The symbolic nature of the first two races for the NASCAR season present an interesting revisit to Dale Earnhardt’s legacy, and the end of his life that began a fan exodus of NASCAR.
Take yourself back to 2001. Dale Earnhardt dies at Daytona, and his quick replacement is Kevin Harvick. Of course, no one replaces Dale Earnhardt, so the #3 is “retired” with a #29 now to grace the team. Harvick wins at Atlanta. A rejoice amongst the heaviness for NASCAR fans after just losing their blue-collar czar. The bitter taste of victory for a fan-base not quite sure who to follow. “Is this Harvick guy our driver now?” they ask. But slowly, over the next decade, an unraveling of the hardcore “tribe” begins and NASCAR spirals into an unknowingness of who and what they are.
Flash through the years since then, we’ve seen the sport change a great deal. Not just in safety precautions, but in tech around the cars, the entire structure of the series in hopes to attract more fans as the years have waned on. The “Race for the Chase,” the “Playoffs,” now “stage racing.”
What the hell can we do to make this sport exciting again? Well, it’s happening… the mix is coming together, and subconsciously it seems to be around letting go of the Earnhardt legacy and brand as its mainstay.
How strange is it that the very first race Dale Jr. isn’t racing in, the last remaining thread of a Dale Sr. connection, the #3 wins the Daytona 500. The first time in exactly 20 years from when Dale Earnhardt finally won it. The first time – this time – with a new name and a new story to be written.
Now this previous weekend at Atlanta, Kevin Harvick wins after so many close opportunities through the years, ironically it’s the first time since 2001 after he “replaced” Earnhardt following his shocking death.
Of course there was no replacing Earnhardt…
All of these connections (I know, I’m slow) didn’t hit me until Kevin Harvick raised his hand outside the car displaying “3” fingers this past weekend in homage to the late hero. It’s the same gesture he made in 2001.
This time, like the win previous at Atlanta, was very emotional for Harvick, which is rare for him, but given the circumstances it makes sense. You know the saying, “time heals all wounds”?
It certainly does, and it feels like this emotional Atlanta victory (and the emotional Daytona victory for Richard Childress) was, for obvious reasons, very different than in 2001. This time they were given time to grieve, along with the series who so desperately needed Earnhardt’s character (and many still feel they do).
The past two weekends have almost been another farewell tour to Earnhardt – somehow this one feels concrete, more complete. With all the changes in the sport, all the new great drivers over the last couple years piling in. It’s changing… [correction] – it has changed. Ladies and Gentlemen – meet the new NASCAR.
The #3 car won the Daytona 500, and it wasn’t Dale Earnhardt. I don’t think the significance of that really is known yet, but what I can say is it wipes the board clean for the next generation to make their legacy larger than life… and the next generation of drivers is stacked and ready to prove themselves as the new face in a new series.
What say you? Comment below.