- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2006

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The toughest man to climb into a stock car was gone, killed in a violent crash in the final turn of the last lap of the Daytona 500.

In the blink of an eye, NASCAR lost more than a just another driver. Dale Earnhardt was a friend, a father, a leader and an icon. It was seemingly too many voids to fill.

The Intimidator — the face of American racing — was dead, changing the sport forever. Drivers suddenly were aware of their own mortality, and as all of NASCAR mourned under a blinding spotlight, everyone wanted to know why.

“You can’t let one bad moment spoil a bunch of good ones,” Earnhardt used to say.

They didn’t.

NASCAR, drivers, sponsors and fans did the only thing they knew how to do: They went racing.

“In some ways it amazes me that we were able to continue even into Rockingham the next weekend,” NASCAR president Mike Helton said. “But all that activity helped the healing process. You just got up every day, hoping the next day that you’d be good for the next step. Just being active and by running races and going to racetracks, it was almost like physical therapy.”

The show did go on after Earnhardt’s Feb. 18, 2001, death, and in the five years since, NASCAR has flourished.

Its popularity is surging at the gates and in the television ratings. Four networks agreed to an eight-year, $4.48 billion broadcasting package that begins next season, and new sponsors are shelling out millions each year for a chance to put their logos on a race car.

Young drivers have rocketed to stardom and have given NASCAR crossover marketing appeal that stretches beyond the traditional fan into Madison Avenue and the MTV generation.

The top series ditched its tobacco ties when it switched title sponsors from Winston to Nextel, then overhauled the points system to create a playoff-type championship format.

Earnhardt’s son blossomed from a raw rookie soaking up everything under a father’s watchful eye to the sport’s biggest star. The past five years have been a roller-coaster for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was left to figure things out on his own.

Most of his father’s fans migrated to Junior’s camp, making him NASCAR’s equivalent of a rock star. It’s a burden he struggles with because every word he utters, every statement he makes, has the potential to become headline news the next day.

“It was hard to be Dale Jr. when dad was around,” he said. “When he was around, man, you knew he was there. That was tough. But, you know, I miss him a lot. He could be a huge assist in a lot of things that happened to me personally over the last five years.”

Junior has persevered without his father’s steady influence. But the loss is felt in other areas of the sport, particularly in safety advances that spawned from Earnhardt’s death.

Earnhardt’s accident forced every driver to accept that none of them was immune from a fatal accident. NASCAR, which previously left safety precautions up to individual drivers, was forced to take responsibility for protecting them.

“It was a tremendous tragedy — it still breaks my heart — but it had a significant impact on everyone in motorsports from the safety side of it,” veteran Mark Martin said. “Everyone got aggressive, from NASCAR on down to the grass roots of short track racing, much more aggressive after that.”

Among the safety advances made in the wake of Earnhardt’s death:

• Drivers are required to strap on head-and-neck restraints called HANS devices before getting into cars. Many believe that had Earnhardt worn such a device, used by only a few drivers five years ago, he still would be alive.

• Energy-absorbing “soft walls” have been installed at every oval track on the circuit.

• Black boxes like those mandated in airplanes have been placed inside cars to record crash data.

• Cockpits have been reconfigured, giving drivers additional padding to keep their heads from whipping around violently in an accident and giving them access to kill switches that instantly cut the power and trigger fire extinguishing systems.

• And just last month, NASCAR announced it will begin phasing in the “Car of Tomorrow” in 2007. Developed by NASCAR, the car is taller, wider and boxier than current models, and many believe it’s the safest stock car ever designed.

“We would never be at the point we’re at if his accident had never happened,” said Kevin Harvick, who had the difficult task of taking over Earnhardt’s team five days after his death. “Safety is incredible how fast it advanced.”

But for all the advances made after Earnhardt’s death, he is still sorely missed by the drivers he used to lead and the two teams he was most connected to.

The garage area lacks a single voice that speaks on behalf of all the drivers.

“Earnhardt was unchallenged in expressing himself,” Helton said. “He had no qualms about sitting down and taking us to task or asking us questions or voicing his opinion.”

When Earnhardt made one of his many stops in the NASCAR office, it was often after other drivers had gone to him with a complaint or issue. Earnhardt would listen and advise, and if he believed the argument had merit, he would take it to the top.

Since his death, no one has stepped up to replace him. It’s a role many expected four-time series champion Jeff Gordon to embrace, but he hasn’t.

“I never really felt like it was my place to do that,” Gordon said. “I feel like over the years that I’ve been here, I’ve earned more respect. But I don’t know if I’ll ever have the type of respect that Dale had. The sport is different today than it was then.

“I just don’t know if there is ever going to be one individual in this garage area that feels like they’ve got the voice.”

Two-time series champion Tony Stewart is slowly stepping into a leadership role, even if it is unintentional. Blunt and outspoken, his message is often heard loud and clear across the garage and in NASCAR headquarters.

Just this week, he complained so loudly about racing conditions at Daytona — warning that there could be a fatality in Sunday’s season-opener — that NASCAR said it would police the bump-drafting technique Stewart had railed against.

But Stewart will be hard-pressed to be the mentor Earnhardt often was. It’s not in Stewart’s nature to approach a fresh-faced rookie and offer him tips and tricks that will help him succeed.

Earnhardt did that to almost all the newcomers, cutting them off before they could invade the garage with attitude and aggression.

“Dale would sit us down, tell us how you’re supposed to race, how you treat your sponsors and how you do things,” said Elliott Sadler, a rookie in 1999. “We don’t have that stature figure anymore for young kids to look up to. It’d be neat to have another Dale Earnhardt step up and be the voice of all the drivers in the garage, but right now we don’t have that.”

Two other areas that have struggled without Earnhardt are at Dale Earnhardt Inc., the company he founded, and at Richard Childress Racing, where he won six of his seven driving titles.

Both companies have slipped since his death.

Although DEI has won 19 races — 14 by Earnhardt Jr. — in the past five years, and RCR has eight victories, the bulk of the success came early when Earnhardt’s imprint was all over the teams.

As his presence has faded, so have the teams. They combined for just two wins last year, neither had a driver in the Chase for the championship and Harvick hasn’t committed to stay with Childress beyond this season.

“Any time you lose a key figure, it’s tough,” Childress said. “It probably hurt both of our organizations because we had plans of doing a lot of things and doing a lot of things together that we don’t do today.

“If Dale would still have been here, I think RCR and DEI would be stronger companies.”

Junior carries the heavy responsibility of being the face of his father’s company and turning its teams into perennial championship contenders. He’s also in charge of carrying on his legacy — something he has clear ideas about.

“I want his legacy to be sort of a John Wayne type or, you know, a Clint Eastwood-style legacy,” Junior said. “He did a good job when he worked. He’d give you everything he could give you. He’d try to do his best. He was respected, well-mannered, treated people the way he wanted to be treated.”

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