By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
There is, still, a prevailing perception among the broader sporting public that NASCAR is a simple sport for simple folk. Superficially it appears only to be a bunch of fast cars piloted by hotheaded drivers who flunked anger management 101 making left turns until the checkered flag drops. While that may have been a fair assessment 30 years ago, the stereotype does a terrible injustice to the product’s evolution. Today’s “stock” car, having been wind tunnel and on-track tested and every part and subsystem analyzed by the brightest minds with sole purpose of sucking every last fraction of speed from the machine, is an engineering marvel. NASCAR’s modern machine is built and manipulated in a setting that’s more lab than garage. Drivers too have grown from beer swilling, hammer down, bump and grind outlaws to polished, intellectual test pilots whose knowledge of the car and in-race feedback to the crew chief is as critical to victory as their ability to navigate the car to the front.
Ironically, this casually and incorrectly oversimplified sport has as its most popular performer the most interesting and complex athlete in the sports world. This reference is of course to Dale Earnhardt Jr. Describing Jr. starts with the obvious: he’s the son of NASCAR legend and 7-time champion Dale Earnhardt. On this fascinating foundation of a son following his iconic father into the same line of work are many more layers of intrigue. Jr. is also the driver who had the weight of the entire sport suddenly heaped on his shoulders at the start of only his second full-time season after his father was tragically killed during the 2001 Daytona 500. He’s the talented hotshot who, frustrated with his progress and influence, made the decision to leave his father’s company – Dale Earnhardt, Inc. – and sign with rival Hendrick Motorsports. He’s the driver who, name aside, frankly hasn’t lived up to his talent and, in a desperate effort to match results with his alleged skill, has rifled through crew chiefs like rock stars cycle through girlfriends. And lastly, he’s the now 36-yr-old man whose spirit appears broken by it all: the weight of his inescapable name, the suffocating love from fans and the unfulfilled expectations.
In these “layers of Jr.” there’s a personal correlation for nearly everyone. Perhaps that’s why, somewhat sadly, his pedestrian performance hasn’t affected his popularity. The fact of the matter is, despite his access to the best resources in the sport, Jr’s won a paltry 18 races since 1999, 3 races since 2005 and has never finished better than 3rd (in 2003) in the final Sprint Cup standings. Fans rarely celebrate the average, but we all (still) love us some Jr. He connects with sons struggling to overcome the shortcomings or equal the financial and domestic accomplishments of their fathers. He’s an example for those confronting a career fork in the road, having exhausted their growth within an organization, and are facing the fear of the unknown in deference to their ambition. He’s a source of strength for those who have, or will, lose a major cog in their family machine and will attempt (or be expected to do) the impossible task of filling the void. And finally we cheer Jr. because life will be, at times, unimaginably joyous and unbearably difficult, and when it’s the latter, our resolve will waiver too.
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