As the 2017 NASCAR schedule is winding down, three races including today’s. It is hard to believe that after the final race of the season Dale Earnhardt Jr is hanging up his fire suite and retiring. I was a Junior fan before I was a NASCAR fan. How does that work you ask? Well I had seen Dale Jr on TV and thought he was cute, so he was my favorite driver, but it wasn’t until after Senior’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500 that I really sat down to watch a race and enjoyed what I was watching. I remember that week while it was yesterday, watching everything I could about it on the news and purchasing the newspapers, books, and magazines. I was in shock that a larger than life person like that was killed during the biggest race of the year. I cried tears of fear when Dale Jr. wrecked early in the next race at Rockingham and tears of happiness when Steve Park, driving one of the cars owned by Dale Sr., won the race. And the tears were really flowing when Dale Earnhardt Jr won the July Daytona race. I was excited when Dale Jr. decided to make the move to Hendrick and even more excited when they moved the 48 and 88 into the same shop, my two favorite drivers coming out of the same shop, they were going to be unstoppable, and for a while they were the it team. But then Dale Jr had that hard wreck last year, at Kentucky none the less, and the retirement gears started turning. It is going to be weird not having a “Dale Earnhardt” racing (and not just because of an injury). But I wish Dale luck and he is going to have a new little baby to keep him busy. And I know this does not been he is leaving racing completely, it’s just a little sad for a long-time Earnhardt fan like myself to see him walking away without ever winning a championship. And I know there will be more tears flowing in a few weeks when they race that final race at Homestead Miami.
I will be the first to tell you, I am not liking this new NASCAR Chase format one bit. Why change something that was not broken? I love NASCAR and have been a fan for many years now but this new chase format is about to turn me away from the sport. I don’t know how other fans are feeling but it makes no sense to me. At least with the old way a driver had a chance till the very end as long as they were in striking distance. Not now! Now they have to make it through rounds. So a bad race in one round could be your chance is over where with the old way that was not the case. I want the old way back!
I love NASCAR and have for over ten years now. I will never forget the turning point for me. I had watched NASCAR off and on for a few years and if you asked me who my favorite driver was I would say “Jeff Gordon”. Then Dale Earnhardt Jr came along and I just thought he was dreamy. But even then I was not hooked. February 18th, 2001 changed that forever. I watched on TV the wreck that happened in the final turn on the final lap. I heard Darrell Waltrip speak those mesmerizing words, “God I hope Dale is okay”. And later I heard those words spoken that no NASCAR fan wanted to hear, “Dale Earnhardt was the father of four”. “Was” not “is”. He was gone, the biggest figure in the sport had died and I had never taken the time to really watch him drive, to see him in his glory.
I remember watching all the events of the week in awe. I couldn’t get enough of them; I was drawn in my Dale Earnhardt’s death. I tuned in the next week and cried when Dale Jr wrecked on the first lap and cried even more when Steve Park won the rain delayed Rockingham race on Monday afternoon. I probably went through two boxes of tissues that week with all the tears I cried. I was starting to get hooked but was not there yet. Then came July 7th, 2001, a Saturday night race in Daytona, the first time back at the track since Dale’s death. This is the race that changed me forever. I watched in amazement all night as Dale Jr raced through the field. And just when everyone was counting him out, with his restart position after a late race caution. But Dale Jr was determined that night and he had a newly winged angel on his side. When that red number eight car took the checkered flag with Michael Waltrip pushing it, the tears poured and I was hooked forever. Dale Earnhardt Jr overcame so much there that night and I was amazed at how he did it.
Today I still love NASCAR and I still like Dale Earnhardt Jr but the sport is changing and I’m not sure if I like the direction it is taking. There is one reason and one reason only that has me questioning NASCAR’s future, and that reason goes by the name of Danica Patrick. In my opinion she is single-handedly ruining the sport. I know as a female fan I should like the fact that a female driver is turning so many heads and making so much progress, but I don’t. And yes if it was a different female drive I may feel differently but I doubt it. For me what I love best about NASCAR is its tradition. I love the fact that there are a few families that have been around since the start of NASCAR and they continue to be active in the sport in some form. I like the tradition of “Gentleman Start Your Engines”, can’t say that with “her” in the field.
I know times are changing; they have been ever since the death of Dale Earnhardt, but at least after his death the tradition continued. As much as I love NASCAR and its tradition with “her” in the field I have a hard time being the fan I once was. To me the sport will not be the same till she is gone from it, and I don’t know if that is happening anytime soon.