Vito Pugliese · Tuesday June 19, 2007
I knew him when
Fair-weather friend of mineâ€¦"
Opening lyrics to “Get Born Again” by Alice In Chains
With the recent announcement this past week from Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the fans have begun to react in earnest to his decision to leave DEI and drive for "The Enemy," a term used in many responses to Junior's race team for 2008 and beyond.
Wait a minute…“The Enemy?” Seriously, is this what it’s come to? Last I checked, Junior's driving for Hendrick Motorsports…not Taliban-Fenway Racing or Hamas Enterprises. When I was growing up in the early 1980's, "The Enemy" was what was emblazoned on the packaging of the G.I. Joe action figures or battlefield assets that belonged to Cobra, the arch-nemesis of the Joes. For whatever reason, a reasonable chunk of Junior fans seem to be expressing a similar sentiment regarding a certain Charlotte-area car dealer. In this case, salesman Cobra isn’t just hocking consumer vehicles but also happens to own some race teams nearby, including a powerhouse team that their hero will join in the very near future, much to their dismay.
How they reach such a flawed conclusion is absolutely beyond me.
To be honest, I question if these are really Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fans or if they are Dale Earnhardt, Sr. fans that had chosen to follow his son in name only. Whoever they are, I am having a hard time relating to these acts of treason they claim have been recently perpetuated by Driver No. 8.
How did the fans lose their sense of reality? Well, you could see the divisions forming in early May, when Junior announced his intentions to leave DEI. There were those that were aghast that he was leaving what his father had built for both Junior and his siblings, along with those that wanted to greet him with a Tecmo Bowl high-five for sticking it to his stepmother, who they claimed refused to acknowledge who really was the "E" in "DEI". These were the people prophesying the impending doom of DEI in the wake of Junior’s departure, labeling it a second tier team with no chance of winning races again, all but assured that Teresa would run the company into the ground.
Since the opinions ranged all over the board to begin with, when it was announced that Junior was going to Hendrick this past week, it wasn’t surprising that many fans grew even further apart, with some beginning to show their true colors. What? How DARE Junior befriend the likes of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, the naysayers said! He might as well have gone and driven a Ford for Jack Roush! And why wouldn't Junior just go drive the No. 3 for Childress?! EVERYONE wants to see the No. 3 out there. What's wrong with him?!
Wow. A guy makes a decision for himself for a change, and people respond by turning their back. For all that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has had to endure since February 2001, these so-called "fans" owe him a lot more than what many have shown. It's bad enough he's had this specter of his father's success looming over him, constantly casting a shadow over everything he's ever accomplished or attempted to do. He’ll never escape these inevitable comparisons to his father, and will never stop hearing the questions of what the Intimidator would think of his career. But instead of backing him up in a time of great change, understanding the weight expectations constantly drag down upon their man in trying times, these fans are bringing their loyalty to their driver into question…and responding by threatening to walk away.
The excuse many have given to be upset about the Hendrick signing concerns those bemoaning the “end” of the Earnhardt-Gordon on-track competition. And what of this "rivalry" that everyone keeps talking about? When I think rivalry, I think of Richard Petty and Bobby Allison. Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt. Kurt Busch and â€¦.well, half the field. Well, the only rivalry I ever saw between Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and Jeff Gordon was between those whose cars and trucks were festooned with a caricature of comic strip hero Calvin relieving himself on a No. 24, or Gordon fans cheering as the black No. 3 made a hard left turn behind pit wall. The two drivers never had cross words for one another, and had mutual business interests to boot. Anytime they outran one another, each considered it an achievement. If anything, their relationship was a cordial friendly competition on the racetrack, hardly a “rivalry” of the epic proportion that some have erroneously made it out to be.
The “rivalry” has been even more diluted with Junior. He was the first to congratulate Jeff Gordon on tying his father's number of wins at Phoenix this April, and hasn't had any on-track run ins with Gordon since. As for Jimmie Johnson, he recently remarked that he was trying to pass him once, watched the left front wheel of Johnson's car as he was sliding it through a turn, and thought out loud to himself, "Man, this S.O.B. is TRYIN'!"
That doesn’t sound like someone who’s referring to an enemy. On the contrary, all Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has ever wanted was respect and appreciation for his efforts, not for what his last name is or whose son he was. It was why he left DEI in the first place. When he addressed the media for the first time following his father's passing in February 2001, he sat in a red long-sleeved Budweiser T-shirt with his hat on backwards and said, "I've cried for my father out of my own selfish pity."
Until now, that was about the last time Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had done something for himself. How pitiful that a man so selfless is left to deal with so many supporters that have turned so selfish.
Well, it's high time some race fans set aside their own ambitions of seeing the black No. 3 out on the race track and give the Intimidator’s son an opportunity to flourish. It’s time for Junior to not drive constantly in the shadow of his father, to go out and make his own way with a new team and a fresh start. Junior has made it abundantly clear that living with his father’s career hanging over him is the exact opposite of what he wants to do while driving a race car. He is not the driver of car No. 3. He is not his father. He is not trying to be his father. Yet there are many who still refuse to accept that out of their own selfish interests. It’s surprising, as this is a professional race car driver in his own right who has had a pretty successful career to date. Junior’s 32 years old now, not the 15-year-old with a mini-mullet and GM Goodwrench uniform, observing from the background as we've seen in a number of video vignettes as of late. Respect should be a given at this point, not a reward for decisions selfish fans want Junior to make.
Hopefully, all of this means that Junior will start from scratch with Hendrick. I would venture to guess that he would like to as well. While he would probably love to take the No. 8 with him since it was his grandfather's number, maybe it might be best to leave that in his past, too. I believe he will run car No. 81, his number from JR Motorsports that he runs in the Busch Series. I have a hard time believing that Teresa would exchange car number 8 for number 5, the number that was synonymous with Geoff Bodine, two drivers that had a genuine disdain for each other in the mid-1980's when The Intimidator was One Tough Customer in the Wrangler Jeans Chevrolet.
In the end, though, the number won’t matter as much as the physical change of scenery for Junior. Although it is sad to see that it actually did come to this, a son leaving the company his father created for him, it is also an exciting time in the life and career of one of the most popular and charismatic drivers in the sport. Junior is now out of the comfort zone of driving for his family and stepping out on his own. Leaving behind a tumultuous eight years behind, Junior has the chance to be reborn at Hendrick Motorsports and establish his own identity for himself.
Unfairly, it’s a move that will seem to continue to upset more than a few fans of his and his father. Of course, any meaningful growth in life comes with some pain, trial, and tribulation. Junior is sure off to a strong start in that regard with the reaction from the NASCAR fan faithful, but as he has shown in the past with his father's passing, driving injured, and missing the Chase in 2005, Junior will emerge from this a far stronger individual, no matter how many supporters he has remaining.
And, with any luck, a Nextel Cup Champion.
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