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Jeff Burton's Take: On Dale Earnhardt, and the loss of the Big E

  Dale Earnhardt, 1999, and the man he'd picked to take over number three when he finally stepped down, Jeff Burton (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Filling Dale Earnhardt's shoes….
   In the weeks and months following the shockwave of his death, that was a hot question in the NASCAR garage.  In the end, of course, no one has stepped to the plate, not really.

   Certainly not out on the track (though Kyle Busch, with his own highly excitable fan base, and his amazing driving talents, may be trying).
   And back in the NASCAR garage, and NASCAR's command hauler, well, it's been a committee of drivers offering advice, sometimes grudgingly, because of the seeming futility of it usually. That driver revolt a few years ago against the ungainly car-of-tomorrow didn't get them anywhere, except for a curt 'Shut up and drive.'
   NASCAR listens, yes; but then NASCAR does what it darn well pleases.
   It wasn't like that when Dale Earnhardt was around.
   When Earnhardt threw his two cents worth of common sense advice on the table, NASCAR executives usually jumped. In fact they'd go to him for words of wisdom. And if officials, on a rainy day, were pondering when to call it a day, well, Earnhardt typically gave them the answer – by hitting the road himself.
   But nobody really has NASCAR's ear quite like that anymore.



Back in 1979, Dale Earnhardt already had a reputation for hard driving....and that wicked little grin (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Earnhardt's personality, and that larger-than-life persona, may be seen differently today than back in the day he was roughhousing rivals.
    Jeff Burton has lived through it all. He has been driving for Richard Childress for more than six years now, Childress the man whose time with Earnhardt created that legend.
     "Dale was a polarizing figure," Burton says.
    "Richard Petty was a seven-time champion, but he didn't generate passion the way that Dale generated passion.
    "It's rare to have someone like Dale Earnhardt, a seven-time champion… who also did things on the track….
    "Hey, people hated him. There were fans that hated him. There were fans that could not stand him.
     "Not because he won, but because of the way he won.
     "And there were fans who loved him….not just because he won but the way he won.
     "Richard Petty is a real nice guy…and Dale was too, but Dale had this image: he was the Intimidator, and he didn't care what you thought, and he was going to run over you or wreck you or do whatever it took to win the race.
   "Some people loved that, some people hated that.
    "Dale was just a polarizing figure. We have that in our sport today – but they haven't won seven championships.
     "You take all that, that's not just a personality, that's a whole bunch of things that you just can't replace. And you can't just create it."



    Dale Earnhardt didn't always have that mustache, but he always carried that attitude.....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Dale Earnhardt's persona….Dale Earnhardt's staunch and vocal fan base….and Dale Earnhardt's talents….   
    Earnhardt, Burton said, could make moves that other drivers couldn't.
   "Now Dale could make moves that the rest of us couldn't…and he knew he could.
    "I'd think about a move and say 'Nah, can't do it.' But Dale would make the move and more often than not he would make it work.
   "That's why Dale was so great. He was damn good.
    "He didn't win all those championships because they gave him the big plate or because he got lucky. He was damn good."

    Among the drivers who have come through this sport, Burton may know the real Dale Earnhardt better than anyone.
   Burton, a tour veteran for nearly 18 years now, has become this sport's best, most polished, most common sense spokesman. And over his years with Childress, Burton has become a key figure in the company, and a confidante of Childress, sometimes seemingly the glue helping hold things together.
    Perhaps not so ironically, when Earnhardt, back in 1999 and 2000, was looking at the next phase of career, after hanging up his helmet, the man he wanted to take over the legendary number three was Jeff Burton.
   It didn't turn out that way, of course. 
   And Earnhardt's death at 49 left an unexpected void in this sport in many respects.

   Now the legend....with a wink for us all (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The man to fill Dale Earnhardt's shoes?
   Well, anyone who remembers all those excitable, rabid fans of his – "Daaaaale! Daaaaale! Daaaaale!" and all those fans who loved to hate him, for his hard-nosed, tough-as-nails driving style, who would even dare try.
   So it's been a body of work by fellow drivers who knew him so well to try to help fill that void, if not out on the track, at least with the media and NASCAR officials.  Because, remember, much of Earnhardt's talent was in his common sense, which the late Bill France Jr. called upon so often that he even had push-to-talk radio with Earnhardt during these races.
    So imagine the pressure that Kevin Harvick, now Burton's teammate, was under those first few years after Earnhardt's death, as the man car owner Richard Childress picked to take Earnhardt's ride.
    Harvick says it took him several years to learn how to deal with that, and only when he felt he was having success come his way, his own way, starting perhaps in 2007, did Harvick start to feel comfortable about it all. 
    Burton, who joined the Childress operation in late 2004, has watched the Harvick mystique up close, Harvick's 10 years as Earnhardt's successor:
   "It's hard to be in the shadow of somebody. That's hard. It takes a while to separate yourself from that," Burton says slowly.
   And Harvick's early years were, well, a bit ragged. 
   "Kevin has matured tremendously," Burton says now.
   "And part of that comes from owning his own team too (Nationwide and Truck). That's more than I'd want to take on; I've watched that with a lot of respect. Because it's hard to be a car owner. He's got over 100 employees now, and he's got to deal with major sponsors, and on top of that do this too. And he's done that well.
   "It's helped him see another side of the sport. And it's helped him grow. He's been able to look at his mistakes and learn from them. Early in his career, he was, like, 'This is just who I am.'
   "But now Kevin is a much stronger person than he was 10 years ago."


    Remember that over-the-wall gang: Earnhardt's Flying Aces? Can you pick the year? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Burton, who hit this tour in 1993, has long been diplomatic in most confrontations in this sport (which is why that flap with Jeff Gordon at Texas last fall was so surprising). And that's been a trait of his ever since that first night at Richmond when NASCAR officials kicked him and his car out of the race after finding the crew chief, unbeknownst to Burton, had drilled holes in the rollbars – Burton was surprising cool under the gun that night, handling the crisis with class. Burton may have even amazed himself that night.
    The day Earnhardt died was so shocking to everyone. "You just can't fathom it," Burton says. "It was just a shock. You can't imagine that a guy like Dale Earnhardt was killed. Of all people you would have thought there's no way you could kill that man.
   "To lose him, it was an unbelievable feeling."

   The death of NASCAR's Superman led to a revolution in safety in NASCAR.
   "Drivers coming in today have no concept of what this was like 10, 11 years ago, no concept," Burton says. 
   "NASCAR really had to change.  I credit Brian France and Mike Helton for saying 'We've got to do it different.'
    "When they said they were going to do it different, Boy, they went and did it different. They didn't half-ass do it different; they went full force at it. 
    "I never believed that was going to happen. 
    "But Dale's death created a scenario where you couldn't ignore it any more."
   Burton himself has long been a strong advocate for safety, even when others, like Earnhardt himself, would denigrate his efforts.
   "I wasn't ignoring it…because I was hearing when those others got killed 'They were young and skinny, and their necks weren't strong, and those were Busch cars not Cup cars,' and all, and I knew that was ridiculous.
   "Now Dale's death wasn't the only thing that prompted the safety movement, but that was the final straw.
   "So people say some good came out of it, and I guess you could look at it like that…but I can't look at it like that."


    And before there was the Three, there was the Two. Here Earnhardt, in his rookie season, but defiantly playing Daytona 500 tag with Donnie Allison (1) and Cale Yarborough, whose last lap drama is legend (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  In the years following Earnhardt's death NASCAR launched a wide-ranging review of safety issues and became extremely pro-active. And so did the drivers. And Burton and Gordon were in the forefront.
   "When you start looking at what goes on in an accident, it was clear we were all doing a lot of things wrong," Burton says.
   "My thought process didn't change, though. I was already there, months before (Earnhardt's death). I wasn't exactly the most popular guy in the world for speaking out about it.
   "There is no death or injury that is acceptable. Yes, this is a dangerous sport, and I accept the danger and accept the risks. But it doesn't have to be any more dangerous than it has to be.
   "The idea that we have to be daredevils, that we have to be death-defying, is ridiculous.
   "The idea that we're race car drivers and it's supposed to be dangerous, that's a bunch of crap. Now I understand this is more dangerous than being a CPA, I get that.
   "But it doesn't have to be any more dangerous than it has to be.
   "Back when all this stuff was going down (the series of deaths in 2000 and 2001), this sport had the money, we had the manufacturers will to step up, we had all the things…we just didn't have the full willingness to do it.
    "But we do now.
   "The way this sport has transformed itself over the past 10 years, from a safety standpoint, is incredible.
   "And it all falls back to a mindset: and if the mindset is 'safety is not an attainable goal….'
   "But if you are willing and have the resources, you can always to do it better than you're doing it today.
   "When you lose that, you take a step back. But we have that now, and we have to do everything we can to keep it."

   The flip side is these drivers may seem all-but invincible. They've certainly been racing that way lately.
   But Burton disagrees: "When you're in a race car and you make a move, you don't think about making a move that might hurt you. You don't go into turn one at Indianapolis, trying to pass someone, and say 'Gee, they've got softwalls now, so if I crash, it won't hurt as bad as it would have.' You think 'I'm going to do whatever I can to pass that guy.' You make the move you think is going to work.
    "I'm not a believer that softwalls has had a big impact on how aggressively we race. Now I'm in the minority on that. But I speak from having done it, and thinking I was as safe as I could possible be in the car and now realizing I wasn't."


   Father and son (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The 10th anniversary of Earnhardt's death has been weighing heavy on Childress himself of course, and Burton can see it:  
   "It's hard for Richard, it's really hard for Richard.  He really doesn't want to talk about it.
    "Dale and Richard were tight….it wasn't just 'boss,' it was two friends.  And they supported each other through good and bad. 
    "They had a lot of bad times too.  Richard tells a story of telling Earnhardt (in 1983) 'Look, man, I can't put you in the kind of cars you need in right now. You need to go drive somewhere else.' But Dale is saying 'No, I drive for you. We're going to work it out. I'm your driver.'"
    In the first few years after Earnhardt's death there was a clear loss of leadership and drive in the Childress effort. "There were definitely some times after that that RCR went the wrong way," Burton said.  "I think they really missed Dale's leadership, they really missed some direction. 
    "They really missed Dale standing on the table and saying 'Damn it, boys, we need to do this.'"
    Eventually Childress realized things had to change, and he began shaking things up….and began getting head really back in the game.
     "It had to change," Burton agrees. "It's just that as you get older that becomes harder to do.
    "But Richard has adjusted.  He's determined for this company to be part of NASCAR in a big way forever.
    "For him, it's a legacy. It's not about just being successful today, it's about being successful 20 years from now. 
     "Richard has adjusted. A lot of great car owners have not been able to make that adjustment.  But Richard has done that.  I think that says a lot."
    And it also says a lot for Jeff Burton.

    And finally winning the elusive Daytona 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)








Burton and others keep

Burton and others keep talking about the safety revolution in the sport since Earnhardt's death, yet they never seem to face that maybe NASCAR went about it wrong. The sport has the SAFER barrier, the HANS, etc. but where has been the effort to slow the speeds? The sport does not need 180 MPH on banked intermediates like Charlotte and Atlanta (didn't we learn that again from McDowell's melee?) and it does not need 200 MPH anywhere, yet instead of slowing the cars we have these changes to the walls and mandating neck restraints and we have John Darby yanking out cooling hoses thinking drivers will lift instead of overheating their engines in lock-bumper superdrafts. If this ethos of cowardice is a legacy of Earnhardt then it's a legacy the sport needs to overcome.

As for Earnhardt talking to NASCAR and NASCAR listening, I ask Mike Mulhern what I've asked many with a good answer never offered - what policy battles with NASCAR did Earnhardt ever win? The only sign that they actually listened to him is if there was a rule or a policy that was changed because Earnhardt lobbied against it.

Hey, fired up, aren't we! And

Hey, fired up, aren't we! And it's only Day Three.....pace yourself, it's a long time from here to Homestead.
Yes, I agree speeds in general are too high, especially at California's Auto Club Speedway, where drivers go into those nearly flat 14-degree corners at 208 mph. That, to me, is absurd. And these 203 mph laps here dont bother me nearly as much as the speeds at the intermediate tracks; after all Carl Edwards nearly put Brad Keselowski into the stands at Atlanta. My solution is less horsepower; we don't need 900 hp engines. Cut 'em back to 650.
Re -- Earnhardt. the 5-and-5 rule back when died a quick death when Earnhardt ripped it. Something about Big Bill rolling over in his grave, as I recalled. And of course Earnhardt's personal rainout policies. Let me try to get a list of Earnhardt-Billy Jr. stuff for you.

Thanks Mike. Hey, I try to

Thanks Mike. Hey, I try to bring it whenever I can.

I remember Earnhardt ripping the 5&5 rule (I think the Big Bill rolling in his grave quote, though, is from the 2000 Daytona 500 and the ban on soft springs for that race); I also remember Terry Labonte ripping it; I remember Bobby Hamilton saying after he won the '98 Virginia 500 that cars aero-push on short tracks with this rule; I remember Kenny Irwin doing a nice subtle dig at it after wrecking at the Brickyard. I don't particularly credit Earnhardt alone for changing that rule.

You're correct about the speeds on the intermediate supers. 206 is less worrisome at Daytona but we've been here enough to know you can't trust these cars at 206 anywhere. The sport definately needs far less horsepower than it presently has, and with the effectiveness of push-drafting they can restrict the engines at Atlanta etc. and if anything gain ability to pass via the push-draft - for Atlanta and Charlotte etc. one could even see a scenario where the lock-bumper superdraft kicks in as well; though a place like Pocono (or Ontario if it still existed) they'd have to settle for the straightaway superdraft like Todd Bodine did at Pocono in the Truck race.

What list of drivers

What list of drivers represents the sport in the most common sense long view way?

Burton, Martin, Gordon. No coincidence that they have all been around a long time.

There may be others, but these 3 come to mind immediately.

Hope NASCAR has regular meetings with these guys. As a group and individually.

What is going on this year, in the long view, I think is good. Perfect, no.

We don't need these speeds, close competition between cars is what is needed.

250 cubic inches for a start.

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