When many people look at Dale Earnhardt’s career, they mainly focus on his prime in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, or they focus on how it tragically ended in 2001. Few take time to look at how Earnhardt really went out at the top of his game. Heading into 2001, he was on a career resurgence, and ElitePrecision29 went into detail about that resurgence.
Earnhardt’s Prime and Decline
As ElitePrecision29 points out, Earnhardt burst onto the scene in 1979 winning the Rookie of the Year award and his first championship in 1980, only his second full-time season. After a few trying years with Rod Osterlund, Jim Stacy, and Bud Moore, Earnhardt signed with Richard Childress in 1984 and the rest, as they say, is history. Earnhardt would win six championships and finish top three in the points every year except one between 1986 and 1995.
From there, however, Earnhardt began to slowly decline as ElitePrecision29 dives into. He mentions how in 1996, an injury Earnhardt suffered in a crash at Talladega hobbled “The Intimidator” for the rest of the season finishing fourth in the standings. In 1997, Earnhardt failed to win a race for the first time since 1981.
In 1998, while Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500, the rest of the season was a struggle. ElitePrecision29 called Earnhardt “non-existent” during the season, and for good reason. Earnhardt finished eighth in the standings with his worst average finish since 1982.
Where did Earnhardt go from here? Well, as ElitePrecision29 points out, Earnhardt started winning.
After a rough start to 1999, ElitePrecision29 goes into Earnhardt finding his groove around the middle of the season. Earnhardt got his first win in 40 races at Talladega that spring, and he would work his way up to seventh in points after being as low as 20th.
Earnhardt would win two more races in 1999. The second win of the season coming at Bristol where he famously dumped Terry Labonte for the win. The third came at Talladega in the fall as Earnhardt swept the season at Talladega.
From there, ElitePrecision29 looks at Earnhardt’s 2000 season. He says that Earnhardt was feeling the best he ever had in 2000 after an offseason surgery to repair a ruptured disk in his spinal column and having his son Dale Earnhardt Jr. racing for the first time in the Cup Series full-time.
After a forgettable Daytona 500, Earnhardt took home a dramatic win at Atlanta in a photo finish over Bobby Labonte. While Bobby Labonte was too much for Earnhardt to reach, Earnhardt still maintained a spot in the top 3 in the standings. Earnhardt took his last career win at Talladega that fall, and finished the year with 13 top-5s, 24 top-10s, and a second place points finish.
It is great to see ElitePrecision29 highlight this part of Earnhardt’s career. When Earnhardt was in his upper-40s, he was finishing second in the Cup Series standings. This was during a time where many were wondering what he had left in the tank.
After 2000 many wondered what Earnhardt could have done in 2001. Unfortunately, tragedy struck.
What If Earnhardt Ran the Full 2001 Season?
ElitePrecision29 then goes into the tragic passing of Dale Earnhardt, and openly wonders what if Earnhardt had not passed away in 2001? He theorizes based on Kevin Harvick’s impressive rookie season of 2001.
Harvick won two races and finished in the top-10 in the points standings despite missing a race. EilitePrecision29 notes that this was the same team and the same cars that a more experienced Earnhardt would be running with. He guesses that Earnhardt could have competed for a championship.
To be honest, that is not too far-fetched. Given how good RCR was at the time and where Earnhardt was resurging, it is certainly possible Earnhardt could have continued to compete for wins and championships.
Would Earnhardt have competed for Jeff Gordon one more time for an eighth championship? Ultimately, we will never know.