Ingram's Flat Spot On
Remembering 'The Intimidator'
by Jonathan Ingram
Ten years have passed since Dale Earnhardt Sr. suffered a fatal crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500, the day the NASCAR world stood still.
During breaks in this week's testing of Daytona International Speedway's new asphalt, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson responded to questions about Earnhardt Sr.
Harvick says it's only recently that's he's accepted the role as the guy who stepped into the breach at Childress. "I was very uncomfortable with it in the beginning, didn't like it, didn't want to be a part of it," said Harvick, who won in Atlanta aboard a Chevy with No. 29 on it for Childress three races after the fateful Daytona weekend. "You know," continued Harvick, "as the last three or four years have come, I've learned to become more comfortable. And I think the biggest reason is we've been able to accomplish a lot of things on our own. So that for me is something that makes me a little bit more comfortable with it."
Although he has yet to win a championship, Harvick was a contender in the Chase for the Sprint Cup last year, has been in the Chase four of the last five seasons and won the Daytona 500 in 2007.
Even in the seven-time champion's absence, Harvick found it intimidating to become part of the Earnhardt legacy after adding the Sprint Cup schedule to his duties on the Nationwide Series team of Childress in 2001. "The hardest part for me to learn was just the fact that a lot of times it wasn't somebody trying to make you do something like he did," said Harvick. "It was just somebody commenting on things that he did."
Harvick followed in Earnhardt's footsteps by winning the Sprint Cup rookie of the year honors in 2001 -- and won the Nationwide championship. He finished the year with a second Sprint Cup victory at Chicagoland in a remarkable season for the Childress team given the way it began.
"That day was tough for everybody at RCR and everybody involved in it and for the whole sport in general," said Harvick. "But as we look back ten years, I think when you look at the safety of the tracks and the safety of the cars and the attention that NASCAR has paid to those things that have changed really the racing world. Not just NASCAR in general, it's changed the world of racing from top to bottom. And those are the things that you can draw so many positives now out of something that was so devastating for the whole sport."
For his part, Johnson regrets not having a chance to get to know Earnhardt or race against him in the Sprint Cup. "I didn't know him as a competitor," said Johnson, whose first full season was not until 2002. "I met him a few times in passing. One thing that I really wish I could have experienced was the intimidation factor that he had on and off the track and being around him and watching him work through the garage area and to help advance the series and to work with NASCAR, his interaction with the fans."
Johnson admits that as a kid growing up in California, "The Intimidator" was not his favorite driver for several reasons. "My brother picked Earnhardt Sr. as his driver when we were young kids, and I certainly couldn't align with my brother in his thoughts," said Johnson. "It was my job to beat him up and often as possible. So I had my driver, my brother had Earnhardt Sr., and I remember a lot of times, my guy was getting waxed by him year after year."
"You just hear so many stories today about Earnhardt Sr.," continued Johnson, "but I never had a chance to see him first hand. I have a great deal of respect for who and what he was and what he did for our sport, and I regret that I didn't have a chance to know him."
It's too early to talk with Johnson about the prospect of overtaking the record of seven championships that Earnhardt Sr. co-holds with Petty. That discussion will have to wait at least until Johnson scores a sixth championship. But Johnson did sound a little like "The Intimidator" when he was asked about the new points system that NASCAR officials have been discussing with teams during the off-season. Reportedly, it will assign 43 points to the winning driver and then move in increments of one down to a single point for the driver in last place.
"I don't see it being a big thing," said Johnson. "I know people expect me to react and think, 'Oh, they've got to leave it alone, don't change it.' I don't care what races are in the Chase, or about the format to win the championship. I could care less because I feel confident that my team will be able to win championships under any set of circumstances."
After a record five straight titles, Johnson seems to enjoy reminding people that the Sprint Cup belongs to him under any circumstances. That's the kind of attitude Earnhardt Sr. would have appreciated.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.