Dale Earnhardt Jr. recently traded his steering wheel for a microphone. The retired two-time Daytona 500 champion joined NBC’s broadcast team for coverage of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and NASCAR XFINITY Series races. Any time a former driver steps into the booth, they will have prior relationships with some of the current competitors — whether it be former coworkers or a family member. That is just the nature of NASCAR.
However, Earnhardt’s conflict of interest is that his company, JR Motorsports, owns four NXS teams, one-tenth of the field. So this week, the question we debate is: Will Earnhardtʻs conflict of interest be a problem for NBC’s coverage?
Junior’s Bias Burns Away Quicker Than the Tire
If there is anyone who can own a race team and not let that get in the way of an unbiased broadcast, it is Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt will not be the first owner to provide analysis for races while his teams are racing. Michael Waltrip owned a Cup team while doing work for FOX, and Jeff Gordon still has vested interests in Hendrick Motorsports. Kyle Petty called races for TNT while he still an owner/driver for Petty Enterprises. None of those listed ever seemed to be blatantly rooting for their respective teams.
While he worked for ESPN and ABC, Rusty Wallace owned two NXS cars, one of which was driven by his son, Steven. If there was ever an opportunity for someone to be biased, that was it. Yet, Wallace never reacted in any way that took away from the broadcast, despite his son’s demolition derby-driving style.
The only situation of an owner/analyst showing bias was when A.J. Allmendinger won at Watkins Glen International in 2014. A part owner of Allmendinger’s team, JTG Daugherty Racing, retired NBA player Brad Daugherty was a part of ESPN’s NASCAR broadcast team and was shown celebrating with Wallace after Allmendinger took the checkered flag. Honestly, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Daugherty had shown professionalism throughout the race, and then the viewer was rewarded with seeing the raw emotions of a first-time winner.
JR Motorsports has won races and championships, so we don’t have to worry about Earnhardt reacting as Daugherty did if and when his teams win. Earnhardt already proved as much — in the NXS race at Daytona International Speedway, as he watched Tyler Reddick tear up a race car and Elliott Sadler lose by five-thousandths of a second, yet he reacted to both instances as a professional and genuinely seemed excited to be calling the race.
And that’s why Earnhardt will not be biased in the booth, because he’s not a biased person. He is an overall fan of the sport and roots for everyone to succeed.
Sure, Earnhardt has money invested in JRM, but his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, has more to do with its day-to-day operations. If you want to see an owner getting fired up about their team, then she is the one to talk to, as evident from some of her tweets during the races. At the NXS race at Daytona back in February, Kelley was fired up that the JRM cars of Sadler and Chase Elliott were black-flagged for locking bumpers, while her brother responded more neutrally with, “Rules are rules.”
I don’t get why the car in front gets penalized in the locking bumper situation. Like what can the guy in front do to get himself out of that situation without wrecking himself or others?
— Kelley Earnhardt (@EarnhardtKelley) February 17, 2018
Earnhardt is doing a fine job in the booth so far, and he will only get better as he gains more experience. Despite the conflict of interest, Earnhardt is going to make the NBC broadcasts better, not worse. -Michael Massie
No Cheering in the Press Box, Mr. Earnhardt
The addition of Dale Earnhardt Jr by NBC to their team of NASCAR commentators has gone over quite well with fans and industry insiders alike. And why shouldn’t it? His popularity hasn’t been even remotely questionable in over 17 years. He’s the everyman: a blue jean favoring, beer toting, dog-loving type of person that most fans see themselves as.
He belongs holding a microphone on Sundays. But when it comes to the NASCAR XFINITY Series races, there’s this one significant problem:
He owns four of the cars. For that reason, he shouldn’t be handling media duties during those events.
To be clear, this is no fault of Earnhardt’s. I don’t believe NBC should be putting him in that position. Network executives can tell him all they want that he has to appear impartial. He can agree and assure them that he won’t cheer them on or excessively focus on the JR Motorsports entries.
But it’s natural to want the team that he’s invested his time and money in to do well. If he didn’t root for his drivers, he’d be a poor owner. If he did, he’d make a poor broadcaster. There isn’t enough room on his head to wear both hats.
Media, including television, has one asset above all others: credibility. Once that is gone, there is no trust. When college football fans tune in to Saturday Night Football, they are greeted by, among others, Kirk Herbstreit. Only eight hours earlier, Herbstreit sat on the set of ESPN College Gameday making predictions about who would win the day’s biggest games.
But when it comes time to make picks for the game he will be presenting that evening, Herbstreit only gives “keys to the game”. He doesn’t make a pick because that would lead the viewing audience to believe that he wants one team to win over the other. He wants the audience to trust him to give fair analysis.
There’s plenty of examples out there that go against this completely. Ned Jarrett’s call of son Dale’s first Daytona 500 win is one of the most memorable moments in the sport’s history. Darrell Waltrip was in the booth for his brother Michael’s first career win. But from a business aspect, there is no conflict of interest there. Family members should support each other in such a manner. Ned and Darrell weren’t pulling for any particular driver because it would help their business to thrive.
JR Motorsports’ bank account gets larger and smaller with each position gained or lost. He knows that.
To his credit, I didn’t see any clear evidence of him cheering for his team of drivers. But what happens if he’s calling the final lap of a race and watches a rogue driver punt one of his cars out of the lead and into the fence? I hope he will maintain his professional demeanor rather than express displeasure at the result.
Racing is intense and emotional. The more skin they have in the game, the hotter the competitive fire in each participant burns. As long as he is in front of the camera for NASCAR XFINITY Series races, there’s a chance that Earnhardt may need every ounce of his composure to keep it togethers.
All I’m saying is that he shouldn’t have to. -Frank Velat