Editor’s Note: This column originally ran in August, 2006.
Controversy occurs on an almost weekly basis in the world of NASCAR racing, and this weekend was no exception. The most discussed race controversy of the week centers around a pass executed on the last lap of a green/white/checkered restart that resulted in Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the Carfax 250 Busch Series race at Michigan. Earnhardt won, of course, after he made contact with the rear bumper of race leader Carl Edwards‘s racecar. The collision sent Edwards’s car spinning out of control, causing a caution flag due to the wreck, which froze the field and clinched the victory for Earnhardt Jr. Following the race and during the cooldown laps Edwards let his displeasure with Junior be known. Carl was hardly the only one around who was upset; many fans, after seeing a replay of the last-lap incident, also voiced their displeasure at the manner in which the race was won.
Junior, when questioned about the incident, stated, “We got a run off that corner, and Carl just got sideways and he wasn’t in the gas. I guess he was pretty mad at me, but there wasn’t much I could do.”
“I didn’t mean to spin him out. I don’t go around wrecking people.”
And there you go. Earnhardt Jr. said the unpleasant incident wasn’t intentional, and there is no reason to believe otherwise. Anytime a driver with a reputation for racing clean says that he did not make contact intentionally with another car, that driver’s explanation should be taken at face value considering his established history. And make no mistake; Earnhardt Jr. is one of the “clean drivers” in the sport. He is not known for practicing the more aggressive moves a driver might make to accomplish a pass for position.
Such a reputation has put Junior in the class of Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett, Matt Kenseth and Ken Schrader, among others, all of whom have earned at least the benefit of doubt when professing their innocence over causing a crash. Of course, other drivers not listed have demonstrated that they are not above such driving tactics, and when they deny deliberate wrongdoing it is understandable, based on their past history, to be suspicious of their true intent. One such driver that comes immediately to mind for practicing contact passes that often times would result in carnage is the aforementioned seven-time NASCAR Cup champion, Dale Earnhardt Sr. By the sheer number of on-track altercations in which Senior’s front bumper found the rear bumper of his competitor, with the outcome benefiting Senior, it’s easy to see how one could be skeptical of any denial of intent to wreck or nearly wreck a competitor coming out the mouth of an Earnhardt. However, Saturday’s race involved Junior, not Senior. And there is a big difference.
In fact, the driving styles and the demeanor of the father and son have very little in common. Dale Sr., unlike his son, adhered to what might best be described as a “whatever it takes to win” approach to racing. It’s a style that often times saw a frontrunning competitor left hanging on for dear life after having had their “cage rattled” by the man who had earned the moniker “The Intimidator” as a result of his driving tactics. Often after a controversial ending to a race, Earnhardt Sr. would deny any ill intent and shrug off the incident as just one of those racing things. This approach to driving, though, earned Dale Sr. a tremendous following that liked his particular brand of racing, as his style contributed greatly to him becoming the best known and most financial prosperous racer of his time.
Arguably, Junior enjoys an even larger fanbase and financial success than his father, but his approach to driving a racecar is distinctly different from that of Senior’s. To date, Junior has won two Busch Series championship titles and 17 Cup Series races, as well as accumulating three top 10 end-of-season points finishes in the Cup Series. The racing success the younger Earnhardt has enjoyed, though yet to match that of his father’s, has been accomplished primarily through speed and finesse while piloting his car. At no time have fans, as they often would with his father, expect Junior to make overly aggressive passes for wins. It simply has not been his style.
This is not to say that Junior has never wrecked a challenger or instigated a wreck that was of his making. Junior has made mistakes, and in the past, he has also accepted responsibility for poor judgment on the track. But the degree of care that Junior puts forward to prevent such incidents are much greater than that of a driver such as Dale Senior would consider necessary. Few have had the audacity, and, some would argue, the tacit approval from NASCAR to push and shove their way to the front in a manner lacking the refinement Senior often demonstrated. The hit-and-run tactic dubbed “the patented Earnhardt maneuver” often ended with Senior’s challengers for the win shaking their fists at him as they awaited assistance from track emergency vehicles to tow their racecars back to the garage area. But Junior simply does not share his father’s philosophy.
Perhaps the difference between father and son can best be understood by recognizing the very different circumstances that the two drivers experienced in establishing themselves as NASCAR Cup drivers. Earnhardt Sr. came to the sport with little more than the shirt on his back and a desire to win. Winning was essential for Senior to secure a job in the sport and achieve success for not only himself, but his family. The hard-charging driving style he brought with him quickly generated media interest and endeared a large following of race fans to Dale Sr., as well as polarizing another large segment of fans that did not find his hardline approach acceptable to them. But regardless of one’s point of view as to Senior’s driving techniques, they proved to be immensely successful, earning him not only great personal wealth, championships, and fame, but also generating greater interest for NASCAR across the country.
Junior has inarguably been afforded a less difficult path to Cup racing, due in large part by traveling the road already paved by his father. Not to minimize the pressures of following in the footsteps of The Intimidator, but there has never been any need to emulate or better Senior’s on-track performance. Junior has, from the beginning of his racing career, needed only to demonstrate that he had both the desire and talent to compete at the Cup level in order to get his chance, and he has done just that. There is no intent on Junior’s part to race as intensely as his father felt was necessary for him to find success in stock car racing. Dale Jr., is under no threat of financial ruin, nor is he possessed by the fear of not being able to garner a competitive ride. No, Junior is secure in his career, and clearly comfortable in his own skin.
Junior also has an amiable way of carrying himself that exudes a healthy self-confidence in his abilities and a sincere desire to be liked and respected by his peers. There was no smugness or arrogance on his part when questioned about the circumstances surrounding his controversial Busch Series victory. His demeanor after the win was tempered and clearly indicated that although he wasn’t overjoyed at the means in which the victory was accomplished, there was nothing he could do about it, and he did not feel culpable in any wrongdoing in regards to the outcome of the race.
Two accomplished drivers racing nose-to-tail in the waning laps of a race, pushing their machines to their limits at high speeds for a win, will sometimes cause one or both competitors to trip themselves up. That is very possibly what happened to Edwards. Junior didn’t slip… Edwards did. Some, including Edwards believe that Junior should have, or could have backed off and allowed Edwards to gather his car up and motor on to the victory. Junior said there was nothing he could do.
Despite what observers of the incident may think they saw, there is only one guy that knows for sure what happened from the vantage point of his front windshield, and that is Dale Earnhardt Jr. No television camera angle could possibly provide to the viewer a true depiction of the greatly accelerated closing rate that occurred as a result of Edwards’s bobble as he came off the turn. The momentary deceleration by Edwards necessary to save his car from hitting the wall, coupled with the acceleration simultaneously experienced by Junior as he took a “bite” exiting the turn, created the situation that ended in the contact. Critics claiming that Earnhardt Jr. could have slowed enough to avoid the wreck occurring are doing nothing more than offering unsustainable conjecture. Clearly, Junior’s reputation speaks for itself.