NASCAR Year In Review

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Even in death, Dale Earnhardt continues to make his presence felt in the world of NASCAR Winston Cup racing. The seven-time champion was larger than life when he was alive, so why should things change after he passed from the Earth?

Earnhardt was killed when his car crashed on the final lap of the season-opening Daytona 500, but even now, almost a year later, you can’t talk about NASCAR in the year 2001 without talking about Earnhardt.

His death was clearly the story of the year, but beyond that, the impact of his death was a large story, too.

His death prompted changes in safety that probably wouldn’t have come about so quickly had he not died.

His death put the critical national limelight on NASCAR, which wasn’t used to dealing with such pressure. By the end of the year, though, the sanctioning body was taking tangible steps to repair its tarnished image.

His death didn’t slow down the progress of either of his race teams, as Kevin Harvick won twice in his old ride and Dale Earnhardt Inc. won five times.

His death put more of the spotlight on his son, Dale Jr., who proved what kind of man and what kind of driver he was in the intense glare of stardom.

His death put a small amount of tarnish on Jeff Gordon’s fourth championship, for many will always wonder if Gordon would have won had Earnhardt been alive.

His death only foreshadowed an even bigger tragedy, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 that halted racing and every other sport in the country.

Those two horrible events cast a pall over racing, but like the rest of American society, NASCAR trudged on.

There were plenty of other interesting stories throughout the year, of course. Foremost was the return to prominence of Gordon, whom many figured would never be as good as he was when Ray Evernham was crew chief. But Gordon, with Robbie Loomis taking charge in Evernham’s place, built on a solid end of 2000 to win six races and clinch the 2001 championship with one race left in the season.

“I’m just so proud of this race team and the way they’ve come together, and for Robbie Loomis and his first Winston Cup championship as a crew chief,” Gordon said. “This championship reminds me of 1995. Going into this year, our expectations were that we were still in a rebuilding mode and that we were going to be a lot better than we were the previous year, but I didn’t realistically think we had a shot at the championship.

“But to our surprise, things started clicking right away and we won races right away and we found ourselves with a team that was very capable of winning the championship and it was nice to pull it off.”

Gordon’s fourth title put him in elite company: Only Earnhardt and Richard Petty have more championships than Gordon.

Ricky Rudd chased Gordon for much of the year, putting Robert Yates’ Ford in victory lane twice, including a streak-ending win at Pocono. Rudd, though, faded badly down the stretch, falling to fourth in the final points standings.

Tony Stewart finished second to Gordon, 349 points back. But that hardly tells the story of his tumultuous season. His three-win year was punctuated by plenty of controversy.

A crash in the Daytona 500 didn’t get Stewart’s mood off to a good start. By the time he got to the season’s sixth race, at Bristol Motor Speedway, Stewart was barely in 15th place in the points. After the race, he found himself in 18th in the points, as well as fined and put on probation.

Stewart’s trouble came after Gordon punted him on the last lap for fourth place. Stewart didn’t think that was right, so he slammed into Gordon’s car on pit road.

That was only the start. At the Pepsi 400 at Daytona, Stewart was penalized for passing below the yellow line. He was dropped to 26th place, setting off an angry dispute with Winston Cup director Gary Nelson and an ugly incident when Stewart slapped the tape recorder out of a reporter’s hand and then kicked it under a hauler.

Stewart was fined again and had his probation extended, and he apologized. He wasn’t done, though. At the season’s 31st race, at Talladega, NASCAR had mandated the use of a head-and-neck restraint. Stewart was the last driver to race without one, and he put up a fight even after NASCAR told him he had to wear one. Before practice, Nelson told him he had to put one on, but Stewart refused, storming to the NASCAR trailer before angrily heading back to his hauler.

Finally, Stewart relented and wore a Hutchens Device. At the Awards Banquet in New York, Stewart poked fun by wearing the device under his tuxedo.

Sterling Marlin finished third in the points, an excellent result for Dodge in its return to Winston Cup racing. Marlin, driving for new Winston Cup car owner Chip Ganassi, put his Intrepid in victory lane twice and ran well most of the season. Marlin should be tough in 2002.

Three drivers who were expected to be tough in 2001, Bobby Labonte and Roush Racing teammates Jeff Burton and Mark Martin, weren’t. Labonte, who won the 2000 championship with a solid, no-DNF season, failed to finish six events in 2001. He did win two races and rallied from 25th in the points after the seventh race to finish sixth.

All three drivers struggled to adapt their chassis setups to Goodyear’s harder tire, which didn’t provide near the grip it had in previous seasons. Burton and Martin struggled the most, or so it seems. Burton was favored by many to win the 2001 title, but he didn’t even finish on the lead lap until race No. 8. Like Labonte, he rallied to win two races and move from 21st in the points after the 13th race to 10th.

Martin had a dreadful season, failing to win and finishing outside the Top 10 for the first time since 1988.

There were other highlights, including 19 different race winners, 18 different pole winners, five first-time race winners (Michael Waltrip, Kevin Harvick, Elliott Sadler, Ricky Craven and Robby Gordon) and six first-time pole winners.

The 2001 season saw the introduction of two new tracks, Chicagoland Speedway and Kansas Speedway, and a new television contract with Fox and NBC. Ratings were substantially higher, TV folks tell us, and NBC got a treat when its first race was won by Earnhardt Jr. – at the same race track that claimed the life of his father.

Ah, yes, Dale Earnhardt. You can’t talk about 2001 without talking about Dale Earnhardt.

Related Topics:

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2001

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