33-year Earnhardt streak nears end

In all probability this Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, someone will pose a question that should never be asked.

For the first time in 33 years, a NASCAR Sprint Cup race will take the green flag without an Earnhardt in the field. NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., sits sidelined with a concussion from a crash during testing at Kansas, aggravated by last week’s last-lap crash at Talladega.

During 1979, his father’s rookie Cup season, Dale Earnhardt had a nasty crash in the July Pocono race, breaking a collarbone. You might be able to drive with a broken collarbone. But you can’t tighten your shoulder harness, so Dale sat out the next four weeks to heal.

David Pearson, rideless after splitting with the Wood Brothers that April, climbed aboard Dale’s No. 2 Osterlund Chevy. Showing the form that made him a shoe-in for NASCAR’s Hall of Fame, the Silver Fox started and finished second at Talladega, won the pole at Michigan, finishing fourth, and was seventh at Bristol.

Pearson capped his stint by winning Darlington’s Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend. Dale reclaimed his ride at Richmond, beginning the Earnhardt family’s consecutive start streak that ends this weekend at Charlotte.

Dale started 648 consecutive races from September 1979 to February 2001. Dale Jr. ran 461 straight, from Atlanta in November 1999 through Oct. 7. Forty of those starts were shared with his dad. Dale’s older son, Kerry, started seven Cup races from 2000 through 2005. All three Earnhardts raced together once in Cup, at Michigan in August 2000.

Now, flash back to 1994. During the CBS telecast of the Daytona 500, David Hobbs interviewed car owner Bobby Allison, and posed a question that might seem innocent enough to those outside the sport.

Hobbs meant no harm. His question simply followed one to Richard Petty about 1994 being the first time someone other than "The King" drove No. 43 in the 500. But the circumstances of Petty’s and Allison’s retirements had been quite different.

It struck a raw nerve to those who know Bobby as a racing champion whose career was ended by a near-fatal crash, whose brother Donnie’s racing had ended in similar fashion, whose younger son Clifford died in a racing crash and whose older son Davey died landing his helicopter at a track.

Was Bobby blindsided by the directness of the question, or was he perhaps searching for words amidst a torrent of memories? In any case, he told Hobbs he didn’t hear the question, so David repeated it.

"It’s been 34 years" Hobbs began, "since there was not an Allison in this race. How do you feel about that?"

"Sad," Allison shot back. "A lot of people have helped me a lot, and at least I’m able to be here, but it’s a tough deal . . . We’ve had a lot of good days here, and so, we just do the best we can."

The pain was evident in Allison’s eloquent, heartfelt response to the question that should not have been asked. Hopefully it won’t be asked of Dale Earnhardt Jr. this Saturday night.