New World Order

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The questions started the day after the Daytona 500, and they've lingered ever since: Who would replace Dale Earnhardt? How would NASCAR fill the massive void left by one of the sport's greatest racers, a man whose personality may have been even larger than his formidable talent?

It's been two months now, and we haven't heard those questions as much lately.

In part, that's due to the passage of time and the natural fading of memories that comes with the healing process after such a horrific tragedy. But the other reason it hasn't popped up much lately is because it may have been answered, at least for the short term.

As wonderful as the Kevin Harvick story has been, he isn't the total answer to the saga of Earnhardt's successor. Nor was any other individual.

A few names got floated and batted around in the weeks after Daytona, the most viable being Dale Earnhardt Jr., but no one really took seriously the idea that anyone could ever actually replace the Intimidator.

Collectively, though, a few select people have stepped up to fill some of the void, springing from a twin pair of trails Earnhardt left behind at Richard Childress Racing and Dale Earnhardt, Inc. that have changed the face of racing this year in the process.

The impact of those changes has surpassed even the Dodge hype that heralded Ray Evernham's return to the sport, until Chip Ganassi stole Evernham's thunder and helped resurrect the career of Sterling Marlin as a top-10 driver.

But the combination of the moves made by Childress and the equalization process between the two Winston Cup drivers at DEI has had a much greater impact, the most immediate being to re-establish the two ownership groups more firmly in the top rungs of the ownership ladder.

Even though Busch champ Jeff Green's new deal in Cup is part-time and hasn't been finalized beyond this season, Childress has brought in a proven champion who could step into a full-time role next year.

Combine that with the promotion of Harvick and the emergence of Steve Park as an equal to Earnhardt Jr. over on the DEI side, and the Intimidator has left behind a trail of drivers who could be regulars in the Top 10 for years to come, and the combination should only get stronger when Junior's mourning period ends.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the emergence of these drivers is the total change in personality that Harvick, Park and Green collectively bring to the Earnhardt legacy.

Gone is the swagger and strut that marked the performance and presence of Earnhardt and Mike Skinner last year at RCR, and absent also are the controversial wrecks and the inflammatory comments afterward that often put them in the headlines.

Skinner especially looks to be the odd man out in the post-Earnhardt nexus, one who will soon find himself elsewhere if he can't conquer his team's penchant for late-race failures and his own tendency to wreck when he can least afford it.

In place of that the swagger and strut is a squeaky-clean, well-scrubbed earnestness that bodes ill for the search by the media and public to find a driver with a pedal-to-the-metal, no holds barred, speak-my-mind personality.

Park quietly put up with playing second fiddle to Little E last year, often driving the wheels off of what were essentially backup cars while Junior spent the second half of the season earning a bad reputation in some seamy wrecks.

Green was Labonte-esque as a Busch champion last year, a man who essentially flips the cue card and sings the appropriate songs of praise in either victory or defeat.

Harvick, though, may be the exception. Despite some nasty comments directed his way after a wreck in the Busch race at Darlington, Harvick is so clean-cut he seems to glow whenever someone sticks a mike in his face, and one of the sport's better story lines this year will be watching his real racing personality emerge in the scrutiny of the public eye.

Personality aside, the three young drivers are demonstrating a precocious ability to rack up top-10 finishes in both Busch and Winston Cup. And it’s their collective emergence - combined with Dodge's return and the new aero package at the superspeedways - that have combined to set what was NASCAR's holy trinity of ownership groups back on their heels.

Suddenly Jack Roush, Roger Penske, and Joe Gibbs seem hard-pressed to come up with top-10 finishes, leaving RCR and DEI, along with the rejuvenated Rick Hendrick group and the various factions of the Dodge gang, as the fairly-dominant forces in the sport.

It's early, of course. Park knows what he's up against, but short-track season has a way of testing the mettle of impatient young drivers, and Harvick and Green will both have to deal with the pressure and the physical and psychological wear and tear of competing simultaneously in both Busch and Winston Cup. But based on the early results, it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see a different kind of Earnhardt protege from either RCR or DEI sitting on stage in New York come December.

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