John Ford?s 1962 western film, ?The Man who Shot Liberty Valance,? Jimmy Stewart plays U.S. Senator whom became famous for shooting the notorious outlaw, Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin). Stewart attends the funeral of an old friend (John Wayne) and is interviewed by a newspaper editor about how he knew Wayne?s character. Stewart explains to the newspaper [spoiler alert] that he did not actually shoot Liberty Valance; it was actually John Wayne?s character that did. Upon hearing this, the editor tears up his notes and tosses them away explaining, ?This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.?
I write this because February 18, 2011 is the tenth anniversary of Dale Earnhardt?s death. A lot of people wish to show respect for the deceased by casting him in the most positive light possible. Much like John Ford, I prefer to present a morally ambiguous version of history.
I would concede that winning seven championships is an impressive feat, but it?s nothing Richard Petty didn?t do; furthermore, Petty won championships under a variety of point systems, while Earnhardt only won under the Latford System. On top of that, Richard Petty won 124 Sprint Cup races more than Earnhardt. Petty may have won those races with an extra 508 starts, but Petty still has a higher win percentage.
Richard Petty isn?t the only driver with better statistics. Jimmie Johnson is second only to Richard Petty in win percentage and is on course to pass Earnhardt?s win total within five years (to pass Petty, he would have to win six races per year for the next twenty-five years). It is worth noting that Jimmie Johnson doesn?t need to intentionally wreck other drivers to win. Of course Johnson will beat both Earnhardt and Petty for frequency of championships if he wins two in the next eight years.
I?m not writing this as a smear campaign. I?m comparing him to great drivers to give a sense of perspective. If you only read Tom Higgins?s piece on SI.com, you might think Earnhardt was the lovechild of George S. Patton and the Stig (some say that his right foot was actually made of lead, and that with his goggles on, he only saw ones and zeros). Dale Earnhardt was not God?s gift to racing, but he didn?t suck either. The truth doesn?t really matter now. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
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