Sports Nut

The Junior League

Is Earnhardt’s big move good for NASCAR?

NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.

As I watched Dale Earnhardt Jr. announce yesterday that he’s leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. for Hendrick Motorsports, my thoughts turned to the fellow I saw at the New Hampshire International Speedway last summer. He was, like many NASCAR fans, grilling some burgers outside his RV and drinking a Budweiser. Unlike most NASCAR fans, he also sported a torso-sized “8”—Dale Jr.’s number—shaved into his thicket of back hair.

What will this guy make of Dale Jr.’s decision to leave his father’s company for NASCAR’s most dominant team? In trying to answer that question, sportscasters have strained to come up with analogies for the NASCAR-impaired. The instant analysis on ESPN2 yesterday was that Junior’s move was somehow like Clemens going to the Yankees, the first time around. But such comparisons are by necessity tortured ones, because there is really no analogue for Dale Jr. Has any other professional sport ever been so dependent on an athlete who wasn’t close to being the best in the game?

Junior has won a good many races, including the Daytona 500. He’s competitive with the top drivers, particularly on short tracks and in restrictor plate races like Daytona and Talladega. But he finished fifth in the Chase last season, and the year before that he didn’t even make the cut for NASCAR’s playoff. He’s never won a championship and is currently 14th in the 2007 standings. To offer my own tortured analogy, he’s as famous as Tiger Woods and as good as Scott Verplank.

Yet NASCAR races are dominated by Dale Jr.’s Budweiser red. His fans are so legion that a race’s most raucous moments can come not when there’s a dramatic lead change, but when Earnhardt passes his rival Jeff Gordon—even if it’s for 29th position.

It’s hard to overestimate how deep this rivalry runs, at least in the hearts of Junior’s fans. That’s why it’s so tough to handicap whether my hirsute friend in New Hampshire will follow Junior to Hendrick—the team that also happens to employ one Jeff Gordon. 

Like his popularity, the source of Earnhardt’s rivalry with Gordon extends back to his late father. Earlier this season, Gordon tied Dale Sr.’s lifetime mark of 76 career wins, then took a victory lap with a flag bearing Earnhardt the Elder’s sacrosanct No. 3. Gordon thought he was honoring Earnhardt’s legacy; Dale Jr. fans thought he was besmirching it. As a result, a charming new tradition of hurling beer cans at Gordon’s DuPont Chevy was inaugurated. Time will tell if this will supplant the long-favored taunt of the savvy Earnhardt fan—purchasing a small Jeff Gordon teddy bear, tying string around its neck, and dragging it through the typically filthy environs of NASCAR’s racetracks.

At first glance, then, Junior’s move seems like it’ll be hard for fans to swallow, even if chased with an ice-cold Bud tallboy. (Smart money has Budweiser’s sponsorship dollars following Junior to Hendrick.) Here a primer on racing teams and NASCAR fan behavior might be useful. A few years back, Ryan Newman and Rusty Wallace both drove for Penske Racing while nursing a grudge that left them barely on speaking terms. The relationship between their fans could be just as frosty. But that’s the exception. It’s not uncommon to see a guy pair up a Jimmie Johnson  muscle shirt with a Hendrick Motorsports flex-fit hat, or to see a Chevy Silverado with a Gordon sticker on one side of the Crew Cab and a Jimmie Johnson sticker on the other. I’ve had the misfortune of attending several races in which my driver of choice, Tony Stewart, has  gotten himself wrecked. When that happens, I root for his  Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Denny Hamlin.

Junior fans aren’t likely to start pulling for Gordon, or even defending Nextel Cup champ Johnson, who shares Gordon’s California roots and pretty-boy mien. But I suspect most Junior devotees won’t consider him a traitor for teaming up with Gordon and Johnson. They are, after all, a forgiving bunch: Despite his inability to bring home a championship, Junior has won the Chex Most Popular Driver Award four years running, each time in a Reagan-Mondale-esque landslide. His fans are going to understand why he chose Hendrick: He wants to win. Johnson and Gordon have each taken four checkered flags this season. All told, the four Hendrick drivers have combined to win an absurd 10 of this year’s 14 NASCAR races.

In a way, Junior’s move to Hendrick is the gutsiest one he could have made. He will have no excuse for losing, other than that he just doesn’t have the talent his daddy done had. Junior has complained about DEI’s equipment, but at Hendrick, he’ll be sitting in a competitive car every week and comparing notes with two of the best drivers in the business. As he told ESPN’s NASCAR Now yesterday, Earnhardt wants to know: “Am I a great racecar driver?” It will be fun to find out the answer.

Yet, as a fan of stock-car racing, I can’t say I’m thrilled by Junior’s choice. The rivalry between Gordon and Earnhardt will be muted now that they’re teammates, even if their fans refuse to sign a beer-can ceasefire. That rivalry—the king of beers vs. the king of polymers, the most popular vs. the most accomplished, legacy vs. dynasty—has been good for NASCAR, a compelling and ongoing narrative that has carried the sport through many a boring race and not infrequent cheating scandals.

They probably won’t admit it, but the NASCAR brass can’t be all that happy with Junior’s decision, either. They’ve been working hard to increase parity in the sport, with the introduction of the controversial Car of Tomorrow and by reducing the number of cars the big teams can field. NASCAR wants races to be won on the racetrack, by the best drivers, not in the garage, by the wealthiest teams.

Earnhardt, with his unmatched earning potential—according to the Charlotte Observer, he alone “accounts for 30 percent of the sport’s estimated $500 million in merchandise sales”—just made a rich team richer, and in the long run probably even more dominant. Because of his singular stature in the sport, Junior had the ability to swing the balance of power in racing. No one thought he was going to get behind the wheel of Morgan Shepherd’s Racing With Jesus Dodge. But if he had joined Gibbs or Richard Childress Racing, or even struck out on his own, he could have contended for a championship and—get ready for a bad analogy—helped create a Red Sox to Hendrick’s Yankees. (Actually, the Red Sox already own half a racing team, but you get the idea.) If I were a very hairy man with an “8” on my back, I’d be excited that my guy’s now poised for a run at the Cup. But if I were in NASCAR’s front office, I’d be crying into my Budweiser.