I was reading through some old (and not-so-old) racing columns and found one that I wrote last year that got me thinking. Actually, it was the comments that I got that got me thinking. I wrote about some of the issues that were making NASCAR less than popular with the fans. You can read about them if you really want to. But it isn’t necessary.
What really piqued my interest was a comment that, in a nutshell, blamed about 95% of the problems in NASCAR these days on Dale Earnhardt Jr. Apparently, NASCAR lets Junior run rampant in the garage and on the track, giving him cautions for the asking and, more or less, fixing the races for his benefit or for any other outcome they would like to have.
OK, let me get this off my chest: the NASCAR universe doesn’t revolve around Junior. That’s not a knock on the most popular driver. It’s merely an observation about two factions of fans that I’ve encountered in recent years; those that love Junior, and those that hate him. Love him, and he’s all that and a bag of chips, the greatest driver on the circuit who can do no wrong and is continually shafted by the media and the officials when he should obviously be winning every week. Hate him, and he’s overrated with an inflated ego and NASCAR bends over backwards to accommodate his obviously mediocre talent, and, on top of all that, the fans who love him are obnoxious.
Even NASCAR got in on the “blame Junior” act last year, insinuating in a statement that TV ratings would be higher if Junior was running better. Well, gee, if you listen to the detractors, they did all they could to help the guy; throwing phantom debris cautions, letting Junior and only Junior pass below the yellow line on the plate tracks, making prank phone calls to Jimmie Johnson telling him the race was cancelled… It wouldn’t have surprised me at times to see accusations of little green men fixing the weather to get the guy a rain win.
Poor guy. It must be an awful lot of pressure to be told by one group of fans that the fate of NASCAR rests on your shoulders and by another that the fate of everything rests on your shoulders. It must be terrible to know that people are showering your competition with beer cans because they beat you. Or to hear that NASCAR is fixing races for you, as if that’s the only way you could get a win. You can’t win some days!
Based solely on numbers, Junior is certainly in the top tier of drivers today. 17 points wins is nothing to scoff at, certainly better than mediocre, but it’s also hard to argue that he’s the best when both Tony Stewart and Johnson, both of whom came on the scene around the same time, have double that number (Stewart is one shy of that). Have the phantom cautions over the years helped Earnhardt? Sure, but they have also helped other drivers. Kyle Busch could vouch for Junior not being the only guy to sneak in a pass below the line at Talladega. Junior hasn’t won a points race this year and the ratings have rebounded over last fall. Contrary to popular belief, Jeff Gordon and Johnson aren’t having a slump this year because Junior is getting all the good stuff at Hendrick Motorsports.
Now, don’t go thinking I dislike Junior because I said it’s not all about him. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve liked Junior since day one because he’s a class act who would probably be fun to hang out with for a day. Heck, the guy is my neighbor. But I’m not looking at him as a driver or as a person through rose-colored glasses, either. He’s not perfect, and he shouldn’t have to be.
NASCAR has never been about one guy. There are guys that are popular and others that are kind of just there, but all of them have their fans and detractors. Most other drivers just aren’t this polarizing, nor their fans and those that dislike them such zealots. Junior, like every driver on the track every week, has a lot to bring to the table, and sometimes, he screws up. He’s neither lone hero nor archvillain.
Pinning NASCAR’s hopes, or their problems, on one driver, no matter how popular, is a disservice. It’s also short-sighted and narrow-minded. But most of all, putting all that on one man’s shoulders is unfair, unfair to Earnhardt and to his competitors. He’s a shining star in the NASCAR universe, but he’s not the center of it.
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