lived?

Dale Earnhardt - 3 - A Look Back

Would Dale Earnhardt Inc. still be around as a standalone Cup powerhouse? Would Kelley and Dale Jr. have been as successful in spinning off their own Nationwide Series race team and other ventures at JR Motorsports? What about other teams affected profoundly by Earnhardt's death, such as Richard Childress Racing and, if you follow the dominoes that fell into place as a result, Michael Waltrip Racing?

"It's hard for anybody to say what it would have been like if Dad had still been here," said Kelley Earnhardt, who co-owns and helps run JR Motorsports along with Dale Jr. and their cousin, Tony Eury Jr. "That's more or less just taking a crystal ball and saying it might have been x. But I do believe that with the circumstances that we've been dealt in losing him that he certainly would be proud of Dale and myself, and for that matter [siblings] Kerry and Taylor, in that we all have our own lives and that we're successful. Particularly as it relates to JR Motorsports for Dale and I, he would be proud that we have a vying business."

A couple points are certain. In his death, Dale Earnhardt brought about important safety changes to the sport. Most would argue that is a far more important and lasting legacy than the record seven Cup championships he won while driving his iconic No. 3 car.

And while Dale Earnhardt Jr. has not won nearly as many races as his legendary father, he has, as Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin often says, "had to have the strongest shoulders in the garage." Earnhardt Jr. has had to carry on under a microscope he never asked to be put under in an arena where his father simply was one of a kind.

"I don't really think about what life would be like if he was still here," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I can't even picture it. I can't even begin to get the faintest idea of what it would be like if he was still here, how things would be, what our lives would be like.

"But there are a lot of things that I do -- a lot of things I've done in the last 10 years -- that I think would have made him proud. I can say with certainty that he would be proud of my sister -- of the things she's accomplished, the goals she's set out for herself and achieved. There are certain things that she's been part of behind the scenes, not just where she's helped me but for the good of the sport. I think he'd be pretty happy with how that part of it turned out."

Told that, Kelley Earnhardt chuckled.

"That sounded like something a father would say," Kelley said of her brother's comment. "I kind of chuckled because I don't think Dale gives himself enough credit. I mean, he's really the catalyst for giving me the ability to do what I do. I read that and like I said, I chuckled and thought, 'He should give himself more credit.' He is the reason JR Motorsports exists and it was his vision that he wanted to have.

"Aside from what we do for him on the Cup side with our marketing and our licensing and the social media and the Dale Jr.coms, all that is a byproduct of Dale being a NASCAR driver. But this race team is his vision and what he wants. I'm happy to be part of what we do, but I'm doing it because it was something we wanted to do together. So I thought that was funny. When I heard it I was like, 'That was so sweet. That sounded so father-ish.' "

So perhaps in the wake of his father's death, Earnhardt Jr. was able to have some of his dad's wisdom imparted on him more quickly during the past decade. That's certainly something that probably was different than it might have been if the elder Earnhardt had lived. Here are five other things that might have been different under those circumstances:

Dale Jr.

DEI might still be a force

When Dale Earnhardt died, Dale Earnhardt Inc. was a powerhouse in the Cup garage. In his very first race under the DEI banner, Michael Waltrip broke a 462-race winless streak when he finally made it to Victory Lane in the bittersweet 2001 Daytona 500. One week later, another DEI driver, Steve Park, won at Rockingham.

"Dale's the one who taught me how to drive in this race," a teary-eyed Park said that day in Victory Lane.

Earnhardt taught so many so much as DEI grew as a company. At the time of his death, Waltrip had just been added as the driver of a new third team. To put that in perspective, Richard Childress Racing -- where Earnhardt continued to drive even after forming DEI in 1980 with wife, Teresa -- was only a two-car operation at the time. The third DEI driver was Dale Earnhardt Jr.

In the immediate years that followed, DEI continued to be a force at the Cup level as Earnhardt Jr. finished third in points in 2003 and won a career-high six races in 2004. But the more time progressed, the less the race teams got to Victory Lane and the more it all seemed to change at DEI. After 2004, there were a total of only three victories in the next four seasons (two by Earnhardt Jr. and one by Martin Truex Jr.) In July 2008, the company tried to shore up shrinking sponsorship revenue by teaming with Ginn Racing in what proved to be a short-lived merger that smacked of desperation.

The sponsorship money continued to dry up when Earnhardt Jr. announced he was leaving the company after publicly feuding with his stepmother. By December 2009, DEI ceased to exist as the elder Earnhardt had envisioned it. The race operation side of the business merged with Chip Ganassi to form Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, but Gannasi calls the racing shots.


JR Motorsports might be different

This company essentially is run now not only by Kelley Earnhardt, but also by Tony Eury Jr., a cousin who is more like a brother to Dale Earnhardt Jr. It has continued to grow and be successful in a way that might have been difficult to attain so quickly under the shadow of their father and a stronger, longer-lasting DEI race operation.

But Kelley said she isn't so sure about that assumption.

"Who knows? You have to look at my dad's history of driving for Richard even after starting his own team," she said. "If he were still alive today, I believe if Dale had gone to him and said, 'Hey, Dad, I want to start this Nationwide team,' I still believe they would have found a way to do that together where it would still be JR Motorsports and be [Junior's] thing. Maybe with the support of a DEI, who knows? But if you look back at the path that my dad took, I think he would have been supportive of something like that."

Meanwhile, she echoed her brother's sentiment that their father would have been proud of what they have accomplished together at their own race operation.

"I feel like he would be proud. Again, who's to say?" Kelley Earnhardt said. "But I think from growing up and what he taught us in life, that he would be proud of the accomplishments that we've had here and that there is family involved, and that it's a place where people like to come to work. Much like DEI was, it's a business that's surviving in the sport.

"Our vision here is much like he wanted for Dale Earnhardt Inc., so I think he would have been proud of that and give us kudos for what we've got going on in our lives. Same for Dale with his racing and for continuing to be a part of the sport. You know, I think he would be happy with all of that."


RCR might have thrived more

Sure, Richard Childress Racing seems nearly back on top now. Driver Kevin Harvick finished third in the points last year, when the entire three-driver lineup made the Chase for the Sprint Cup. This year, a fourth driver has been added and hopes are high.

But back in 2001, no one took Earnhardt's death any harder than Childress, his car owner and closest friend. It rattled Childress to the core, and he has admitted he thought more than once about getting out of the racing game as a result.

Instead, he resolved to honor Earnhardt's legacy by staying in it. Harvick, given the unenviable task of replacing Earnhardt in the driver's seat, won two races in 2001 and then-teammate Robby Gordon won one. But the next year, the three RCR teams combined to win only one race -- and during the next four years combined, 2002 through '05, they visited Victory Lane a total of only four more times.

Childress admitted recently that there was a period of time where perhaps he lost focus and didn't deliver the leadership his organization demanded or to which it had become accustomed. Over time, he learned not to dwell on Earnhardt's death and what might have been, but relish in the rich memories of their friendship and focus on the future.

"I've tried to block a lot of that day out of my mind, as much as I can," Childress admitted. "If I'm asked a question, I still remember enough to come up with an answer. But it's something I don't dwell on. All I try to do is remember the great times that Dale and I had together.

"That's what got me through it, and that's what gets me through it now -- whether I'm out fishing or hunting somewhere and I think about Dale, or if I'm at a race track where we won or did something together. Sometimes, it's when I'm just riding down the road. So the good times are what gets me [through] -- not sitting there thinking about Feb. 18, 2001."


Michael Waltrip Racing might not exist

Dale Earnhardt believed in Michael Waltrip when others were no longer willing to do the same. Yet in Waltrip's greatest moment -- winning the Daytona 500 to break that aforementioned long losing streak for his first visit to Victory Lane in a Cup points race -- there was the difficulty of dealing with the heartbreak of the loss of Waltrip's friend and mentor.

Waltrip drove for DEI for four more years, winning another Daytona 500 in 2003 and a total of four Cup races. But who knows if he eventually would have left to form his own Cup team, which he did after leaving DEI and driving one season for Bill Davis Racing?

Even Waltrip is willing to admit he isn't certain which path his life might have taken. He recalled one time what he was feeling before Earnhardt came calling to offer him the ride that led to his first Daytona 500 victory.

"He believed in me, but I felt like I had to prove something every day. You don't run in four-hundred-and-some races and put a zero in the win column and not have something to prove every day," Waltrip said.

Waltrip said he always thought, "It doesn't matter what I accomplish short of winning a race. People will always think, 'Why does he deserve to be here? How can he win 10 or 12 million dollars and never win a race?' But I know I'm a better race car driver than most, and I know I can do the job."

Eventually he proved that, at least to a degree. Now he's out to do it as owner of his own thriving Cup operation, and he thinks every day about some of the other things he learned by watching the great Dale Earnhardt -- not only an outstanding driver, but as the founder of DEI and a car owner. He founded Michael Waltrip Racing in 2007 and fields a two-car team, plus works in partnership with JTG Daugherty Racing to help put a third car on the track.

"I still don't understand that day. I never will," Waltrip said of the day Earnhardt died. "But I do know that it changed my life."

HANS device

Safety improvements in sport

Finally, and the most obvious way Earnhardt's death impacted the sport was in the safety changes it prompted. It led to the HANS device being worn by all drivers; the installation of SAFER barriers, or softer walls, at a number of tracks and on stretches of said tracks that continues to increase each year; and, in the long run, to the development of newer, much safer race cars in both the Cup and Nationwide series.

Had his death not occurred, who knows when or if NASCAR would have looked at its safety issues as closely as it has? Who else might have had to die? There were other deaths that preceded him, of course, the most notable being Adam Petty during a practice session at New Hampshire less than nine months previously. But when Earnhardt died, the whole world -- not just the racing world, but the whole world -- took notice and a groundswell commenced immediately to greatly improve the safety of the sport.

Kelley Earnhardt said she is very comfortable with that part of her father's lasting legacy.

"The safety improvements are satisfying to me," she said. "I look at it and think of the deaths before my dad's, and I think it took my dad's death to really pinpoint that the changes needed to take place. And to me, that's sad. At the same time, it is satisfying to know that NASCAR reacted and responded in a way that we haven't had to lose a life since. That makes me happy for other people whose dads are running around out there and have kids and all that good stuff, so they don't have to go through it.

"I mean, this sport is dangerous. And you live with that, knowing that. I'm glad that there are improvements out there that can bring about a greater piece of mind to the wives and the families of the guys that get out there and do this week in and week out -- because it can be taken away from you real quick one Sunday afternoon."