NASCAR misses Dale Earnhardt. It’s been true since Earnhardt’s death in 2001, but Earnhardt’s posthumous election to the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame is a deep reminder of that loss. Its repercussions in NASCAR are deep – deep enough to have likely changed the face of NASCAR, and devastating for Dale Earnhardt Inc., once a promising and elite race team, now reduced to a merger with another mediocre team just to survive. But the loss is most keenly felt on the racetrack, where, many fans are quick to lament, a bunch of boring, vanilla-flavored robots drive too carefully, too nicely – and if they don’t, well, then NASCAR reminds them of their place posthaste.
NASCAR needs a driver like Earnhardt.
NASCAR sorely needs an aggressor who openly admits he is the aggressor. We need someone who isn’t afraid to go WFO all the time, on the track and on camera, with no apologies, no thoughts of political correctness, no fear. In short, racing needs a bad boy. But, if you really look…
NASCAR has a driver a lot like Earnhardt.
It’s not Kyle Busch, whose brashness drew a few comparisons earlier this year. Busch has a bad attitude and an incredible sense of entitlement that leads him to do some overaggressive things on the racetrack, but in general, he doesn’t cross the line in the car like he could, and well, Earnhardt never stomped off to have a temper tantrum after a bad race. Can you even imagine…? Busch reminds me more of a young Darrell Waltrip – an immensely talented driver who can’t quite stop running his mouth when maybe he shouldn’t.
It isn’t Tony Stewart, who can certainly be aggressive and brash. Stewart is too mercurial – one day the boy next door, the next the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks. It isn’t Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has tried too long and to hard to be his own man to need that kind of comparison anyway. It’s not Jeff Gordon, though perhaps it should be – Gordon will walk the walk on track, but when the time comes to talk the talk afterward, he becomes mild as milquetoast.
The driver is Juan Pablo Montoya.
No, really. Think about it. Strip away the Formula 1 and open wheel interloper tag. Throw out the backward xenophobia. Consider the driver for a minute. I mean, really consider the driver.
Montoya is fearless on the racetrack, and he will put a racecar where it hadn’t ought to fit – as in, most drivers wouldn’t think twice about putting it there. And yet, he can make it work. Is Montoya as good as Earnhardt? Well, no – and he’s not as experienced, either. Montoya has been in a stock car for just under three seasons, while Earnhardt wheeled one for more than three decades. But the fearlessness is unmistakable. It’s raw, and therefore sometimes misguided, but make no mistake – this man is not afraid of you. Or anyone else.
Montoya also has no qualms about real estate battles. If he wants the piece you are on, he will let you know. And then, if you don’t take the hint, he will claim eminent domain and take it from you. That might mean a tire donut, and it might mean he puts both of you in the wall. But he’s going to push the issue, and push it hard.
What Earnhardt knew and Montoya is still very much learning is the finesse that goes into driving a stock car. Earnhardt very rarely did anything on the racetrack without an express purpose, and if his purpose was getting another driver’s position… well, he was going to get it, one way or the other. Montoya isn’t that good yet – he often gets it, but he also sometimes ends up hurting himself as well, either getting caught up in a melee of his own making or simply having to back out. The talent is there; the attitude is there, but the skill doesn’t quite match it yet.
The other thing that Earnhardt knew and Montoya is still working on is that you only have to pass one car at a time. Watching Earnhardt was like watching a big cat stalk his prey – methodical, cold and cruelly efficient. One at a time, he would find the next car he needed to pass and pick them off. Montoya still has the tendency to want to pass all of them at once, by sheer speed. And that’s not always wise – or pretty.
But Montoya is learning, and while he learns, he remains fearless, aloof, cold as ice on the track, but off of it he is a bit of a mystery – sometimes snappish and short, but often outgoing and funny. He has a quick, wicked sense of humor and can zing you before you know what hit you. He has a softer side, as well – just watch him with his kids sometimes.
What NASCAR and its fans lost in February 2001 is deep and irreplaceable. No driver will ever be exactly what Dale Earnhardt was. But perhaps fans should be embracing Juan Pablo Montoya a bit more – he’s fearless, brash, and occasionally, he drives a little like the Man in Black. He is, and make no mistake about it, one of the best drivers ever to climb inside a racecar. NASCAR needs a bad boy – and they have one. By rights, Montoya should be hugely popular, and why he isn’t is somewhat of a mystery. But he embraces the bad-boy role, and that is what makes him so refreshing. He’s no Earnhardt, but he’s the closest thing out there – and he’s no slouch. And he’s sure as hell fun to watch.