NASCAR had to be foaming at the mouth when Dale Earnhardt Jr. signed on with Hendrick Motorsports during the 2007 season.
Prior to the move, NASCAR had indirectly been trying to lend a hand to the sport’s Golden Boy. Limits were placed on team ownership and practices were eliminated. A playoff was created to keep popular drivers in the hunt until the end, and then it was extended to 12 drivers after three seasons in which at least one of the big three — Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon or Earnhardt Jr. — didn’t make the cut.
It’s not that NASCAR makes rules giving points to drivers whose names begin with E, but they have definitely made rule changes that they wouldn’t likely have implemented had Junior been driving for Jack Roush. NASCAR doesn’t seem to be wringing their hands about multi-car teams the way they used to.
Brian France himself said at the end of 2007 that a part of the declining ratings that have since become commonplace was a result of Junior’s subpar performance. Needless to say, things haven’t gotten better for Junior or NASCAR since then.
As Little E’s fortunes have declined, so have NASCAR’s, with his fan base the largest by a very wide margin. But we can also ponder the fortunes of the driver with the second largest base, and wonder if maybe his not living up to standard has helped pull down NASCAR.
Back in the 1990s, it would have been hard to imagine Gordon scoring just one win in a stretch of 92 races. It’s a little staggering to think about it today even, given that he finished third in the points standings last year and is not exactly running lousy this season. I’m not one of the commentators that think Gordon is in a decline. He has just had stiffer competition, including from his own teammates, and NASCAR has made it much tougher to pull away from the field.
But as race after race passes by without the No. 24 in victory lane, a sight so many had been accustomed to for a long time, maybe it has caused a loss of interest from NASCAR’s second biggest fan base.
Add to that two seasons of scoring the most points with nothing to show for it. Gordon’s fans have more reason than anyone to dislike the Chase.
When Wonderboy hoisted his first Winston Cup in 1995, he was a hotshot with a Nestle Quik mustache from Indiana in a sport full of tobacco chewing fishermen. Second through fifth in the standings were Dale Earnhardt, Sterling Marlin, Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace. In the next few years he would become the most hated driver in the sport, mostly because he was beating everyone else’s favorite drivers.
But Gordon also helped expand the sport’s fan base out of the Southeast, and suddenly the entire demographic changed. By the time Jimmie Johnson showed up to stink up the show for four years straight, the only Southern types left behind the wheel, besides Earnhardt, were Jeff Burton and Martin. The landscape of drivers’ home states has completely changed. The top-five drivers in points as of this writing are Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth. Of them, only Virginia’s Hamlin is from the Southeast, and no one says Hamlin’s personality reminds them of Cale Yarborough’s.
Fans in Alabama still pull for Junior, but everywhere else they’re most likely rooting for Gordon, or for Stewart if they find Gordon too polished.
With Earnhardt Jr., Gordon and Stewart falling behind guys like the less colorful Johnson, the occasionally less mature Kyle Busch and less known Hamlin, the sport has interested fewer fans as a result, at least for now.
As if all that weren’t bad enough, one of the sport’s fiercest rivalries is gone. Gordon and Junior fans often used to come to blows at events; good or bad, at least people got fired up about the two drivers battling each other. And Gordon and Junior understood that, often engaging in some spirited scrapping whenever they got near each other. It was the last rivalry that sold t-shirts.
Once they became teammates, that was all snuffed out. When was the last time you saw the No. 24 and No. 88 beating on each other for 20 laps? Carl Edwards vs. Brad Keselowski is not enough to churn up a fanbase. And Hamlin and Johnson have yet to have a serious problem with each other.
NASCAR may have brought some of this on themselves, but they couldn’t have counted on it blowing up in their faces this much. When it comes to their biggest stars, things couldn’t have worked out worse for NASCAR of late. Earnhardt Jr. has just one win in his last 149 starts, and has failed to make the playoffs three out of six times. Gordon is one for his last 92, and has had at least one championship denied him by a mystery debris caution in the standings. Stewart also seems to be in a funk, barely in the top 12 at the moment, winless in his last 22 races and not seriously contending for a title in some time.
With Earnhardt and Gordon driving equipment made by the very best in the game, you would think it would have turned out better than this. Junior is running mediocre, Gordon is running well, but not well enough, and both drivers’ fans don’t want to choke each other like they used to.
Maybe fans miss all that as much as they miss the Southern 500 on Labor Day. NASCAR does without a doubt.
Kurt’s Shorts Special Edition – On the Michigan Debris Caution
- Part One: Whether there was a piece of rubber on the track or not, and I have no reason to think Kasey Kahne is lying, here’s the real question: if Hamlin and Kurt Busch were beating each other’s fenders on the edge of wrecking with 18 laps to go, do you think the yellow would have flown?
- Part Two: I have said many times that I don’t mind when a yellow is thrown for a gum wrapper on the track. But I have seen cars spin out on the track with no reaction at all from the officials. On green-white-wreckers especially, the flagman’s arms stay folded as all kinds of mayhem ensues. It’s not the debris caution that bothers me, it’s the inconsistency. There shouldn’t be any exceptions to a dangerous situation on the track meriting a yellow.
- Part Three: Michael Waltrip on his Twitter account compared the debris caution to the TV timeout or the walk out to the mound, both of which it is absolutely not. Then Waltrip somehow used the issue to take a shot at baseball, accusing them of “living in the past” for not giving Armando Galarraga his perfect game after Jim Joyce blew a call. I don’t have the space to explain why baseball did the right thing (just think “can of worms”), but Michael knows better than to take a shot like “living in the past” at a sport that still respects its history better than any other. If NASCAR had lived in the past a little bit in the last decade, they might not have lost half of their audience.