Posted: Monday February 6, 2012 1:04PM ; Updated: Monday February 6, 2012 1:04PM
Dustin Long
Dustin Long>INSIDE NASCAR

Three NASCAR drivers look back on decisions that shaped their careers

Story Highlights

Dale Jr. seemed on verge of greatness in 2000 with crew chief Tony Eury Sr.

But they parted ways in 2005, and Earnhardt has won only three races since

The move Mark Martin didn't make … Jimmie Johnson's life-altering crash

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (left) and crew chief Tony Eury Sr. won 15 races together in five seasons.
Terry Renna/AP

Think back to when you faced a key decision. Maybe it didn't seem as big then. Maybe the choice seemed easy. Then again, maybe it didn't.

Looking back, did you make the right decision?

It's a question everyone -- including NASCAR drivers -- asks. The responses from those NASCAR drivers provide a glimpse into who they are -- beyond what you see on TV or at the track.

Here is what they had to say:

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt seemed on the verge of greatness when he moved to Cup full-time in 2000. He was a two-time champion in what is now the Nationwide Series and would score his first Cup victory in just his 12th career start, quicker than Jimmie Johnson (first win came in his 13th start), Carl Edwards (17th start), Kyle Busch (31st start) and Jeff Gordon (42nd start).

Guiding Earnhardt early in his career was his uncle, crew chief Tony Eury Sr. Eury could be rough and gruff but he had Dale Jr.'s respect. They would win two more times in Earnhardt's rookie season in Cup.

With Eury Sr. and his son, Tony Eury Jr., working together alongside Earnhardt, they won 15 races in five seasons. Only Jeff Gordon (20 victories) and Tony Stewart (16) won more Cup races during that time.

Following Earnhardt's career-high six-win season that helped him finish fifth in the points in 2004, Dale Earnhardt Inc. decided to make a change that would impact Earnhardt's team. Eury Sr. moved to director of competition and Eury Jr. was selected to crew chief the team's other car. Pete Rondeau became Earnhardt's new crew chief. Rondeau would be gone before June of that year, but Earnhardt's slump was just beginning. He's won three Cup races since Eury Sr. left his pit box.

Earnhardt wonders about that decision now and how much of a mistake it was.

"I think the one that would stand out for me is definitely when Tony Sr. was moved off the pit box as a crew chief,'' Earnhardt said. "We had won a lot of races and done really well. For whatever reason we split up. I feel like I had a lot of responsibility in that decision and regret that.''

Why does he feel he has responsibility for a decision made by the organization?

"Because I was in the meetings with the other people at DEI and talked myself into being in favor of it over the months we went over it,'' Earnhardt said. "I think that was definitely a mistake. I'm not putting that on anybody's shoulders. I'm taking responsibility for part of that decision. I was just ignorant and naive. I didn't realize ... [I] had a great team around me, had a great leader. I thought I knew more than everybody else around me and I didn't.''

Mark Martin

Martin's Cup debut in 1981 came with his own team. He started fifth in his first career race at North Wilkesboro and two races later won the pole at Nashville. He followed that with a pole and a seventh-place finish at Richmond and a third-place finish in Martinsville, his fifth and final start of the season.

Imagine the hype today if a driver recorded two top-10 finishes and two poles in their first five Cup races. Imagine the scramble by team owners to sign such a driver.

So, it was during that time that Waddell Wilson, who had been the winning crew chief in the 1980 Daytona 500 with Buddy Baker, asked Martin about joining his team. Here's how Martin tells the story:

"I had Waddell Wilson call me while I was standing in a pole barn in Liberty, Ind. The phone was nailed to that pole. I was standing by the back of my car. 'This is Waddell Wilson, would you be interested in driving the No. 28 car?' I said, 'Nah, I'd rather do my own deal.'"

Accordingly, Martin ran with his own team in 1982. But during the season a sponsor backed out of a deal, leaving Martin with several bills. To pay the mounting debt, he auctioned his race team piece by piece after the season and joined a downtrodden team in 1983.

"Was that the stupidest thing in the world or not?'' Martin says of turning down Wilson's ride. "If you look at it, Cale [Yarborough, who joined Wilson's team in 1983] won the Daytona 500 two years in a row not long after that in the No. 28 car. The No. 28 car was a rocket ship. It don't mean I could have driven it that good. Don't mean I wouldn't have gotten fired in five races. I got fired in '83 after seven races by J.D. Stacy. So was that [passing on Wilson's ride] a smart move or bad move?

"It seems like a bad move right now because I would have liked to have tried my luck at it. But it might have turned out bad and things might have been completely different. Who knows? Nobody knows about the decisions you make.

"That sure looks like a stupid one. Waddell Wilson! The No. 28 car! How many times did they win at Daytona with rocket ships?''

Yet, Martin admits staying with his own team might have been the best decision in the long run.

"I failed miserably,'' he said. "I needed to fail. I would have been one spoiled brat if I had gone and drove the No. 28 car and won races and never got taken down. It took me down to the ground. Everybody knows I was a different person after that. It was a long battle. It was about six to eight years for me to recover emotionally and everything else from that failure, but I wouldn't be the same person.''

Jimmie Johnson

Mistakes that seem dire can prove to be the best thing for someone. Just ask Johnson.

Johnson was 19 when he drove in the Baja 1000. He was leading as he raced through the desert at night, exhaustion slowly taking over. Johnson dozed off. He quickly awoke but it was too late. He was traveling close to 100 mph and missed a turn, slamming into a large rock that sent his truck somersaulting through the dark sky and into a ravine. He climbed from his wrecked vehicle but was stranded for hours. It gave him time to think.

"I knew that I was not driving smart,'' said the five-time Cup champion. "I knew that I was taking way too many risks and making all kinds of mistakes. Oddly enough that evening/day sitting in the desert waiting for people [to arrive] I became a points racer. Prior to that ... I was the guy that was fast and always wrecking. Never ever considered to be a championship driver. That's kind of my favorite mistake.''

 
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