People ran screaming in the streets. Hedges were chopped down, cars repainted from variable shades of red. Entire wardrobes were sent to the donation center, an unexpected Christmas present some thought would never come. It was very nearly the end of the world… or so we thought.
Actually, it was only Dale Earnhardt Jr. divesting himself of his adored No. 8 as he headed over to Mr. Hendrick’s garage, where the revamped Junior Nation decided green was the new black. And the party continued.
That was 2008. If you visited a track, you would have witnessed the massive cavalcade of media that haunted Junior’s every step – even as he tried to ignore them. His future in NASCAR looked rosy and the world held their breath just waiting for that first Hendrick win, and ultimately the preordained Cup that – as an Earnhardt – would surely come his way. But it never did. Let’s be honest. It never even looked like it could. We held our breath for an awfully long time.
Then the unthinkable happened. NASCAR Nation stopped holding their breath, patience slowly melting into indifference. Oh, not in the kitchens and Dale Jr. chat rooms. At the grassroots level, our most popular driver EVER remained in everyone’s heart. Never did the noise abate when he passed anybody on the track. And when he made it to the front, well, I’ve actually heard the crowd screaming over my headset in the last couple years while I tried to crane my neck to get a glimpse of what’s happening. That kind of adoration is unique and unshakeable.
The NASCAR Nation I’m talking about is the media. The fickle TV, radio, cameras, those like me with a keyboard… all of us. We just sort stopped talking about when the win would happen, if it would, who would help Junior get there… and lo and behold, it did. Now Junior is perched on top of the points standings, a virtual lock for the Chase and driving like, yes, he could actually be the one hoisting the Sprint Cup come November.
Well, if simply changing his number created a huge amount of anxiety and attention for our sport, what would the prodigal son’s arrival at the head table in Las Vegas do?
The heavens would open, trumpets caroling, masses collecting in town squares… exactly what NASCAR has been dying for since about 2002. Once again, seats would start to fill up. Prices for those fancy, schmancy seats would skyrocket. And the noise… noise, noise, noise. Junior Nation would rise up in celebration, all the while drawing the eyes of every casual sport fan across America. New eyes could translate into that youthful fan base the suits have been searching for over the past decade. A broader audience combined with the hopefully improved Car of 2013… think of the possibilities.
There is no doubt, the continuation of Earnhardt Jr.’s presence at the top of this year’s standings can only be good. Good for him, for NASCAR and every track that hasn’t been able to hide vast stretches of empty stands – where Junior Nation and its rivals used to sit.
Now, I’m not trying to pile the kind of pressure on L’il E that he suffered under in the past. I truly hope no person has to walk through life with a microphone hovering six inches from his face 24/7. But I am being realistic about what it would take to resurrect our struggling sport back to its glory days.
NASCAR needs the No. 88 to win this championship. Hopefully the Dew Crew shares this desire and will bring that much missed celebration to our record books.
There’s no doubt, NASCAR Nation needs it!
What NASCAR does not need is appearing arbitrary in the enforcement on their own rule book. Nothing hurt their image more than throwing the black flag on Elliott Sadler in Saturday’s Nationwide race after failing to do so to Kyle Busch on the opening lap.
While the officials may be holding up the letter of the law, insisting Sadler clearly passed a wobbling Brad Keselowski, this case is one where what the NASCAR fans saw will override anybody’s myopic interpretation of the facts, no matter how correct they might be. Consistency has long been the mantra of the head office. Mr. France needs to make sure that’s what NASCAR is presenting to the fan who is holding the money for their next ticket hostage.
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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