Any diehard NASCAR fan with a favorite driver they’ve stuck with for any period of time knows the highs and lows that go right along with being an avid supporter of theirs. From the thrill of victory that seems to last well into the next race to the agony of defeat that leaves you feeling like you’ve been punched in the stomach, it’s a rollercoaster of emotions that most fans are more than happy to endure. It’s the loyalty and passion of those folks that stick by their driver though thick and thin that make NASCAR and motorsports fans in general some of the best in all of sports.
Lately, no group of fans has known more heartbreak than those of Junior Nation. Between the last two Sprint Cup Series races that happened to be determined by fuel mileage, NASCAR’s most popular driver (Dale Earnhardt, Jr., if you’re new to this) came agonizingly close to victory on both occasions—so close yet so far.
In the Memorial Day weekend spectacle that is the Coca-Cola 600, Earnhardt looked to be on his way to a sure-fire victory when he took the white flag as the leader. Running low on fuel, everyone held their breaths as the No. 88 Chevrolet rounded the backstretch and headed into turns three and four…
…and then either sighed (or screamed!) in disbelief, heartbreak, or a combination of the two as Earnhardt’s car slowed coming to the checkered flag, losing several positions as Richard Childress Racing driver Kevin Harvick blew on by and won for the third time this season. Earnhardt would wind up seventh.
Last weekend, Earnhardt again saw a chance at victory slip through his fingers when his protégé Brad Keselowski was able to outlast him in yet another fuel mileage gamble at Kansas Speedway. It definitely wasn’t near as heartbreaking, but coming within just a few seconds of victory for two straight weeks has to be grating on those that have been waiting for nearly three years for a victory—including Earnhardt himself.
It doesn’t matter, because eventually Earnhardt _will_ win a race this season, and all will be right again with the NASCAR world.
To a point. For every avid driver fan, it seems as though there is yet another naysayer in the wings, waiting for said driver to screw up so they can pounce at the opportunity to spew vitriol like it’s sour milk one year past the expiration date. Almost every driver—especially the more popular ones—has more than enough of those “haters” that give them endless hours of entertainment via Twitter, now that the barrier between driver and fan has basically been broken down using the social media site. However, there are always those folks more than willing to boo their displeasure at the track during driver intros or shout “Hey, you suck!” (or worse) as drivers are walking by to do their duties.
One particular insult detractors of Earnhardt and his fans like to use is “overrated.” It’s a term that’s tossed around at the track like a verbal game of hot potato and, one could argue, holds quite a bit of truth to it. After all, if Earnhardt’s success equaled that of his fan base, he’d be in Victory Lane every other week and have more championships than you could count on one hand, right?
Well, of course. And unfortunately for Earnhardt, he will never live up anywhere close to those expectations. But “overrated” is a term that is used way too loosely and somewhere along the way changed from “not as good as everyone thinks they are” to “not good at all.”
Here is a typical comment you hear from some of Junior’s worst detractors: “That damned Dale, Jr.! Living off of his father’s name and getting handed all the sponsorship money and best equipment in NASCAR even though he has no talent! He shouldn’t even be in this sport!”
Let’s just take a look at the two main parts of that statement. Is Earnhardt living off his father’s name, legendary NASCAR driver and seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, Sr.? Well, sure, that definitely helps in generating sponsorship revenue and fan support and he and Hendrick Motorsports would be wrong _not_ to use that to their advantage. That doesn’t mean Earnhardt doesn’t have fans that like him just the way he is.
But what about the other statement? Is Earnhardt indeed a no-talent driver that is just wasting space on the racetrack?
Absolutely not! Sure Earnhardt has hit a rough patch in his career and is most likely past his prime, but that doesn’t make him a talentless driver overall.
Consider these statistics: In 412 career Sprint Cup Series start, Earnhardt has 18 victories, 94 top 5s, 157 top 10s, an average finish of 17th, and 6754 laps led out of 118,492 laps run. Of course those statistics pale in comparison to those of his HMS teammates Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, or Jimmie Johnson, but talentless drivers don’t win 18 races in their careers. Take a look at Jeff Burton, who entered the Sprint Cup Series full-time several years before Earnhardt did, but doesn’t have statistics all that much higher than Earnhardt’s: 21 wins, 128 top 5s, 237 top 10s, an average finish of 16th, and 6410 of 168,977 laps led. Burton certainly has a fair amount of talent as well, yet doesn’t face the same criticism that Earnhardt does.
The overrated and talentless myth holds true for other drivers as well. Aside from Earnhardt, two drivers that have received much more hype than necessary in recent years were Joey Logano and Danica Patrick—both for very different reasons, but the sound of their name eventually began sounding like nails on a chalkboard to those who tuned into NASCAR every weekend. Eventually, enough is enough.
Logano and Patrick have also failed to live up to the media hype and their surrounding fan bases, and have plenty of people more than ready to tell the world how little talent either one of them has and why they have no use in this sport anymore.
While I’ve been hard on Logano this year, I don’t doubt that he has talent. His ability to outdrive teammate Kyle Busch in several Nationwide Series races in 2009 was nothing short of incredible, considering the fact Busch has been all but unbeatable since he moved over to the Joe Gibbs Racing stable in 2008. In fact, even with Logano’s rather pathetic performance through 13 Sprint Cup Series races this year, last season he finished up the year with a rather impressive run of finishes—7th, 6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd, and … 39th. I guess you can’t win ‘em all right?
Regardless, yes, Logano is (or was—the hype has since died down) incredibly overrated, but his statistics show a hidden gem just waiting for the right chance to shine.
On the flip side, Patrick is one driver most of us could spend an entire afternoon ranting about how and why she got where she is, but the fact of the matter is, she’s taken those opportunities and ran with them (to a degree). Fuel mileage or not, the IZOD IndyCar driver’s historic win at Twin Ring Motegi Superspeedway in Motegi City, Japan was a tremendous boost to her credibility, and some strong finishes in the points haven’t exactly hurt her reputation either. She may not be a great driver, but she has shown enough strengths in both IndyCar and her limited starts in the Nationwide Series to show that she at least has enough talent to run with the big guns. Now that it looks like she’s heading to NASCAR full-time next season, the sooner people get that in their heads, the better.
I could continue on with lists of drivers, athletes, and pop culture celebrities who were given much more publicity and attention than their numbers might suggest, but nevertheless, typically don’t deserve the amount of criticism they receive either. Most overrated drivers still have enough talent to stay relevant if you give them the chance, and it’s a chance I wish more fans were more willing to give.
So, the next time you hear a name that makes you want to rip your hair out and/or throw the remote through the TV/computer screen … well, ok, yeah, I probably will too. But before you begin a tweet, Facebook post, comment, blog post, etc. about how little talent they have, it might do you some good to stop, think, and maybe take a glance at the numbers. Because, chances are, if you or a lesser driver were in their position, you wouldn’t have half the accomplishments they do. Not all drivers can be great, but it doesn’t make them terrible, and it certainly doesn’t make them irrelevant.
Even if it _does_ make them obnoxious.
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