The year that was: printed lists and video montages recap the last 365 days: in history, in politics, in sport. Now, as not only a year, but a decade comes to a close, NASCAR finds itself looking back at one of the greatest eras of change in the sport's history.
The 21st century began with NASCAR billing itself the fastest-growing sport in the nation. Popularity for the sport formerly known as a southern pastime stretched from shore to shore; new tracks popped up from the midwest to the west coast. The sport was enjoying the biggest boom ever, with expanding fan demographics, widespread media attention and growing prizes.
Then came Feb. 18, 2001: the day that changed NASCAR forever. The death of Dale Earnhardt in a crash at Daytona rocked the racing community and its fans, and made headlines worldwide, while proving that even the most intimidating driver was, in fact, human.
The crash was devastating for the Earnhardt family and business; the fallout included the eventual departure of Dale Earnhardt Junior from his father's company, DEI.
The impact of the fateful Daytona crash is still being felt. Many Earnhart fans transferred their allegiance to Little-E, who continues to experience unprecedented popularity. The sport must be hoping for his racing success to one-day match his fan appeal.
In the seasons following Earnhardt's death, the skyrocketing rise of NASCAR has slowed, with many fans lamenting that it has just not been the same since the No. 3 left the track.
Still, there have been some positive changes. NASCAR has entered a new era of safety since the Earnhardt incident, including the implementation of soft wall and head-and-neck-restraint technology.
The '00-decade brought us NASCAR's Chase for the Championship. The new point structure is still being debated, but Jimmy Johnson is certainly a fan, after becoming the only driver to qualify for the first six Chases, winning the last four straight. This year, the Associated Press recognized Johnson as their Athlete of the Year, marking the first time a driver has received the award, and perhaps giving greater credibility to the argument that racers are indeed athletes.
The last 10 years also marked the retirement and semi-retirement of some of the sports all-time favorite characters, like Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace and Terry Labonte.
The next decade promises even more change for this four-wheeled sport. Indy star, Danica Patrick will compete in a limited Nationwide Series schedule next year, and is on track to become NASCAR's first full-time female Cup driver.
The sport's aging patriarchs, like Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte and Michael Waltrip will likely take their final laps in the next decade, while drivers in their prime, like Jimmy Johnson and Kyle Busch could break championship and win records; new superstars may emerge.
NASCAR looks back at this "decade that was" as the sport's most challenging era ever.
Kellie Goodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.