*Did You Notice?…* How so many people in NASCAR are living on a prayer? Too bad even Jon Bon Jovi would know better than to believe Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is on the verge of “reviving” the sport. I know what you’re saying… who am I to shoot the messengers? After all, in the past 72 hours Earnhardt has been revered for his ability to rise for the top of the point standings for the first time in eight years; that, his win at Michigan and a rumored ability to walk on water on the way has made him a demigod during a week there hasn’t been much to write about.
But speculation, in this case can be replaced by simple fact, one quotation that more than any other explains why the 2012 version of Junior will never be the “national racing savior” for millions of disillusioned fans he once was on the verge of becoming. The words were a simple answer, really, to a question as innocent as “How do you feel about your teammate (Jimmie Johnson) winning the race?”
“Awesome,” said Earnhardt, Jr. “We would actually rather us two to fight for the championship at the end knowing one of us is going to get it for the company.”
Stop right there; digest, knowing “the company” is the largest organization in Cup Series history, Hendrick Motorsports. Now envision the man he’s named after. Dale Earnhardt, Sr., the Intimidator, the man who shoved your rear bumper out of the way en route to roaring into Victory Lane by any means possible. A man who resisted the multi-car format, ultimately capitulating in 1996 when owner Richard Childress saw the writing on the wall but struggled in many instances to embrace fellow driver Mike Skinner during his tenure. Can you imagine him taking a deep breath, getting settled after a fourth-place finish and saying “I’m excited regardless of who wins the championship… if we keep it in the company? I’m happy to be a part of it.”
While you’re at it, let’s picture Kobe Bryant, Aaron Rodgers, any famous athlete in any other sport. Heck, let’s envision Tony Stewart as recently as seven years ago. How many of them would walk off the court, turn towards a reporter’s mic and go, “I’m just proud to get this win for the company?” Here’s who I would expect that quote from; my best friend in technology, working in an office cubicle and on the verge of receiving the Employee of the Month Award for bringing donuts in every Friday. Or, maybe have that line be the butt of the joke on NBC’s _The Office_ after some absurd competition.
Now imagine how the _fans_ of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. would have felt about that. People don’t turn on the auto racing channel for sitcom plots or situations that resemble their own 9 to 5. They want to be wowed by on-track competition, connected to the sport through unique personalities they can relate to in a way that resembles a beautiful dream — not their boss. How does NASCAR’s typical, blue-collar fan connect to someone who refers to his organization as a white-collar “company?” How do 16-year-olds that once revered Earnhardt, Jr. on MTV Cribs connect to a 37-year-old whose statements now make him sound like he should be a clean-cut southern executive, working in the business banks of downtown Charlotte with a shirt and tie?
What everyone forgets, with the resurgence of Earnhardt, Jr. are the choices he made all those years ago, throwing away a marriage under the family name for a partnership with NASCAR’s version of the New York Yankees. The man was already different from his father, preferring to not to use the bumper but his brain in winning many races through what some might call the righteous, “Mark Martin” way of strategy and perseverance. That’s fine. But the second he signed on the dotted line, Earnhardt took things a step further, branching out from his dad in choosing the ultimate racing corporate culture over any possible alternative. Dale Sr. was about every man for himself; Earnhardt, Jr. chose 400 people and four teams working together as one. Dale, Sr. was about saying whatever came to mind; Dale, Jr. still has that, can’t turn those genetics off but it’s mixed in with making sure to say the right thing in between. Hendrick’s training has worked like a charm.
So that choice, despite the famous name makes him no more endearing to the next generation of fans as the politically correct version of Jimmie Johnson. Some of those have never forgotten; for proof, you can’t look here, because they’re not reading this column and have left the sport for other hobbies long ago. Yes, Earnhardt will always have the die-hards, those fans who have cheered for his success thick and thin. That tight-knit group will always dominate the popular voting, in a way Bill Elliott always won that award even in years when the on-track performance was rendered insignificant. But in many ways, Earnhardt, Jr. at this point has made himself just a cog in the wheel; heck, he’s not even the winningest driver in his own race shop, trailing Johnson despite being on top of the standings.
Back in the 1990s, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. had a rivalry on-track with Jeff Gordon that was as fierce as any. He respected, even befriended the man but when it came to that team’s philosophy? The Intimidator would have spit on a Hendrick Motorsports contract and ripped it to shreds no matter the money. His son chose a different path, a virtual lifetime deal and while that bought him financial security most will only dream of, some will feel a part of his soul was sold once the handshake was made.
Winning a championship, even contending for one doesn’t change a shift in cultural perception. Earnhardt made the choice… and he can’t go back.
*Did You Notice?…* NASCAR battling some more national criticism on its lack of minorities driving at the sport’s top level? “This segment,”:http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=8207584 which aired on ESPN’s _Outside The Lines_ before the start of Sunday’s Brickyard 400 accuses the Drive For Diversity program of being “ceremonial” and has critics going so far as to claim NASCAR is going so far as “intentionally” avoiding setting up potential connections between Fortune 500 companies that back them and minority talent.
After years of investigating this issue, I think some of the conclusions are, at best a bit of a reach. It’s also untrue no _Drive For Diversity_ candidate has ever run full-time in any of NASCAR’s top three series; right now, Paulie Harraka (an FS Diary Driver in 2012) is busy doing just that as a rookie in Camping World Trucks. But what is factual is, nine years into the sport’s program tailored to provide opportunities to minorities the number of _Sprint Cup_ drivers it’s produced is zero. There are all sorts of theories behind it, from more time needed to not enough talent to an inability of the organization to connect to the power players at NASCAR’s top three levels.
I think one of the biggest problems, with the reissue revisited on a national scale is a lack of new ownership. Time and time again, that’s been listed as an issue with Cup Series start-and-parks now approaching ten each race within a 43-car field. And of the 33 cars that do have money, they’re owned by just a handful of people whose teams are often accompanied by that hotel sign weary travelers don’t want to see: “No vacancy.” For example, Joe Gibbs, once the supporter for one of the sport’s most successful minority drivers in Marc Davis may very well expand to four teams in 2013. If he does that, with each of them (Hamlin, Busch, Logano and Kenseth) signed to long-term contracts why would he be in the market for developing minority talent? His Cup program is maxed out; the roster behind the wheel is secure. Developing Davis, in Gibbs’ mind is unnecessary in the grand scheme of making his team successful.
No, minority drivers need new owners that can find the funding and have the focus to bring those talents along. The benefits, potentially tapping into millions of Americans who have never so much as heard of the sport are strong. And with a vacuum in the industry right now, so many fans disillusioned with racing and wondering where to turn with their loyalty the right, charismatic choices create an opportunity for when the breakthrough does come. At some point, there’s going to be a Tiger Woods of racing, a “Danica-like” personality capable of such magnetism; and someone, in some series in America is going to discover them and have the money to succeed. The longer NASCAR takes to get its act together here, the greater risk it runs to lose out to IndyCar on this type of natural evolution for a second time.
*Did You Notice?…* Quick hits before we take off:
– NASCAR says ratings for the Brickyard, off 17 percent from a year ago were “expected” to be down due to NBC’s Olympic coverage from London. That’s slightly worse than what happened in 2008, though; two of the three races suffered drops of 14 percent, respectively while Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt dominated the sports headlines. What’s worse is after the games were over, viewership struggled to return, with only the Homestead season finale reaching the coveted 4.0 mark in the Nielsens. What does that mean? The true damage of London could is looking worse, not better, and long-term effects can’t be truly measured until the Michigan race in mid-August.
– Some have expressed surprise at Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya getting virtual rubber-stamp re-signings over at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing (both are in negotiations for long-term deals). Considering the way McMurray especially has performed, you do have to scratch your head a bit with drivers like Joey Logano, Brian Vickers and even Kurt Busch available. And how much longer do we give the mediocre NASCAR resume of Montoya, one of the most successful drivers to ever grace the sport of open-wheel racing before we say “Stock cars just aren’t working out?”
– Who says you can’t have a good title race in the Nationwide Series? All you need to do is kick out the Cup regulars, not use the Chase and blow a restart call to make sure it’s a nail-biter. Whoops! Did I speak out of turn?
– To NASCAR’s credit: the plan to wipe out the top 35 after the season, which I hear is gaining steam will be the right call. They’ve finally realized there needs to be incentive and/or an easy opening for new owners and funding to join the sport; moreover, in the long-term I also wonder if the change will one day inadvertently solve the start-and-park problem. Can you imagine if some of the S&Pers qualify strong at Talladega while a *Ryan Newman,* let’s say, blows an engine and fails to make it? You’re leaving a superstar at home so someone can park it after 10 laps? I guarantee you it would take 48 hours for a solution to magically appear.
– Sam Hornish, Jr. went a long way towards securing a future with the No. 22 Dodge after a 16th-place finish at Indianapolis. But until there’s a top-5 result, something that reminds you this team made the Chase less than a year ago don’t think he’s got this ride in the bag. Shell / Pennzoil is accustomed to success, and as mentioned above in the EGR case there’s other options available. Penske would be silly, especially with possible other sponsorship for Sam not to give a few of those other candidates an audition.
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