We’re at the end of the 2000s, and we’re taking a look back at the top stories, events, drivers and moments of the last decade. It was a time of change in NASCAR, a time when the regional sport blew up nationally, but change always comes with a price. Today, the top stories of the decade.
1. Death of Dale Earnhardt. It was almost Shakespearean in its drama and tragedy. On the very day NASCAR began its major new television deal, its most famous star died in the final lap of the Daytona 500, blocking for his son and teammate. Earnhardt’s death and resultant outpouring of grief instantly transformed the sport, vaulting it to untouched heights of popularity and awareness. Sadly, you can now divide NASCAR into pre- and post-Daytona 2001.
2. The introduction of the Chase. Looking for a way to maximize end-of-season excitement, NASCAR rolled out the Chase for the Cup in 2004. And initially, it seemed brilliant; the Chase was in doubt until the final turn of the 2004 race in Homestead. But the points reset has caused controversy, as has the fact that one guy has been more successful at it than anyone else.
3. Jimmie Johnson‘s four-peat. Nobody in NASCAR history has ever won four titles in a row, and Johnson has done so in dominant fashion. Love him, hate him or disregard him, but Johnson is one of the most successful drivers in NASCAR history, and he’s at the top of his game right now.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. leaves DEI. The other shoe dropping from the passing of the Intimidator came six years later, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. packed up and left the company that bore his name following an ugly, protracted fight with his stepmother Theresa. Going to Hendrick was supposed to mean Earnhardt would become a worldwide superstar with the best equipment in the sport. So far it hasn’t worked out that way.
5. The debut of the Car of Tomorrow. Earnhardt’s death spurred a raft of safety improvements, including track barriers and in-car head restraint devices, but the most significant was the Car of Tomorrow. Rolled out as a safer alternative to previous vehicles, as well as a more cost-effective approach that narrowed the range of engineering tinkering, the Car debuted in 2007 and was formally introduced in 2008. Its blocky structure and narrow engineering possibilities led to complaints from both fans and drivers.
6. The arrival of Toyota in NASCAR. NASCAR has always been a uniquely American sport, so when Toyota entered the sport in the mid-2000s, starting with lower-level series, the howls of protest started. Never mind that much of Toyota’s work is done in the United States, or that many "American" manufacturers do work overseas, or that other foreign manufacturers have been in NASCAR before; the perceived "invasion" of Toyota set many fans on edge. And when Joe Gibbs Racing switched from Chevy to Toyota and kept winning, that seemed both an assault and a betrayal. The foreign-car issue seems to be fading with all but the hardcores, but it’s still out there.
7. The cresting of NASCAR’s popularity? NASCAR exploded so quickly in popularity — you’ve heard the "second most popular sport in America" factoid a thousand times — that there had to be a pullback. The combination of a bad economy and gripes about the on-track product led to declining attendance at races, and thousands of "the sky is falling" articles. Is the worst over?
8. NASCAR’s landmark television deal. Just two weeks before
the turn of the millennium, NASCAR struck a six-year, $2.4 billion deal
to put the sport on three separate networks. The centralized television
deal brought the sport to more viewers than ever before, but also –
say it with me — spurred controversy among longtime fans.
9. The debut of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. NASCAR’s Hall of Fame, to open in Charlotte in 2010, will be a landmark for the sport, a place where the history and grandeur of NASCAR can be formally celebrated. And naturally, its opening will come with controversy — two Frances and no David Pearson in the inaugural class? Really? — but if it didn’t have people griping, it wouldn’t be NASCAR.
10. Death of Adam Petty. At 19 years old, Adam Petty was NASCAR’s next younghope, the fourth generation of Pettys to race in NASCAR. He was slated to run in the Winston Cup series in 2001. But in May 200 during a practice session for the Busch series in New Hampshire, his throttle stuck and Petty hit the wall, dying instantly. It was a wrenching tragedy for the whole sport, and in Adam’s honor his father Kyle has begun the Victory Junction Gang charity, one of NASCAR’s best-known charities.
All right, your turn. What did we miss? What else belongs on this list? Have your say!