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Thompson in Turn 5: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Win Gave NASCAR What It Needed – Putting the Focus Back On Racing

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s first win in over two years could not have come at a better time for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. The sanctioning body desperately needed something positive to transpire for the sport after a week in which it found itself in the forefront of the national news – and not for anything race related on the track. Instead, they were being sued by a former employee, Mauricia Grant, a NASCAR Busch [Nationwide] Series official who alleges that she had been subjected to racial and sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, and wrongful termination. The $225 million lawsuit details, among other particulars, racial remarks that Grant, a black woman who was employed by NASCAR from January 2005 – October 2007, was subjected to by co-workers.

Before Dale Jr. trumped the field at Michigan International Speedway Sunday in a fuel-strategy race, the lawsuit appeared to be continuing to “grow legs” and threatened to be a headliner going into this week. NASCAR has “circled the wagons” and denies that Grant had ever made the organization aware that there was a problem; nonetheless, hours before the running of the LifeLock 400 and following their own preliminary internal investigation of the matter, NASCAR announced that they had suspended two officials accused in the lawsuit of exposing themselves to Grant. NASCAR Chairman Brian France, still attempting to douse the spreading scandal, has asked the public to not jump to conclusions concerning the suspensions, and instead offered a pretty weak explanation. This leads some to conclude there may be at least some validity to Grant’s claims.

With the sport reeling, NASCAR was becoming somewhat desperate for some positive PR. On the heels of the filing of the damaging lawsuit earlier in the week, the sport called a mandatory meeting before Sprint Cup practice at Michigan last Friday to request some help from drivers and owners. Accounts of the closed-door meeting confirm that NASCAR officials pleaded with the assembled group to curb the negative and continual public criticism of the sport and, more pointedly, the new generation Sprint Cup car formerly known as the Car of Tomorrow. The lawsuit was not a topic of discussion.

The request was made because the France family understands, after more than 60 years of promoting stock car racing, that what fans talk about on Mondays following a race directly impacts their business. Folks gathered around the water cooler discussing sexual and racial discrimination lawsuits or just how “crappy” their favorite driver claims his racecar handles harms the bottom line. What the stock car racing organization has learned through the years is that a family-friendly image, close competition, top-flight equipment and drivers and teams focused on giving fans the best race possible is a winning formula.

That is pretty much what Dale Jr., his Hendrick Motorsports team and the other 42 competitors delivered Sunday at Michigan. The No. 88’s team’s gutsy call to stay on the track when others erred on the side of caution in itself would have made for some great workplace chatter for the week. But additionally, the racing was pretty darn good at the wide, 2-mile, speed-friendly track. Judging from the frequent side-by-side racing throughout the field, NASCAR’s new generation of racecar performed pretty well on a circuit known at times to produce some real snoozers. Also worth noting is no one was complaining about the racecar very loudly, either.

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It would seem that NASCAR has gotten out in front of further damage from the Grant lawsuit and curbed the negativity that had increasingly permeated driver interviews… for this week, at least. NASCAR management, no doubt, is enjoying the respite from the problems of last week. However, their damage control efforts aside, Earnhardt Jr.’s popular win Sunday was the best answer to NASCAR’s mounting public relations problems. The only better solution for the sanctioning body going forward would be for Junior to continue his winning ways.

For there simply is no other driver that can remotely compare to the positive fan impact that the son of seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt brings to the track with him. Perhaps another win by the also well thought of Kasey Kahne could have stolen the nation’s sports headlines, but not like Junior’s first win in over two years has. It’s been “Junior time” since the checkered flag dropped at Michigan; I have not witnessed so many fans so enthused and talkative about a win by a driver since, well… since 1998, when Junior’s Dad broke a 20-year drought at the Daytona 500.

Oh sure, there has been some grumbling that Junior was given special treatment by not being penalized for allowing his HMS Chevrolet to coast ahead of the pace car, a last-ditch effort to save fuel during the race’s final laps ran under caution. But a little criticism involving favoritism is something NASCAR can live with. That is familiar territory for them… they’ve always been accused of having some “golden boy” or another. It’s small potatoes compared to controversies involving non-competitive racecars and certainly sexism, racism, and condoning lewd behavior.

Frankly, the sport and its fans needed a break from the week-in and week-out external distractions that have infested the sport for the better part of the 2008 season. There has been more than enough time given to generally disliked and disrespectful, multi-millionaire drivers winning races and then badmouthing their peers and the sanctioning body. Likewise, the almost constant complaining about cars too difficult to drive and a chronic compulsion by some to critique every decision that NASCAR makes has eroded fan involvement. The weekly storyline has steadily become farther and farther removed from what it should be… the race.

Well, this week’s big news is that Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the LifeLock 400 Sunday at MIS. That is good enough. Perhaps it is a start in the right direction towards getting the focus of the sport back to where it belongs. Racing!

One can hope.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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