Sunday, February 20, 2011


Today is the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death on the last lap of the Daytona 500. You may be wondering -- "Oh, yeah, the Daytona 500 -- I used to watch that when I was a kid. How's that going these days?" So I thought this would be a good time to catch everyone up on the last few years of NASCAR.

The big story is that NASCAR's effort to turn itself into a mainstream sport along the lines of the NFL, the NBA, and MLB has largely failed. In 2003, NASCAR's current owner -- NASCAR is the only sport owned by a single person -- took over the enterprise built up by his grandfather and father, and has pretty much run things into the ground. Just as J.R. Ewing was more interested in making complicated and controversial deals than keeping his eye on the oil patch, Brian France is constantly chasing new schemes that take NASCAR away from its roots. In 2004, he started a rather silly playoff system that complicated the traditional Winston Cup race. In 2008, he forced everyone to start driving the "Car of Tomorrow" -- a boxy, ugly car body that has never really worked right and that is constantly being re-tweaked. He also moved races all over the schedule in a desperate attempt to attract non-Southern fans -- ending the traditional Labor Day race at Darlington, ending racing at Rockingham, North Carolina, and so forth. There have also been talk of "entertainment cautions" -- the use of caution flags not to deal with debris, but to bunch up the cars and make a race closer. None of these ideas has worked -- as any actual sports fan could have told you in advance -- and NASCAR is probably at its lowest level of popularity since the early 1990s.

NASCAR has also been burdened by the complete domination of Jimmie Johnson, who is almost certainly the most boring great driver of all time. Johnson has only won the Daytona 500 one time -- the last four years he hasn't finished better than 27th there -- but he grinds out points week after week, mainly because Hendrick Motorsports (which owns his car) gives him the best cars and support in the sport. The result is a situation in which NASCAR has all the disadvantages of a dynasty (lack of drama, no good underdog stories) with none of the charisma and drama that someone like Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan can create. In fact, Johnson's dominance has crippled the careers of much more charismatic drivers, such as Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Tony Stewart. If you can imagine a world in which Bud Grant's Vikings won five consecutive Super Bowls, you will have a good sense of what the last few years have been like for NASCAR fans.

Nevertheless, hope springs eternal, and we will hope that today's race captures the spirit of fun and high drama that used to make NASCAR great.

LAST 10 WINSTON CUP CHAMPIONS (I refuse to use whatever sponsor name NASCAR is using these days. They don't pay me. I grew up with the Winston Cup, and I'm sticking with the Winston Cup):
2010: Jimmie Johnson (Chevy)
2009: Jimmie Johnson (Chevy)
2008: Jimmie Johnson (Chevy)
2007: Jimmie Johnson (Chevy)
2006: Jimmie Johnson (Chevy)
2005: Tony Stewart (Chevy)
2004: Kurt Busch (Ford)
2003: Matt Kenseth (Ford)
2002: Tony Stewart (Pontiac)
2001: Jeff Gordon (Chevy)

2010: Jamie McMurray (Missouri)
2009: Matt Kenseth (Wisconsin)
2008: Ryan Newman (Indiana)
2007: Kevin Harvick (California)
2006: Jimmie Johnson (California)
2005: Jeff Gordon (California)
2004: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (N. Carolina)
2003: Michael Waltrip (Kentucky)
2002: Ward Burton (Virginia)
2001: Michael Waltrip (Kentucky)

1. Jimmie Johnson
2. Denny Hamlin
3. Keven Harvick
4. Carl Edwards
5. Matt Kenseth
6. Greg Biffle
7. Tony Stewart
8. Kyle Busch
9. Jeff Gordon
10. Clint Bowyer


  1. Thank you for this report.

    They talked about the Daytona 500 on The Joe B & Denny Show on Friday, and Joe B said he'd like to attend the race. Denny quickly mentioned that he has some good friends who live in Daytona Beach and that he and Joe could go down there and stay next year. I thought that was kind of sweet to think about.

    I once interviewed Michael Waltrip, before he had won his Daytona 500s, and I had no idea how close I was to being punched in the face.

  2. Also, GoHeath, I hope you don't mind that I added an Owensboro label to your post.

  3. No, that's fine. We should have an Owensboro label.

  4. This post makes me miss GoHeath at the HP.