JUNE 19, 2012 LEGENDTORIAL – Junior Exposed
by: Tim Leeming
So, after four years and 143 starts, HE wins a race. Even a blind pig finds the mud after awhile. As Tony Stewart said after Sunday’s race, “It’s not a National Holiday.” Finally, Junior wins a race. No, not Junior Samples of BR-549 used car fame but THE JUNIOR. Dale Earnhardt, Junior. Surely you know that by now if you have even a passing interest in NASCAR. “Junior Nation”, which is the name given to the faithful millions who have pulled for Junior throughout the four years and who rock the grandstands of any track where Junior takes the lead, should feel good this week. After all, for four years, Junior has found more ways to lose races than Jimmie Johnson has found to win them.
Ok, as I promised in the teases this week, I am going to expose Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for who and what he is. So, stand by. I really care what you, the listener, thinks about my Legendtorials but having said that, I feel what I feel and believe what I believe and I am not easily changed.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., is a product of the sport that produces fathers and sons and grandsons that drive race cars. The Pettys, The Allisons, The Pearsons, The Jarretts, and many more. There is something in the blood of young men whose fathers competed in the sport. Stock car racing, like no other sport, produces generation after generation of a family that pursues the checkered flag in a dangerous endeavor to be faster than the other guy.
Jeff knows that maybe three years ago, at Daytona 500 time, a sports writer for the Orlando newspaper referred to Dale, Jr. as THE SECOND GENERATION driver from the Earnhardt family. I e-mailed the newspaper and the sportswriter, although I don’t remember his name now, but never got an answer from either. I was livid that a scribe would be so incorrect as to overlook the fact that Junior was the third generation driver from a family that was so ingrained in stock car racing.
I am a product of many years hanging around the dirt tracks of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. My home track was The Columbia Speedway in Cayce, South Carolina, where every Thursday night, a then young Ralph Earnhardt would unload a race car and prepare to race. Even at my young age I noticed that the hood on that car was never raised at the track. It was not uncommon to see most of the other competitors with hoods up making last minute adjustments to something, looking for more speed on the fast half mile oval, but the hood on the Earnhardt car stayed closed. He was ready to race before he left his garage.
I’m not sure at exactly what point Dale, the son, began making the trip to Columbia with his Dad, but I do remember Dale was 13, maybe 14, when he came wheeling around the concession stand on a bicycle and ran right into me. Whether or not he apologized I do not remember, but I do remember the look on his face said that I shouldn’t have been standing there in his way. When it came race time, that is pretty much the stance his father took on the race track. I remember, more than once, Ralph Earnhardt would use his front bumper to move a car out of the way and Ralph won many races. I have recollections of many, including me at one time, having a very low opinion of the way Ralph raced. But, as I learned more about what it took to win on the short tracks and realizing that was the livelihood for Ralph Earnhardt, it became more acceptable to me. There is no doubt that Dale Earnhardt, Sr. learned well from his father as all of us can remember the many times he would “rattle the cage” of one driver or another to take a position. I was very angry at Dale Earnhardt, Sr., many times over his career; not that I didn’t like him, but just that I was not then, nor am I now a fan of what I consider “dirty driving”. But, that was how Dale, Sr. was taught.
Even with all that, I have learned over the past couple years, that Ralph Earnhardt helped many a young driver during his career. Li’l Bud Moore credits Ralph with much of his success and Li’l Bud Moore is definitely one of the greatest short track drivers of all time. Ralph Earnhardt did his good deeds without recognition or any expectation of recognition. Ralph died in his garage, so it is told, working on his race car. Heart attack.
When Dale, Sr. died on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, many fans turned away from the sport completely. Others, instead, chose to coronate Dale Earnhardt, Jr., with the expectation that he would become the driver his father was, many of those same fans not even familiar with Ralph Earnhardt. Junior did come on the scene with great success in the early days. When his father was alive, Junior raced with the same tenacity his father displayed on the track. He won, though not often, usually impressively. After the last lap crash, who can forget that scene with Junior running down the pit road headed for the care center, I believe, when he got the news of his father’s injuries. It was then, in my opinion, that the weight of the world came down upon the shoulders of Junior. Although he may not have shown it publicly, the hurt of losing his father like that had to be deep and lasting, and knowing all Junior had been through after his father married Theresa, he had more than one reason to be bitter and without positive direction. The fight over ownership of Dale Earnhardt, Inc. with his step mother is the kind of thing that is difficult to imagine in a sport where family is emphasized to the great extent it is. But, nonetheless, Dale gave up that bid and moved on.
Junior came to Hendrick Motorsports. With the success of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, not to mention all the predecessors in the Hendrick stable over the years, folks were expecting immediate wins and a championship within a year. Didn’t happen. Blame Hendrick? I think not. Can’t get better equipment than what comes out of HMS. Blame NASCAR? Not this time. God knows, if there was anything NASCAR would love, it would be Junior winning every few weeks. Blame Junior? Now this is where it gets tricky. Before you members of Junior Nation declare war on The Legend, hear me out.
Yes, blame Junior. Blame Junior because he failed to live up to the Earnhardt name. Blame Junior because he had more things going on than racing and his dedication to the sport was often suspect, not only by me, but by others much closer to Junior and to the sport. Blame Junior because he seems to accept the inheritance bestowed upon him as the favored child of the Intimidator without accepting any of the responsibility that goes with it. Even I have said, more than once, that if his last name wasn’t Earnhardt, he would never have gotten as far as he did in the sport. Blame Junior, yeah, blame him.
But, now listen to me closely, consider this. Junior, like Kyle Petty, like Tim Richmond, and like very few others in the sport, marched to his own kind of music. Junior is Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He is NOT Ralph Earnhardt. He is NOT Dale, Sr. He is a young man who had greatness thrust upon him before he was ready. So, now I’m going to tell you what I think about Dale, Jr. and why.
I think that Junior was far less than ready to accept the fame and pressure dumped on him in February, 2001. He was a young man trying to make his own way in the sport and suddenly, to the racing world, he was Dale Earnhardt. Sr., reincarnated and was expected to immediately perform as had his Dad. He had spent quite a long time learning the ropes on short tracks as his grandfather before him and his father had. He had banged around the half-milers. Gotten home at 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning after a long night at Myrtle Beach or some other track in a car his hands had built much of. He was not ready, nor should he have been expected to be, for the role he was forced to assume.
I have never officially met Junior, although I have been able to shake hands with him once in a crowd where he moved by so quickly he would have no idea who I, or anyone else was. I have been impressed over and over again at his comments in most interviews. He has always been courteous and respectful to the interviewer and has always acknowledged his fans. Even in Victory Lane yesterday he said that the win was “for the fans” who had stuck with him over the lean time. “The fans” is an oft repeated mantra of NASCAR and most of the drivers as to convince us that the fans are important. Somehow, when Junior says it, it always seems more to me than the expected “lip service”.
So, why does Junior not win 5,6, or 7 races a year? Why no championships yet? Well, here’s my take. I think that this year, maybe for the first time since 2001, Junior has his heart in the sport again. He has a different look, a different demeanor. He has been close several times this year and but for an empty gas tank would have won the 600 last year. It seems to me that he has the desire to win races and championships that may have been missing for the past several years. Let’s face it. Pocono was a fluke because NASCAR played with yellow flags or Junior would probably have won that one. He won at Michigan. He didn’t back into it, he didn’t luck into it, he flat out drove and out ran the best. Tony Stewart couldn’t come close and Tony had a great car. It may be too early to call a championship season for Junior, but he has that Cup in his sights now. Junior Nation rejoice. As I sit here writing this Legendtorial, I must admit my mind drifts back over the years to the half mile dirt track where Ralph Earnhardt came ready to race and to, most times, win. Ralph certainly had to look down and beam as Dale, Sr. was making his name. Now Ralph and Dale, Sr. can watch a still young Junior earn his own right to fame that comes with the dedication he has in his heart now. Maybe it just took a long time for the hurt to go away and be replaced with desire. You go get ‘em, Junior. You are what NASCAR needs and you are the ONLY connection we old fans have to the days when racing was such a part of our lives. Somewhere among the clouds, as the dust settles around the number 8 your Grandfather drove, and your Dad shows that crooked grin of his, the racers of your past are pleased with you. Your fans are pleased with you. I hope, at long last, you are pleased with yourself for you have earned it, maybe moreso than anyone else running the circuit these days. You go get ‘em Junior and if you happen to win the Cup this year, count me in as one who will applaud you loudly as I think of Thursday nights at Columbia Speedway, the black number 3 at Darlington, and all you have given to the sport. God bless you my friend.
E-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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