Tony Stewart retirement leaves one less driver who was ever Intimidated

Craig Jones /Allsport
1 Comment

When NASCAR’s best gather in Las Vegas this weekend for the Sprint Cup Awards, someone needs to take a very specific picture.

The people who pose for the picture are part of a very exclusive club. It’s a club that stopped accepting members on Feb. 18, 2001 and loses members almost every year.

This picture would feature full-time Sprint Cup drivers who once raced against seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Had the club portrait been taken just last year the group of drivers would have included Bobby Labonte, Michael Waltrip,  Jeff Gordon (with the knowledge he’d be a substitute driver in 2016) and Tony Stewart.

Now Stewart is retired from NASCAR competition and Gordon is really retired. Labonte and Waltrip have not announced plans for next season.

How large is the club’s membership now 15 years after Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500?

When the green flag drops on the 59th Daytona 500 on Feb. 26, only four drivers in the field – Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch – will be able to boast that.

The last addition to the club of the four was Newman.

Two years before his rookie season in 2002, Newman made his Cup debut in the Checker Auto Parts / Dura Lube 500k at Phoenix International Raceway. At 22, Newman started 10th and finished 41st after engine problems. Earnhardt started 31st and finished ninth.

Busch made eight starts against Earnhardt, the first coming on Sept. 24, 2000 in the MBNA.com 400 at Dover International Speedway.

His eighth start was the 2001 Daytona 500. Years later, Busch proudly lays claim to being one of, if not the last driver, to ever be Intimidated.

The moment came on Lap 85, with Busch and Earnhardt running next to each other in the top five. Busch was driving the No. 97 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing.

“My ‘Welcome to NASCAR Moment’ was probably the finger out the window from Dale at Daytona,” Busch told the Las-Vegas Review Journal in 2011. “It was my first Daytona 500, and I got the finger out the window. I thought I was minding my own business in the middle lane, but when it’s Senior, you gotta move over and let him through.

“He was on his way to the front.”

Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth will be the only full-time Cup drivers in 2017 who competed in a full season against Earnhardt Sr.

Both drivers had their rookie seasons in 2000, with Kenseth winning Rookie of the Year. But both made five starts in 1999, with Earnhardt Jr.’s first coming in the Coca-Cola 600.

However it’s Kenseth, now 44, who made the earliest start against the Man in Black.

On Sept. 20, 1998, at the age of 26, Kenseth was called on to substitute for Bill Elliott in the MBNA Gold 400 at Dover.

Driving Elliott’s No. 94 McDonald’s Ford, Kenseth started 16th and finished sixth. Earnhardt, starting last, finished 23rd.

Other active NASCAR drivers (in 2016) who competed against Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Elliott Sadler (33 Xfinity Series in 2016)

Morgan Shepherd (23 Xfinity starts in 2016)

Jeff Green (29 Xfinity starts in 2016)

Derrike Cope (24 Xfinity starts in 2016)

Mike Bliss (Three Xfinity and Truck Series starts in 2016)

Joe Nemechek (Two Xfinity starts in 2016)

Hermie Sadler (Two Xfinity starts in 2016)

Todd Bodine (One Xfinity start in 2016)

Ken Schrader (One Truck start in 2016)