Happy Hour : The "Official" Journalist Of NASCAR · Kurt Smith · Friday May 16, 2008
Dear Dale Earnhardt, Jr.:
I’m writing to congratulate you on your terrific season so far. Smile, dude… Jeff Gordon would love to be in your position right now.
Still, I’m sure you grow weary of the press harping on that zero in the win column. Just this week alone, Pete Pistone of Racing One wrote a piece entitled Still in Search of Victory Lane. Buddy Shacklette’s column Jr. Nation Appears Alive And Well mentions the streak is now 72 races. Even our own Tom Bowles pointed out the Richmond incident that’s kept you winless in 2008. And so it goes — and will continue — as it has ever since you finished ninth at Daytona. If you listen to much of the racing press, your season so far has been a failure.
Don’t believe it.
You’re third in the standings — even with a DNF on the board. That’s after collecting four Top 5s and eight Top 10s so far…with only one finish out of the Top 15, the “weepers” incident at California. Hey cap’n, maybe I’m in the minority in the racing press, but I’m danged impressed with your first eleven races this year. I’m not sure if anyone informed you of this, but it’s your best start since 2004…and you had inferior equipment back then. If you keep going at that same rate, all you have to do is watch your mouth on TV and you’ll be right back in the hunt for a title.
So, when some eager beaver reporter asks for the billionth time why you haven’t won this year — after you’ve battled for 500 miles in the heat and finished third, no less — here’s a few answers you could give:
“I’m saving myself for the right race.”
“The gas pedal doesn’t go down far enough.”
Or even, “I’m afraid I might use a bad word in Victory Lane and cost myself points.”
Look, you get the picture: you’re the man as far as visibility. When you win, it’s news. When you don’t win, it’s news. Any product with your name on it sells, including racing articles. Websites are always looking for hits, and you always generate them — positive or negative (Thanks in advance, by the way).
It’s easy to understand why you’re a rock star, to paraphrase your estranged ex-owner. It’s not just being the son of a departed legend; it is also the low-key demeanor and maturity. There is rarely ever any whine out of your mouth, at least publicly, and people notice that. And for all of your considerable fame — even being on People Magazine’s Most Beautiful list, for heaven’s sake — none of it seems to have gone to your head. That is no small feat, especially considering the brightness of the spotlight thrust on you at a very young age.
I have to admit I once rooted against you, as I once strongly pulled against your father. But in eight years of seeing you handle that spotlight, even I’ve grown to become a supporter. However, with that enormous popularity can come unreasonable, almost impossible demands. One of those is the pressure that comes with not always finishing as well as you would like. And it was very clear that it bothered you that your former team’s owner did not seem to share your desire to bring home more wins and a championship for your fans. Junior Nation isn’t shy about their desire to see their hero up front; and it is noble of you to care about making them happy.
Going from the team Dale Sr. started to Hendrick Motorsports, of all places — a team that so many of your fans considered to be the Dark Side — couldn’t have been easy. What was going to happen to your father’s legacy once you left had to be weighing on your mind, as well as whether Junior Nation would consider you a sellout for joining the team that built cars for a hated driver who was once one of Dad’s biggest rivals on the track.
You did the right thing, man. Trust me.
The only problem is that now, driving for an elite team, you are expected to win, win, and win, to utterly dominate the circuit — since everyone knows you are ten times better than those prima donna drivers who lucked into good rides. Just 11 races into the season, the story is not that you’re having your best start since 2004, that you’re on your way to perhaps your best season ever, that you are outperforming all of your teammates — two of whom are multiple Cup champions — or that you have never run this well this consistently. No, the story is that JUNIOR HASN’T WON IN A HENDRICK CAR YET, disregarding that the team you drive for has only been to Victory Lane twice since 2001.
Pressure or no pressure from the racing media and Junior Nation, I’m certain that you would have battled Kyle Busch just as hard for the win at Richmond. That’s fine; it’s what racers do. But clearly in the interview afterward, you seemed a little upset with yourself for not taking the points with a second or third. Maybe you were reaching back for a little extra to quiet the critics (like that’s gonna happen). Not that you were to blame for that incident by any means, but regret was visible in your post-race interview.
Don’t worry, though; I’m here to help, to offer some meaningful advice. It’s simple, and it’s easy: forget what we in the press say about your thus far winless season.
The dirty little secret is that wins aren’t as important as consistency. I know that for you to say so out loud might arouse incredulous ire of the old school racers — especially those who were fans of your father — but it’s perfectly OK to take the points rather than risk wrecking going for a win. Senior won seven titles, in fact, by knowing when to do exactly that.
You’ve already won your fair share of Cup races. Big races, huge races, in fact; like your first win at Daytona after your father’s passing. You’ve won at Bristol. You’ve won at Phoenix and Texas. You’ve won four straight at Senior’s old house, Talladega. And you’ve won the 500, the granddaddy of them all. You’ve been there and done that; another win isn’t going to change that feeling.
So, it’s time to take the next step. Win a championship. You’re due.
And remember that championships don’t go to the driver with the most wins. Sometimes, winning a Cup can be as simple as putting up consistent Top 10 and Top 5 finishes every week, and simply taking the points. Just ask your buddy Matt Kenseth.
I know your fans want to see you get back into Victory Lane, because it has been a little while. I can appreciate that. But week in and week out, no matter how good you and your team are, the odds of winning for any car with 43 of the best of the best on the track are small. So despite what so many think, there is no shame in finishing second in a field of 43 of the best in the world — especially if you can do it more often than anyone else. You’re getting the job done like a champion this season, and don’t let anyone tell you different. There is a reason why they call it “big picture racing.”
I’m not saying don’t try for a win. What I’m saying is to get your best finish each week. Sooner or later, that is going to be first place. You’ll win eventually… but a win is only a win, and simply means you were the best for one week. It’s that championship which will truly place you among the greats.
So, focus on that — even if it means occasionally taking the points, and listening to further complaints from a media member constantly looking for a Junior story.
A Supporting Member of the Racing Press
Kurt’s All-Star Shorts
- I’ve never been able to stomach the All-Star race in the past; I figure 36 weekends devoted to NASCAR is enough. I once suggested that to make it interesting, they have the All-Star race at a different track each season like baseball does — but I was shot down. Anyone have any thoughts on that?
- If anyone is looking for advice on who to vote for to be in the race, I suggest following your heart: if you yearn for the days of single car teams, vote for Robby Gordon. If you yearn for old school racers, vote for Bill Elliott. If you’re angry at me about the column I wrote last week, vote for Michael Waltrip. Me? I would pull the lever for David Ragan. He seems like a good guy…
- This year’s events come complete with a burnout contest, which I think is a great idea. He hasn’t done too many of them in Cup, but Clint Bowyer’s burnouts are killers. If all the driver has to do is a burnout (meaning a firesuit isn’t necessary), Clint should fill the whole track facility with smoke, then emerge from the car to music and lights in an Elvis costume and just start windmilling. How awesome would that be? It’d make the highlight reel every year.
- I know it’s not related to racing at all, but humor me, for I’m mourning the passing of original Rush drummer John Rutsey this week. Rest in peace, John, and thanks for your part in founding what for 30 years was the greatest rock band ever.
©2000 - 2008 Kurt Smith and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!