Earnhardt Jr. – Battling The Myth And The Monkey

Charlotte, NC – It was another week of frustration for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and his legions of fans as the driver with racing’s most marketable last name again fell short of Victory Lane. Earnhardt’s late-race tangle with Kyle Busch while leading at Richmond not only denied him of his 18th career NASCAR Sprint Cup, but also ran his winless streak to 72-straight events dating back a full two calendar years.

The pressure of the futility streak – and the moment – was evident in Earnhardt, Jr’s. face as he was quizzed by the media after the event Saturday. To his credit, ‘Junior’ said all the right things, carefully choosing his words and not losing his composure as he answered questions. The look on his face, however, was almost tortured.

Can you blame him?

Most drivers want to win for themselves and their teams. Earnhardt, Jr. has those goals as well, but he also has the burden of being the NASCAR poster boy. His triumphs – and failures – are critical to the health of the sport. No one carries this kind of banner into their respective sporting venues each week.

The face of a new generation NASCAR, Earnhardt, Jr. is the golden calf of the sport. Thanks to the NASCAR marketing machine, his every move is chronicled. He wins, they win. He loses, they still win. Don’t believe it? Ask yourself who got more publicity this weekend? Earnhardt, Jr. for almost winning, or Clint Bowyer, who actually did win Saturday’s Cup event?

The weight of carrying an entire sport on your back would be overwhelming to most individuals, but Earnhardt, Jr. has other loads to tote as well. The greatest of these is the comparisons to his father. Nobody in any sport we can think of has this kind of netherworld comparison continually hanging over their head. If you really think about it, it’s almost morbid.

A seven-time NASCAR Cup champion, Dale Earnhardt has all but earned deity status to legions of fans who have glorified his exploits since his untimely death at Daytona in 2001. Those fans have projected all of their adulation on Earnhardt, Jr., not only expecting him to win every race, but also to somewhat become the incarnation of his father off the racetrack. Being constantly compared to a sainted icon, a myth, has to be overwhelming.
The fact is that time, and the immortalization of Dale Earnhardt, have obscured the looking glass on his career adding to the pressure on his son. A quick check of the record book quickly reveals that Dale Earnhardt competed in 676 NASCAR Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) races in his career and, not so surprisingly, he didn’t win them all.

Of his 76 career triumphs, a closer examination of the stats reveals that ‘Senior’ had his own victory droughts with none of his wins coming between October 5, 1980 and March 21, 1982 – a streak of 37 events and 18 calendar months.

Later in his career, Earnhardt again suffered through a winless streak of March 10, 1996, through February 15, 1998 – a span of 59 races and 23 days short of two calendar years. Included in this total is a race at Darlington where Earnhardt had some sort of psychotic episode where he couldn’t even remember being in the race after it was over. A lot of people thought he was washed up at the time.

Somehow, all of this seems to have been lost in the translation as Earnhardt, Jr. and his current winless streak have been dissected in microscopic proportions by the media and his fans.

Perhaps it’s time for everyone to back away from the lab table and search for a little wider focus. If you do, you might see that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. isn’t all things NASCAR, that he isn’t the reincarnation of his father, and that he’s running well and is a lock to win a race this season and get the monkey off his back.

It’s just a matter of time, so how about everyone backing off and giving the guy a little air?

The Wrath of Junior Nation
The result of Saturday’s skirmish between Earnhardt, Jr. and Busch is that ‘Earnhardt Nation’ now has a new villain to hate.

According to Busch, fans in the Nation at Richmond were already flipping him off before he even attempted to pass Junior in the closing laps Saturday night. After the incident, the Budweiser soaked, Mountain Dew swilling Amp’ed Earnhardt, Jr. clan nearly jumped out of their Wrangler Jeans screaming and directing the foulest gestures toward Busch’s No. 18 Joe Gibbs entry.

Very classy. We’re confident you made Junior proud.

Expect more of the same this weekend when the series returns to Darlington Raceway. They don’t call it South Carolina for nothing as it, along with Mississippi and Alabama, still cling closest to their southern roots. That means there’s nothing like a good feud to spark the feelings of the clan and now that the Nation can’t hate Jeff Gordon anymore because he’s Junior’s teammate, Kyle Busch will do nicely – especially after Saturday night.

The Nation is sure to put on another classic performance this weekend as they shower Busch with insults, obscenities, and most anything they can throw. Hopefully, Darlington will provide Busch with extra security this weekend as it could get really ugly.

Let’s hope not.

Trimming Up The Shrub
Speaking of Busch, we’d like to go on record that our view of his tangle with Earnhardt, Jr. Saturday was ‘just racin.’

We’ve been critical of Busch several times this season for his driving judgment – both here in this column and on our weekly Sirius Satellite Radio NASCAR Channel segment – but Saturday’s fender bender with Earnhardt, Jr. isn’t one we can find fault with.

Let’s put this in perspective a little bit. With three laps to go, both drivers were doing everything they could to win. That’s what you want in a driver. They’re going for it. If they aren’t, you’ve got the wrong person in the seat.

Busch was all the way up to the double eights on Earnhardt’s door when he lost the front end of his car and caused the wreck. He was there, well established on the inside. There’s no doubt, it’s was Busch’s fault, he just lost it.

Busch didn’t dump Earnhardt, Jr., he didn’t hook him in the left rear corner and turn him around. He accidently slid the nose of his car into Earnhardt’s door. There’s a huge difference. In our book, Busch gets a pass on this one. That was just hard racing.

For those who are pissed with this analysis – the sullied Earnhardt, Jr. legions reading here – consider the following: If the 88 had been on the inside and it was Busch wadded up in the fence, would it have been okay, a great move reminiscent of those last lap love taps Junior’s father laid on guys like Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte, Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace over the years?

You can’t revere one person for those kinds of tactics and revile another for the same – especially when in this case, it was clearly just hard racing and not the least bit intentional.

We’ll give you that Kyle Busch can be a dumb ass. He’s proved it several times this season with dangerous moves on and off the racetrack. On Friday, he proved that again sticking his head into Steven Wallace’s car after the two traded paint and positions of the final lap of the Nationwide race at Richmond. Not a good move and one that nearly got him his butt kicked. Our guess is he won’t be doing that again soon.

But Saturday’s incident with Earnhardt, Jr. was a horse of a different color – that was just racin’ and the Shrub shouldn’t get trimmed up for that one.

Last Lap –
Be sure you check back with Close Finishes every day this week as we will be showcasing several great historic Darlington photos on our top page Featured Photo section. No NASCAR track has more history than Darlington, and we’ll be posting some great vintage shots courtesy of Jack Walker.
As always, thanks for taking a look and supporting Close Finishes.

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