During ESPN's "NASCAR Countdown" pre-race show Sunday, Rusty Wallace was speaking on the Kyle Busch saga - which I'm sure shocks you, not like anyone discussed that story Sunday - and recounted a tale in which he was told by NASCAR brass, straight up, plainly and simply, "We don't need you."
To me this seemed kind of curious. Rusty is one of the sport's legends, without doubt one of if not the greatest short-track drivers of NASCAR's modern era. He was a dynamic competitior and, more importantly, a polarizing one. Fans either liked Wallace a lot or they disliked him a lot, which made him and his No. 2 machine one of the most recognizable in the sport.
How could NASCAR not need him?
Then I began thinking. And I came to a pretty clear conclusion: "If NASCAR could survive after Dale Earnhardt's death, it could survive without anybody."
And Earnhardt isn't the only driver that fit that bill.Not even close.
It survived after the pioneering stars such as Lee Petty and Curtis Turner saw their careers come to an end. It survived after the living legends of the 1960s and 1970s like David Pearson and Cale Yarborough hanged it up. Since I've been a fan of the sport, sure-fire Hall of Famers Harry Gant, Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett, Terry Labonte, and Wallace have retired, as has the soon-to-be-enshrined Darrell Waltrip and perhaps NASCAR's biggest name ever in Richard Petty.
And when today's living legends, drivers like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Jimmie Johnson are no longer competing, NASCAR will still survive. That's the great thing about auto racing, and sports in general. No one man, no matter how great, is bigger than the sport itself. Some may think they are, but they find out quickly once they hop of the train and it keeps steamrolling right along without missing a beat.
To be certain, certain marquee names can be vital assets in trying times. Take Cal Ripken Jr. for instance. After the Major League Baseball strike of 1994, the game's popularity plummeted. Ripken became a baseball savior of sorts with his pursuit of the beloved Lou Gehrig's consecitive games streak. The world was watching - heck, the President and First Lady were in attendence at Baltimore's Camden Yards - when Ripken finally passed Gehrig with his 2,131st consecutive game played on September 6, 1995.
When Cal retired following the 2001 season, he was celebrated as one of the game's greatest heroes and will undoubtedly be one of the most prominent faces on the cover of the ultimate baseball history book.
After the death of Dale Earnhardt, it was likely Kevin Harvick's win at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in Earnhardt's old car just three weeks after the 2001 Daytona 500 that helped NASCAR's healing process move forward quicker.
Ripken and Harvick were both great helps to their respective sports, but baseball would have eventually recovered with or without Ripken, just as NASCAR would have eventually recovered without Earnhardt, whether Harvick won that race or not.
The moral of the story is that no one is bigger than racing, or any sport for that matter. And that's why the sport will survive long after all of us are all gone.