A couple I know who are getting married got to complaining about their parents this week. I’ll save you the details; let’s just say Mom and Dad on both sides are interfering to the point they could ace auditions for the next trashy reality show on E! As frustration reached a fever pitch, I took a moment to interject, reminding them that it’s _their_ ceremony to control – after all, it’s the two of them choosing to tie the knot.
“No,” one of my friends replied. “You think that. But this ‘special day’ is really for everybody else.”
Welcome to the world of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. The second the checkered flag flew at Michigan, more than four years to the day he last visited Victory Lane, the driver breathed a sigh of relief that the king of all gorillas (we haven’t seen one this big since his Daddy’s Daytona 500 failures) got thrown off his back. It’s been well-documented by even the most casual garage observer how much the drought ate at Earnhardt, an introvert by nature, deep inside the competitive fire always raged. Certainly, after enduring years of criticism that a name, rather than talent, keeps him part of the most powerful team in motorsports Sunday’s dominant victory produces its own form of self-redemption.
But the next breath Earnhardt took, inside the car, had to be far bigger. After all, the cameras were flashing, Twitter was trending, and the crowd was screaming to be acknowledged by NASCAR’s self-anointed “savior.” The list of “thank yous” would come fast and furious, from the second he emerged from the race car all the way through his post-coronation… err, post-race presser.
“To do it for my fans, “ he said, a theme repeated early and often. “They stuck behind me for all these years. I appreciate their loyalty and support.”
Earnhardt is right; this Monday morning, the number of people calling in sick to work may spike after a well-deserved Sunday night celebration from his base. But for all those fans that stuck by the superstar, a four-year drought – including two missed Chase appearances during that stretch – will be enough to cause a mountain of indifference. There are people in NASCAR who very much believe Earnhardt out of contention was like Tiger Woods on the sidelines in golf; those in power, from CEO Brian France to longtime Cup Series crew members partially blame the drop in ratings and attendance to Earnhardt becoming virtually irrelevant.
Will they come back? Some might question why they haven’t yet, considering the man’s sitting pretty in points. But this season, the whispers have remained about whether NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver was a true title contender. Yes, he’s the only driver to complete every lap of every race, posting a league-high 12 top-10 finishes. But in the statistics that count in this up-front TV landscape, laps led, Junior lagged well behind, all while storylines like Jimmie Johnson-gate, “Danica,” and teammate Jeff Gordon’s struggles took center stage. After all, we’d seen this act play out before; Junior came close several times to winning races in 2011 only for frustration and bad luck to intervene.
There’s also a clear difference between top-5 finishes and first place; after all, in racing, second is just the first loser. Now, even the naysayers must be forced to pay attention as Earnhardt is sitting just another win from the point lead, only Roushketeer Matt Kenseth standing in his way. A championship, once deemed unthinkable for an underachieving career is a possibility, not a pipe dream. Eleven years after his father’s death, Earnhardt the Younger is set to realize some of the potential we saw in him shortly after that tragic passing.
So how many of those who were there for those moments — Earnhardt’s 2004 Daytona 500 win and near-championship season — will find it fit to return to watching their former favorite? The funny thing is that, just like Woods after his return to the PGA, there’s no real gauge on how much power Junior wages over the masses these days. The darling of a generation is no longer inside that coveted 18-34 age group; at 36, the former “young gun” now must captivate America as an “aging vet.” It wasn’t always this way, of course, Earnhardt Sr. winning titles and turning heads all the way through his mid-40s. But the son, in this age of technology changing America, isn’t as plugged in to those watching them. His Twitter account remains unused, in an era where Brad Keselowski sending messages from the racecar turned the sport on to hundreds of thousands. The past four seasons, his success has been overshadowed in public and private by teammates: Gordon, Johnson, and even Mark Martin during a 2009 almost-championship that was also Earnhardt’s biggest nightmare.
How far has the mighty fallen? Joyce Julius, in its occasional look at NASCAR exposure, ranked Earnhardt 5th-most in driver exposure three races into 2012; it’s a category, years ago he could win by a longshot. (Among those he lost to: Twitter-friendly Keselowski). That same company also listed him with 20 meaningful television mentions; that’s ten behind Kenseth, the point leader and still seeking primary sponsorship for 2013. He’s dropped to No. 7 on _Forbes’_ Most Influential Athlete list, behind teammate Johnson and the list of endorsements, while lengthy has slightly declined in recent years. Even sponsor National Guard could be on the chopping block; a new bill banning sponsorships in the military, being brought up in Congress would nix the contract with the No. 88 until further notice. (Perhaps they are the ones saying “thank you” most of all.)
So now, NASCAR watches and waits with baited breath. During its peak years, from 2001-2005, the drama of Earnhardt, Jr.’s recovery from tragedy, combined with his on-track success, remained at the forefront of this sport. Those millions who have stopped watching – ratings have plummeted 25 to 30 percent since Earnhardt’s last true stab at a championship, six years ago – still own TV sets, a car of their own, and an ability to pay for tickets. Does seeing an Earnhardt front and center again, everywhere from _SportsCenter_ to the countless national appearances we’ll see in the coming weeks, bring back the loyalty they lost? Unlike Tiger, this superstar does not carry with him a label of “tainted goods.” The refreshing, candid honesty in interviews remains, coming off as a blue-collar mechanic from your shop down the street instead of some political, polished robot some say NASCAR is too full of these days. Like how he was feeling all psychic after the checkered flag…
“I felt the fan base,” he said. “I felt the excitement and the emotion from them immediately, almost immediately. As soon as I got out of the car, that was my initial thoughts was about how many people were in their living rooms screaming at the top of their lungs and running out in the yard or whatever they do.”
It’s whether that dream was truly reality. In a touch of irony, Woods and Earnhardt shared the exact same winless streak; the weekend of the driver’s last victory, pre-Sunday was also when the golfer captured his last major. However, there’s one area where the PGA has already benefited; the second Woods returned, ratings for the four-day weekend skyrocketed. That’s the financial difference between staying at the Hilton or a Days Inn.
Now, it’s time for the Earnhardt bump. We’re about to truly see what power NASCAR’s big name has left, in a victory that may have been for him – but truly is about everybody else.
“It’s not a national holiday, guys,” said second-place Tony Stewart after this victory. But one quote won’t stop it. When millions are at stake, you better believe the focus will be on what the No. 88 car does for the sport during the next few weeks.