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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Vexing Vito: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s Championship-Caliber Sacrifice

With Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s 26th-place finish at Talladega Sunday, many of his fans (OK, let’s be honest — his Dad’s fans…) have taken to railing against his decision to call no-joy, doubling back to the rear in the closing laps instead of going all-out for the win.

However, while it wasn’t exactly reminiscent of his father’s famous re-entry into the No. 3 rig after tumbling down the backstretch at Daytona in 1997, Junior’s push to the back, not the front might just prove to be the move of the year by the time the title is being decided at Homestead.

If you’ve seen the movie Rush or are a follower of Formula 1, you’re probably familiar with the legend of driver Nikki Lauda and his mantra of avoiding unnecessary risk, to the point of parking it at Mount Fuji in Japan as the 1976 title was on the line and a monsoon had enveloped the track. While things weren’t that tragic at Talladega, Earnhardt essentially took a similar lay up on the green — or sacrifice-flied to center, if you’re one who just loves other sports analogies as much as I do. Despite leading 26 laps on the day, armed with a car that could push to the front Earnhardt chose to simply… sit and wait.

NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver had correctly predicted the Big One with 16 laps to go (OK, he missed it by six laps — for shame), and fell to the back of the pack. That, in itself no one is complaining about. But when he started his charge up the outside, shortly after the ensuing restart, Josh Wise in his Dogecoin Ford swung out and tried to pick up his line.

The No. 98 car instantly became a 200 mph roadblock, with the Dogecar providing much frustrations (wow) for the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet. With his run stalled, and the race in its final laps, it was obvious Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t going to make a run similar to his Dad’s legendary final win here in the fall of 2000, an unfathomable charge from 18th to the lead in just four laps.

Oh, hey Smoke. Tony Stewart’s last-lap block gone awry caused a massive pile-up, in the Fall of 2012 but the resulting concussion suffered by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in the accident cost him a shot at a championship.
Oh, hey Smoke. Tony Stewart’s last-lap block gone awry caused a massive pile-up, in the Fall of 2012 but the resulting concussion suffered by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in the accident cost him a shot at a championship.

This season, by comparison there was a different rules package, cars closer in terms of performance (i.e., teams and machines driven by Wise, Ragan and Allgaier suddenly in contention for the win) and everybody driving like a complete maniac, with visions of Chase berths dancing in their heads. Earnhardt, on the other hand, likely had flashbacks back to 2012 when the No. 14 of Tony Stewart did the equivalent of a stage dive onto the field, and right into Junior’s arms. Well, his head is likely more accurate; the driver of the No. 88 suffered a concussion in that crash, following another wreck at Kansas Speedway (site of this weekend’s race) during a tire test for Goodyear, a 1-2 punch that effectively knocked him out of title contention. It was a stark reminder of the dangers and carnage of last-lap plate racing, and also yet another bell ringing for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who has had admittedly suffered more than a few throughout his career.

That wreck caused Earnhardt, Jr. to miss the next week’s race at Charlotte, ending his Chase hopes and leading to potential career-ending whispers. For a driver who had to suffer the ignominy of pulling out of a race with a closed head injury, it was the second time a late-season wreck ended any hopes he had at a title. The other was in 2004, in the midst of a six-win career year, as a crash during practice for anALMS race resulted in widespread second-degree burns. That affected his performance throughout the 10-race Chase, one he nearly still won anyway if not for an ugly Atlanta accident down the stretch.

I know what you’re thinking, as I see the comments and get the emails every time we center talk of the Chase outweighing the Race. Well, it’s the reality of the situation. The new rules instituted this year essentially mean if you win a race, you’re good to go for the championship. If you win a couple of races and Denny Hamlin yourself, getting into some last lap dust-up and miss six weeks, then fall out of the top 30, congrats on those three wins. But other than the trophies, it’s all for naught for the balance of the season; your Chase hopes are simply kaput.

So if you’re going to get all sentimental and wax romantic over “giving it your all,” and “racin’ hard for the win” like it’s some 20-lap, last-chance qualifier at a dirt track, then draw some other parallels between those weekly series and the largest organized motorsports competition on this side of the planet. You know, the one with multi-million dollar sponsors and awards, not $500 bucks, a claiming rule, and a local body shop flipping you a few dollars to buy some parts.

It is simply not the same, regardless of whatever similarities exist.

Having been teammates with the group who has won four championships since his arrival in 2008, Earnhardt Jr.’s had a front row seat on how to win under the existing playoff format. And, as he’s long been reminded when compared to his father and those record-tying seven Winston Cups, championships are what counts; that’s what people talk about for decades to come. Other than Daytona, Darlington, and the Brickyard, how many wins from those six titles that Johnson and the No. 48 team have captured really stand out?

Having been with Hendrick Motorsports for four of Jimmie Johnson’s six championships, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has had an inside look at what it takes to help propel a team to a title.
Having been with Hendrick Motorsports for four of Jimmie Johnson’s six championships, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has had an inside look at what it takes to help propel a team to a title.

While many have opined that the No. 48 team is just waiting to get rolling this year, saving all of their new trick stuff and tests for when it’s actually time to go for it on a grand scale, the No. 88 has taken a little different approach. The team already has one win and three second-place finishes, as well as a third. Earnhardt likely would have won Las Vegas and Darlington if not for a thimble full of fuel and a green-white-checkered situation. To insinuate he’s stroking it is not only ignorant; it’s disingenuous and insulting. With the new win-and-in Chase qualifying scenario, the veteran’s more than done the work required both win-wise and positioning himself to lead the points as well.

Sure, you can go for wins and take chances, but why bother at a plate track, particularly when you have a history of getting hurt by “goin’ for it?”

So, let’s review. For a driver having his best season in a decade — one whose mind is finally right after seeing him mope around head down, mumbling in interviews for the better part of three years — and one whose equipment is contending for wins each and every week, why wad up a perfectly good car you can race at Daytona in two months where you won two months earlier? By doing so, you save your team from having to build a new speedway car on short notice, allowing them to instead focus on testing and developing the platoon of downforce cars needed for the summer stretch and into the Chase.

Yes, racing is dangerous; at its core, it is a sport of calculated risks. In this instance, Earnhardt, Jr. and Letarte have a winning formula. Yeah, the Chase may not be the most ideal points format if you want to encourage everyone who’s already won to continue to risk everything in pursuit of points, but this philosophy is the way the game is now played. Much like racing without restrictor plates, bias-ply tires, North Wilkesboro, un-SAFER Barriers and being wildly undercompensated for their risks and efforts, it has added a new layer to superspeedway racing. While winning at all costs might hold true for those who only have a shot to win at a plate track, for those whohave won, taking an unnecessary risk is ill-advised and downright foolish.

Yeah, I know before you dial up an email — “Well, what about the 100% rule?” Yeah, what about it? That was in the context of pulling over to let somebody else get points to get into the Chase. The win-and-in format has essentially nullified this idea, making getting into the Chase, preserving cars, test dates, and your own faculties now of paramount importance.

Sorry if this opinion doesn’t jibe with the traditional win-at-all-costs stock car driver mentality, or local short-track Saturday night rules and regulations, but that is the reality of major-league auto racing. Just like Major League Baseball isn’t privy to the same chances taken by a weekend warrior in his beer league softball round robin tourney, different speeds, different dollars, different rules, and a different objective make Junior’s decision brave given the fallout.

It’s the mark of a modern day driver, one who is finally prepared both emotionally and mentally to become a series champion.

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