Random Lugnuts: Dale Earnhardt's Legacy was in Victory Lane This July
Topics: Dale Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., David Reutimann, Michael Waltrip, Richard Childress Racing, Austin Dillon What is Random Lugnuts? It's random bits of stock car racing commentary written on an irregular basis by an irregular racing fan. The name is a reference to the lugnuts that go flying off a car during a pit stop: you never know where they are going to go, what they're going to do when they get there, they can be annoying, they're often useless after a race, and every once in a while someone gets hit and they don't know exactly where it came from.
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July 17, 2010
The racing world lost Dale Earnhardt nine and a half years ago. Nearly a decade later, his impact on the sport can still be seen even beyond his recent induction into NASCAR's Hall of Fame, the safer cars that NASCAR races to prevent another accident such as is, the absence of the number 3 on the Sprint Cup circuit, and the remnants of his team (Dale Earnhardt, Inc. having become a part of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing) winning the Daytona 500. Particularly since the beginning of July, as reminders of his legacy have been all over the top three levels of NASCAR racing since the beginning of the month.
Win #1: Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona (Nationwide Series)
The most visible, emotional and direct of the Earnhardt connections of the past few weeks was when his son raced a Wrangler #3 to Victory Lane at Daytona in tribute to Earnhardt's inclusion in the inaugural Hall of Fame class. It was a special moment in the Earnhardt legacy, but it was only the beginning...
Win #2: Kevin Harvick at Daytona (Sprint Cup)
The day after Jr.'s emotional victory at Daytona, Kevin Harvick drove to victory in the Sprint Cup race at Daytona. Kevin was supposed to run a part-time schedule in the #30 AOL car for Richard Childress in 2001, and instead was brought in to replace Dale in the renumbered 29 car for the second race of the season. While most NASCAR fans were understandably focused on Dale Jr. after his loss, I made note of the fact that Harvick achieved what most stock car drivers dream of - a full time ride with a competitive Cup team - in a way that no one wanted to get it. There have been a lot of personnel changes over the years, but in a way the team that won last week at Daytona is the same team that had to somehow carry on without Dale Earnhardt behind the wheel all those years ago. Kevin has scored 13 Cup victories as a driver for that team and in the meantime has also become one of the top Camping World Truck Series owners with 2 recent championships.
Bonus: The Return of Steve Park
Daytona also saw the return of Steve Park to the Cup Series. 2003 was the last time Park drove in a Cup race, and aside from one truck race in 2009 his first time in a top-level NASCAR car since 2006. He was Dale Earnhardt, Inc.'s first full-time Cup driver, winning 2 races for the team. Although Park didn't make it to Victory Lane this weekend, according to the TV reports he was a welcome sight in the garage and finished 13th.
Win #3: David Reutimann at Joliet (Sprint Cup)
The next week saw the Cup series go to Joliet and David Reutimann raced to his first full-distance Cup victory of his career. It was also Michael Waltrip's first full-distance victory as an owner. In 2000, Mikey's disappointing 15-year winless career was winding down. But for 2001, his 16th full Cup season, he would finally get his chance and make good on it by winning his first race as a driver for Dale Earnhardt. Nine years later, NAPA is still sponsoring his team, having stuck with him through thick and thin. While Aaron's is regularly on the side of Reutimann's car and Tums was on it at Joliet, it is quite likely that Michael Waltrip Racing wouldn't be in a position to win Cup races if it weren't for NAPA, a connection that began at Daytona all those years ago and still continues to this day with sponsorship of Martin Truex, Jr., another former part of DEI.
Win #4: Austin Dillon at Iowa (Camping World Truck Series)
The next day the Camping World Truck Series visited Iowa Speedway and different rolling Earnhardt tribute visited a different Victory Lane as Austin Dillon drove a black, red, and camo #3 Chevrolet to a dominating win. 8 days after the Dale Jr.'s Wrangler #3 won in Daytona Dillon made the #3 two-for-three in NASCAR's top series, a triumphant return for the number which has yet to see competition on the Cup level since Dale's death in 2001.
Of course, without Dale Earnhardt the NASCAR of the 80's and 90's would have looked very different. Seven championships and 76 wins would have gone to different drivers, but that is only the most obvious of changes. Four wins in the past two weeks have been the indirect result of Dale Earnhardt's actions nearly a decade ago (or earlier). His influence was such that made careers for drivers who might not have made it at NASCAR's top levels without him, people who are currently winning races might not have succeeded if it weren't for Dale Earnhardt.
Without Dale, would Richard Childress be the top-tier Cup team owner that he is today, able to provide Kevin Harvick with a winning car or support to start his truck team? Without Childress, would Harvick have faded into obscurity as a journeyman short track driver? Would Richard Childress be able to provide his grandson Austin with the support he needs to make the most of his talents? Would Michael Waltrip's career have ended without him ever reaching Victory Lane in a points race, and would he have been able to field a winning multi-car Cup operation today? Would anyone in the Cup garage even know who Steve Park was?
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