It was the crowning moment of the career of Nascar’s most popular driver. The 2004 Daytona 500. The chosen son, Dale Earnhardt Jr, had won the race that his father tragically died competing in only three years earlier.
Reports of the day say that everyone in the crowd was on their feet, cheering. Grown men were in tears. It was quite the moment, they say.
Well, I can tell you that there was at least one person that wasn’t cheering. That’s because I was that lone defector.
Don’t get me wrong, I believed in the storyline. The death of Dale Sr. struck me hard. It even happened on my 20th birthday. The personal connection was undeniable. But starting as soon as the following race at Daytona following Dale’s death – the 2001 Pepsi 400 – I just wasn’t into it.
The reason was, the DEI cars were unbeatable at plate tracks. I felt that anyone could pilot one of those to victory lane. And that fact was proven by Michael Waltrip’s multiple wins through the years. Nothing against Mikey, who seems like a nice guy and all, but his record outside of the two superspeedway tracks – Daytona and Talladega – was less than stellar.
Because of all this, I just didn’t get into the storyline as much as others did. I have that feeling about sports – when the team with the clear advantage wins the game, it just isn’t as exciting as when the underdog pulls it off. That was my issue. Due to the tragedy of his dad’s death, Junior was being put in this underdog-style storyline, yet the cars he was driving were clearly superior and couldn’t help but win.
Unfairly, I’d developed the opposite feeling of seemingly every other Nascar fan. I would root against the DEI cars every time a plate race came around. When Jeff Gordon won a controversial finish at Talladega and the fans pelted his car with beer cans, I was the one at home cheering. Things had gotten ugly between me and Dale Jr.
But somewhere along the line, things started to change. As the years went by, I started listening to the post-race interviews more closely. As Dale Jr. aged, and in many ways coinciding with the switch to Hendrick Motorsports, he became an amazing spokesman and great example to the future of the sport. There weren’t many drivers who were less controversial, thoughtful and overall well-spoken that him. His advocacy for the sport at time when attendance was waning was priceless. No amount of publicity could replace his very presence at the track.
Something became obvious to me – the sport needed Dale Jr. His father’s legacy fans were still coming to races, and he was embracing his role as the face of the sport. In the last few years, I actually found myself rooting for the man. And I did always respect his brand loyalty to Chevrolet, an original Nascar manufacturer.
Unfortunately, just as things were coming around in our relationship that only I knew about, the concussions and subsequent recent retirement announcement came about.
Now, instead of wishing that someone could beat Dale Jr. on the racetrack, I was fearing what it meant when he could no longer win races. Just like his father’s death affected the sport forever, I wonder if Junior’s retirement will have a similar, albeit less depressing, impact on the sport.
With other fan favorites Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart exiting in the two years prior, Nascar is at a crucial crossroads. While you could argue the changing of the guard has happened before with the survival of the sport, this one feels a bit different.
The sport has no choice to be corporate these days, no matter how many changes Monster Energy and the powers that be make in the vein of “boys have at it.” But it seems that every change that is made, there is a plethora of fans via the mighty social media ready to bash the decision.
Do rising stars like Kyle Larsen, Chase Elliot and other have enough to keep Nascar afloat and going into the future? The emergence of electric cars and reduction of fossil fuels, along with increased popularity of and access to other racing series on a more local level has to be a concern.
And maybe the sport will never quite be the same. We’ve all seen grandstands go away and attendance dwindle. Does the loss of Dale Jr. spell the same kind of doom? After all, while racers have come and gone, the top series hasn’t gone without an Earnhardt since the last 70s- because we all know Jeffrey doesn’t count. That kind of connection through several generations could make this scenario unique.
For now, I choose to immerse myself in this season, and soak up the Dale Jr. time. Come what may, the fact is, there will still be racing in 2018. How the fans react next year and in the years to come – and how Nascar reacts to them – remains to be seen.