1999, Mooresville, North Carolina:
Dale Earnhardt is riding high. He's had surgery that makes him feel younger than he's felt in years. He's beginning to win races again. He's finally won the Daytona 500, a goal that he came so close to achieving for 20 years, yet slipped away, often on the last lap. But Dale finally has put that feather in his cap. Dale Earnhardt Inc. is beginning to boom. He's in the process of setting up his 2000 team, which will include driver Steve Park and his son, 2 time Busch champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. Dale has Pennzoil on board as Steve's sponsor, and Budweiser has inked a multi year deal for Dale Jr. Dale spends time putting people in position at DEI, but takes the time to enjoy the hunting season. He spends quality time with Teresa and Taylor. Life is good for Dale Earnhardt.
Fast forward to 2000. Dale wins again, win number 76 in his storied career. His son, Dale Jr. wins in his first full season in the Winston Cup, not once, but twice. He also wins the Winston all star race at Charlotte in May. Life seemingly could not get much better for the man most of the NASCAR world calls the Intimidator.
Fast forward once again to 2001. It's February in Daytona, Florida. Dale Earnhardt and his son have just driven as teammates in the 24 hour Rolex race, and had a great time together. Dale's relationship with his often rebellious son as matured to the point that they are more comfortable in each other's presence. Dale Jr. seeks his father's advice on many subjects, and Dale is more than happy to share his experience with him. Dale's team has grown to 3 Cup teams this year, with the addition of long time friend Michael Waltrip, driving the DEI Napa Auto Parts Chevrolet. Dale's teams are running good, and so is his black number 3 Chevrolet which he's driven for long time friend Richard Childress all these years. Life is good, and it's Speed Weeks in Daytona. NASCAR has new TV contracts with Fox and NBC, and now, for the first time, literally all of America can watch every race from green flag to checkered flag every week.
Finally race day is here. Dale runs well most of the race. Early on, he gets bumped by a rookie driving the 98 Ford. Dale puts his hand out the window, at 200 mph, in order to give the rookie a one finger salute. Fox TV replayed the event, and that was probably the first time most of the racing world ever heard of future Cup champion Kurt Busch, who was the recipient of Dale's salute.
On the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, two of Dale's cars, the 15 of Michael Waltrip and the 8 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. are running 1st and 2nd. Dale runs third, and has to be a very happy man seeing two of his cars running up front in NASCAR's biggest race. Strangely, Dale Earnhardt does not try to race his employees. He holds back, as if to block the field from being able to catch his two drivers. In the process, Dale gets a little bump from behind, swerves down onto the track apron, and then shoots across the track into the Turn 4 wall, and the racing world literally stopped.
Hours later, NASCAR president Mike Helton revealed the awful news. Dale Earnhardt was gone.
In the hours and days after Dale's death, DEI and Richard Childress Racing scrambled to recover. All of the NASCAR world reeled from the shock for weeks and months afterward, but these two teams really had to scramble to put their game face back on. Richard Childress recalled later that he was ready to walk away from racing for good at that point, but remembered a promise that he and Dale had once made to each other: If one of them were to die, the other would carry on. Richard decided to go on, and brought up a hot young driver named Kevin Harvick, painted the old black 3 car white, and put the number 29 on the car. A few races later, Harvick won his first Cup race at Atlanta.
At DEI, things were very grim. Dale Earnhardt Jr. later would describe the turmoil that he felt in the days after his father's death. He wondered if his sponsors and fans would leave him, since at that time he felt that his followers were only there because of his father. He was later shown that his fans were genuine, and his sponsors stayed with him.
One week after Dale Earnhardt's death, NASCAR took the show to Rockingham, NC. Very early in the race, Dale Jr. was hit and slid into the wall, in an eerie slow motion replay of the accident that had taken his father's life so recently. Dale Jr.'s day was done, and he was limping when he got out of the car. It later turned out that he was not injured in the crash, but simply had his belts so tight that his feet and legs were starving for blood circulation. Dale Jr. of course survived and went on to win a lot of races in the 8 car in future years. The Rockingham race was eventually won by DEI driver Steve Park, in what must have the been the most emotional victory in his career.
At first, it appeared that DEI was going to be just fine. Dale Jr. was successful, as was Michael Waltrip. Eventually, Michael Waltrip left DEI, beginning his own team with the entry of Toyota into NASCAR. By 2006, Dale Earnhardt Jr. began to become increasingly frustrated by the lack of performance that he and all the DEI cars were experiencing. In 2007, Dale Jr. began negotiations with his step-mother, Teresa Earnhardt for possible control of the race team. Teresa rebuffed Dale Jr.'s offer, and eventually Dale Jr. left the company that his father had started, mostly in order to give his children a place to race if they so wished.
During this time, Teresa Earnhardt had struggled with a changing racing world. As DEI's competitiveness declined, she responded by hiring Max Siegel, a recording industry CEO, and made him a top manager in the company. What Mr. Siegel knows about racing is still a closely guarded secret, but one which is not highly in demand, judging by the steady decline at DEI.
And now, late in 2008, what was once known as Dale Earnhardt Inc. is no more. In it's second merger in 3 years, DEI is now part of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. No one named Earnhardt is currently racing for the company. Dale's grandson Jeffrey ran some races in the Camping World East series in 2008, but was replaced by another driver before the end of the season. EGR currently has 3 drivers, Martin Truex Jr. who will be sponsored in 2009 by Bass Pro Shops, Juan Pablo Montoya who will be sponsored by Big Red and others, the 8 car driven by Aric Almirola and currently having no sponsorship, and the 41 car, driver currently unnamed, and possibly sponsored by Target. Bobby Labonte, who recently announced that he was leaving Petty is listed as a top candidate for the 41 car.
My entire point is this: In 8 years, DEI has gone from a top contender, week in and week out, to at best a 3rd tier team. Hundreds of employees have been laid off over the last 3 years as mergers, first with Ginn, and now with Ganassi have occurred. DEI has hired marketing geniuses but have virtually nothing to market, other than the memory of Dale Earnhardt. Many are saying that what was once DEI is now on the verge of just being a memory.
Hard times abound now for virtually all teams in NASCAR. Even the top teams such as Hendrick and Roush have felt the pinch of a tightening economy and car manufacturer woes. DEI, however, has been sliding down an abyss for years, it would seem. This, to me, is one of the truly sad stories in NASCAR in the 21st century.
The company that Dale Earnhardt left behind on February 18, 2001, was a strong one. It's since become only a very thin shell of the greatness it once was and held.