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One of the unexpected consequences of Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001 was the last growth spurt of NASCAR to date.

Some like to say that event was the beginning of the decline, but it wasn’t.

The tragedy of Earnhardt’s death, on the last lap of the Daytona 500, put NASCAR on the cover of Time magazine (back when it meant something). It wasn’t just the biggest sports story. It was the biggest news story, and the investigation into the accident and the safety improvements necessary to prevent such tragedy from happening again kept stock car racing on the evening news and in the headlines for most of the year.

Millions of people flocked to the sport, some with the same morbid curiosity that draws people to highway crashes and house fires, and, almost accidentally, they became fascinated by it. By the middle of that decade, attendance and television ratings were leveling off, and with an interruption here and there, subsided ever since.

Some of it was inevitable. NASCAR was “the thing.” Fads don’t last. It couldn’t be a Hula Hoop forever.

When it was growing, NASCAR was stable. Then all the predictions, the graphs predicated on continued growth, and the expanding into new worlds – theme restaurants, theme parks, theme music, budding Disney – ground to a halt.

TV became the most important source of revenue. TV became God. NASCAR became made for TV. TV screwed up.

Coming up next week: The Monster Energy All-Star Race.


Through all its incarnations – The Winston, The Winston Select, Nextel, Sprint, Monster – this race was something new. Segments. Field inversions. Qualifying runs with pit stops. Swimming pools. Movie Stars. Y’all come back now, y’hear?

It’s the way every race is now!

The formats of the various Charlotte all-star races have changed more times than the borders of Germany and taken a lot less time doing it.

All the Monster Energy All-Star Race has on every other race is brevity, and NASCAR fans are not typically attracted to the soul of wit.

As Willie Nelson sang: Phases and stages / Circles and cycles / And scenes that we’ve all seen before.