Race Weekend Central

Fan’s View: Earnhardt Jr.’s Near-Win Wasn’t the Only Story, Just the Most Important

“New leader, the No. 88.”

No doubt about it, NASCAR’s still waiting for the moment that didn’t quite come, again. Whether you love him or hate him, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the pulse of our sport. When he excels — as he did for a few short laps in Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville — fans tune in, sit up and make some noise. When Junior languishes, so do the ratings.

No matter how true the above analogy may be, and no matter how many stories are written this week about Junior’s near rise to brilliance, perhaps it is wise to stop for just a moment and realize that even if a tease of success in the No. 88 garage brings us to our feet, the Amp Energy machine was not the only car playing with the concept of winning this week. Oh no. Instead, I prefer to think of his late race surge to the front as the paperboy running down the street crying, “Read all about it!”

NASCAR is back, baby.

OK, so I’m a short-track girl, I ain’t denying it. Still, should Sunday’s race have devolved into 400 laps led by none other than the seeming indestructible Kyle Busch, or his shinier counterpart in the “It’s only me” campaign of Jimmie Johnson, no number of dinged fenders or angry gestures would have saved the day. But there’s hope. Lots of it.

Twelve different teams led the parade this week with a total of 31 lead changes. Indeed, we didn’t even expect all those paint jobs to sit in the spotlight, even for a short lap. Yes, Kyle Busch may have snared the most led, again, but the No. 18 didn’t tally up his total in one big chunk. People passed him! Several times!

Kasey Kahne put his Red Bull No. 4 out in front, stealing the early lead from last year’s big-money winner, Jamie McMurray. How much longer before Kahne sits in the cockpit of his contracted Hendrick ride? That was followed one lap later by Ryan Newman in the No. 39 that just never seemed to be able to get out of the swamp in 2010. Denny Hamlin tried valiantly to keep his No. 11 up front, just where we would all have loved to see the native Virginian put an exclamation mark on his year-long rollercoaster ride, that included pain and the near taste of his first Cup championship. But that was not to be.

AJ Allmendinger’s No. 43 continued on its determined march toward a win, shining in practice, qualified a solid sixth, but was caught up in the late-race shuffle. We weren’t much surprised to see Edwards’s No. 99 or Jeff Gordon bump their way past the leaders, as both have reveled in the sweet taste of victory this year, but their presence leading the pack around the paperclip kept their stories fresh in our minds.

Clint Bowyer, every now and then it seems there is a tendency to dismiss that No. 33. Not Sunday. He wouldn’t allow it. His BB&T Chevy kept its nose well into the game, squeezing into the lead three different times or just making sure strong and steady Kyle Busch knew he was still there. Nor should the No. 48 be forgotten, as Johnson logged 65 more laps led into his colossal lifetime totals.

The above drivers represented the meat of the race, filled four hours of nudging, grinding and muscle car fun. It maintained my interest. I didn’t even get up for munchies unless there was a commercial or red flag. Good, good stuff. Combined with the bright sunshine and tight confines of the displayed track, it even helped me get revved up for my own personal trip to Thompson next weekend, but still, it was all just a very pleasant day. Until the final restart…

It wasn’t just Dale Jr.’s sudden appearance in the top five that made me kick down the foot rest. The black No. 29 had done it again, some how. This was a shootout made in heaven. NASCAR’s brat boy Kyle Busch would restart with our prodigal son, Dale Jr. and the unapologetic Kevin Harvick knocking on his doors. Fenders were gonna fly!

Oh, perhaps it didn’t quite happen like that. But Junior biting and clawing to keep his lead, until his rear-end just couldn’t maintain traction for one more turn, and Harvick driving the track perfectly got me on my feet. There was cheering. And sighs of disappointment. And applause.

Great race. Awesome.

NASCAR’s greatest moments come not when one driver stands above and beyond all others. Instead, it is days like this, when we cannot predict the outcome, that our hearts and minds are won over, once again.

Dale Jr. may not have snared a long overdue victory for his fans this week, but his loss may have garnered more fans for the sport than we may ever know.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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