Monday, February 19, 2018

COMMENTARY: Time For Dillon Bashers To Call It A Day

Perhaps now, Austin Dillon will finally get the respect he’s due.

The Welcome, NC native, grandson of legendary NASCAR team owner Richard Childress, has spent most of his adult life dodging allegations of nepotism leveled by those who believe his place in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series owes more to genetics than talent.

“Born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” they say. “Born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.”

Those critics willfully ignore the dozens of formative wins Dillon claimed on dirt tracks across the south.

They discount his seven Camping World Truck Series victories and his 2011 Truck Series championship.

They overlook his eight NASCAR Xfinity Series wins and the 2013 title.

None of that matters, they say. It’s nothing more than a handout from a deep-pockets team owner to his spoiled, rich-kid grandson.

In the aftermath of Sunday night’s career-defining victory in the 60th annual Daytona 500, it may finally be time for the Dillon bashers to pipe down.

Dillon’s Daytona win was his second as a MENCS driver. The first -- in last year's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway – was a fuel-mileage win, allowing the critics to persist in their view that Dillon had not earned his place at the NASCAR table. But with wins in two of the sport’s most prestigious events now on his resume, the outgoing Dillon has all the ammunition he needs to tune-out the Negative Nellies, once and for all.
"I did what I had to do there at the end," said Dillon of a chaotic final lap that saw leader Aric Almirola spin after attempting to block Dillon’s fast-closing Dow Chevrolet in Turn Three. "I hate it for (Almirola's) guys. We had a run, and I stayed in the gas. It is what it is here at Daytona.”
While some viewed Dillon’s last-lap tactics as underhanded, Almirola was not among them.
"It was the last lap and we're all trying to win the Daytona 500," he said, after limping his damaged racer home in a disappointing 11th-place. "It's the biggest race of the year and it's a career-changing race, so we were racing really aggressively. I used every move I knew to try and stay in the lead. Unfortunately, I just wasn't able to hold on.
"I saw him come with the momentum, and I pulled up to block and did exactly what I needed to do to try to win the Daytona 500. I wasn't going to just let him have it. He got to my back bumper and was pushing and just hooked me. He's not driving too aggressively, he's trying to win the Daytona 500, just like I was.”
Dillon acknowledged his critics during a raucous Victory Lane celebration, saying, "My grandfather has done everything for me. Everybody knows it. There is a lot of pressure on me to perform… but I like that pressure. The same with the No. 3. There is a lot of pressure behind that.
"But I'm willing to take that and go with it. I'm just thankful for all the people that support us along the way; Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family for letting us bring this number back. It comes full circle. I just can't thank the Lord enough for this opportunity."
Sunday’s Daytona 500 triumph – authored 20 years to the day after the legendary Dale Earnhardt, Sr. drove Childress’ iconic No. 3 to Victory Lane in the Great American Race – should be enough to finally extinguish the bonfire of second-guessing that has plagued Dillon from Day One.

Sure, “Pop Pop” has provided the best possible equipment to both of his racing grandsons over the years. But what grandparent would do anything less? Don’t we all devote every resource at our disposal to help our children and grandchildren succeed in their lives and careers? Devotion to family should be applauded, not condemned.

A driver who has now won major races in all three NASCAR National Series – and championships in two of them – deserves better treatment than Dillon has received to date from the sport’s often-overcritical railbirds.
Austin Dillon has earned his place. At a level of the sport where every top contender enjoys world-class equipment and technological support, Dillon has won races. 
The records do not lie.
And as Dillon posed for a series of celebratory photos with his jubilant team and the Harley J. Earl Trophy Sunday night, he had the satisfied look of a man who had finally answered his critics.
Silver Spoons no longer required.

Monday, January 29, 2018

COMMENTARY: When It Comes To Marketing, Busch and Blaney Both Have Points

NASCAR rolled out its annual Preseason Media Tour in Charlotte, North Caroline last week, and it took Kyle Busch approximately 20 minutes to ignite the season’s first controversy.

Last Tuesday, Busch lambasted NASCAR for its marketing strategies, saying the sanctioning body is giving too much attention to young, unproven drivers, at the expense of established veterans like himself.

"It is bothersome,” said Busch of what he called a “stupid” marketing campaign. “We’ve paid our dues, and our sponsors have and everything else. All (NASCAR is) doing is advertising all these younger guys for fans to figure out and pick up on.

“I wouldn’t say (it’s) all that fair... but I don’t know. I’m not the marketing genius that’s behind this deal.”
Busch’s comments drew an immediate response from both the sanctioning body and his fellow drivers. Kurt Busch quickly jumped to his younger brother’s defense, saying young drivers are getting “a free pass” to stardom. Speaking on The Domenick Nati Show, Busch said, “…there is ‘zero’ in the win column for a guy like Chase Elliott, zero for Bubba Wallace, Erik Jones (and) all those guys.

Busch: Dont ignore established stars
“Larson’s out there; he’s young and he’s winning. They need to push him. I see him as a future champion. I think what Kyle (Busch) is saying is these guys have been given a free pass, so to speak, to become a superstar and we haven’t seen the success on track translate to what’s being shown to the world.”

NASCAR’s younger drivers were less supportive, with 24-year old Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney placing the blame directly back on Busch.

“If some drivers were more willing to do these things, they’d get asked more to do it,” he said “The reason why I get asked to do a lot is because I say ‘yes’ a lot; because I think it’s good for the sport and myself. I can tell you personally, (Busch) doesn’t like doing a lot of stuff, so they don’t ask him.
“That made me upset, how he bashed that part of it. But, to each his own. If he doesn’t want to do anything, so be it.”
Rookie contender Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., was more direct, calling Busch’s remarks “stupid. I love Kyle to death, but, dude, come on. He was in the same spot we are. He had some of the same treatment we went through.
Blaney: There's always more you can do
Like Blaney, the Richard Petty Motorsports driver accused veteran drivers like Busch of giving the cold-shoulder to appearances and promotions, saying “when certain drivers get to a certain level – and if I ever get to this level, you can pinch me and bring me back down – they stop doing stuff.”
In an exclusive interview with Sirius XM NASCAR Radio, NASCAR executive vice president and chief global sales and marketing officer Steve Phelps defended the sport’s current marketing efforts.

“It’s about our drivers, our crew chiefs and our crews and everyone that makes this sport go,” Phelps 
said. “Hall of Fame drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano… are such an important part of everything that we do. And they should be. 

"But we are also need to expose these young drivers, so our fans understand who they are. 
They’re authentic, they want to win on the race track and they’re fantastic drivers.

“It’s a mix of veterans and young guys.”

Phelps admitted, however, that drivers like Busch may have gotten the short end of the stick at the start of their careers, due to an abundance of older, more established stars at that time.

Wallace: "Dude, come on..."
The Busch brothers, Blaney and Wallace all have valid points. With established stars like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Matt Kenseth all withdrawing from the sport in recent years, NASCAR has understandably begun to look for its next batch of superstars. Drivers like Larson, Blaney and Chase Elliott are clearly ready to fill that void, whether or not they have yet visited Victory Lane.

While popular, NASCAR’s new stars do not yet command the massive fan base enjoyed by frequent winners and former series champions like Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, to name just a few. Kyle Busch is correct when he says that the sanctioning body cannot afford to ignore its established stars, in favor of the Young Bucks.

Blaney and Wallace are absolutely right, however, when they accuse some older drivers of doing less than they should to help promote the sport.

While running (and winning) multiple NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series events each season, Kyle Busch seldom makes the customary Monday media appearances asked of those event winners. Instead, the former MENCS champion routinely passed those duties off to his NXS and NCWTS crew chiefs.

Veteran drivers may have more demands on their time than younger competitors, but it is hypocritical for Busch to complain about not being adequately promoted, while routinely declining promotional opportunities

Blaney has quickly established himself as a fan favorite, largely through hard work and extra effort. His “Glass Case of Emotion” podcast on has developed a large following. He has made guest appearances appeared on Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live,” lent his voice to “Cars 3” and will soon be featured on an episode of NBC’s “Taken.” He takes time to interact with fans, as evidenced by his impromptu Texas Motor Speedway “pizza party,” where he purchased and handed out pizza to fans attending a recent MENCS test session.

When’s the last time you saw an established star do that?

“I’ve been really fortunate to get a lot of great chances from NASCAR,” said Blaney. “And I’ve always been very open to do a lot of things they want. I think it is really important to have -- not only young drivers -- but all NASCAR drivers be pushing to get new demographics of the world… into the sport. I think everybody should be a little more open to helping the sport out.
“If I have to sacrifice time, it’s just time,” he added. “It really doesn’t mean much to me, personally. I’d rather do something meaningful to the sport than just sit on my couch because then I just don’t feel like doing anything.
“There’s always more you can do. You are never maxed out on your potential to make somebody’s day.”
With an aging fan base and a dwindling market share, Blaney’s approach makes perfect sense.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

COMMENTARY: NASCAR's Charter System Headed For Slippery Slope

God help us, it’s happening again.

NASCAR’s Charter System, which guarantees qualified teams a starting spot in each of 36 point-counting races each season and pays enhanced purse and point fund monies to charter-holding teams, has begun to be manipulated in much the same way its predecessor was in prior seasons.

Go FAS Racing owner Archie St. Hilaire announced recently that he has purchased an ownership stake in Joe Falk’s Circle Sport Racing. Circle Sport fielded cars for Jeffrey Earnhardt last season -- in concert with TMG Motorsports – before parting company during the offseason. Go FAS Racing will now use the newly-acquired Circle Sport charter on the #32 car driven by Matt DiBenedetto this season.

After acquiring the Circle Sport charter, St. Hilaire then sold a percentage of his Go FAS organization to Wood Brothers Racing, allowing them to assume control of the charter he used a year ago, for use on Paul Menard’s No. 21 Ford this season.

Let’s review…

Joe Falk owns most of Circle Sport Racing, but not all of it.

Archie St. Hilaire owns most of GoFAS Racing, and now, and a little of Circle Sport.

The Wood Brothers own most of Wood Brothers Racing, along with a little bit of Go FAS.

Confused? Join the club.

Based on the newly announced Wood Brothers/Go FAS “partnership,” it now appears that a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team owner can pay a small amount of money – theoretically as little as $1 -- for a partial ownership stake in another organization, thereby assuming control of that team’s charter.

Much like the insanely complicated glory days of NASCAR Top-35 system, when owners bought, sold and traded owner points with dizzying regularity and few (if any) guidelines, the sanctioning body’s new Charter System has now been manipulated to the point where it no longer resembles what it was expressly designed to be.

Under guidelines hammered out by NASCAR and the Race Team Alliance prior to the 2016 season, 36 teams were granted charters that guaranteed them automatic entrance into every race for the next nine years. The idea was to reward teams for longstanding, full-season support of the series by giving them a tangible asset that could be sold, should they eventually elect to exit the sport. Charter holders were allowed to lease their charter to another team just once in a five-year period, should they elect not to compete themselves.

Despite no announced changes to the Charter bylaws in the last two years, it now appears that an new option has been added; the option to transfer a charter by selling a minority ownership stake to someone else.

As a result, a team owner without a single career start in NASCAR’s top series could – theoretically, at least – acquire a charter simply by purchasing a 1% share in a charter-holding team, instantly assuring himself of a guaranteed starting spot in every race.

That is categorically NOT what the Charter System was designed to be. In fact, it is exactly the opposite of what NASCAR and the RTA had in mind.

The original wording of the Charter bylaws included no mention of “co-ownership.” Either you owned a charter, leased one, or went without.

In addition to muddying the competitive waters, the concept of “co-ownership” strips all semblance of value from NASCAR’s 36 existing charters. Why would a team owner ever again pay six figures for a charter, when he can receive the same financial and procedural benefits by purchasing a tiny percentage of another, charter-holding team?

While it is tempting to point an accusatory finger at the parties involved in last week’s machinations, it would be short-sighted to do so. Falk, St. Hilaire and the Woods simply did what racers have always done; manipulating the gray area to their own benefit, without actually stepping outside the rules.

Falk found a way to protect a charter he was unlikely to use in 2018.

St. Hilaire laid his hands – in whole or in part – on no less than two charters, paving the way for his planned expansion to a two-car organization in 2019.

The Wood Brothers secured a guaranteed starting spot in every race this season, along with the beefier purse and point-fund checks that come with being a Charter holder.

Everyone wins, except for the sport, which once again finds itself sinking into a baffling morass of “how did THEY get a charter” puzzlement, the likes of which we hoped to never see again.

Hopefully, NASCAR will quickly draw a new line in the sand, adding language to its Charter bylaws to eliminate this “co-ownership” malarkey, once and for all.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Remembering Dan Gurney

Gods are not immortal, after all.
Dan Gurney, one of the most versatile and talented racers in the history of US auto racing, died Sunday at age 86 of complications from pneumonia.
Gurney’s family announced his passing with a written statement, saying, "With one last smile on his handsome face, Dan drove off into the unknown just before noon today. In deepest sorrow, with gratitude in our hearts for the love and joy you have given us during your time on this earth, we say 'Godspeed."
Gurney won seven times in IndyCar Series competition, five times in what is now NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series, and four times in Formula 1 races from 1962 to 1970. He also excelled in Sports Car racing, teaming with A.J. Foyt and Ford Motor Company to win the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans, and claiming the inaugural running of what is now the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 1962. His career resume includes 51 career victories and 47 podium finishes in 312 starts.
He is one of only three drivers to win in all four major motorsports disciplines, joining Mario Andretti and Juan Pablo Montoya.
The highlight of his legendary career came during a spectacular, two-week span in 1967 when he finished second in the Indianapolis 500, drove a Ford GT40 MKIV to victory at Le Mans with co-driver AJ Foyt, then won the Belgian Grand Prix in his own Gurney Eagle; becoming the only American to win an F1 race in a car of his own design.
Bobby Unser demolished the Indianapolis Motor Speedway by an incredible 17 mph in 1972 at the wheel of a Gurney Eagle, leading easily until the ignition failed. The next year, 19 of the Indy’s 33 starters drove Eagles, with Gordon Johncock claiming the win.
The Long Island native – the son of an opera singer -- is credited with creating the wicker bill; an aerodynamic device still widely used in both the motorsports and aviation industries, and the first to use a full-faced helmet. He was also the first to celebrate a race victory by spraying the celebratory champagne, rather than drinking it.
Shortly after retiring as a driver, Gurney was convinced to take part in the 1971 Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, an unsanctioned, highly illegal event that covered public highways from New York to California. Co-driving a blisteringly fast Ferrari with the late writer Brock Yates, Gurney completed the 2,863-mile event in 35 hours and 54 minutes, quipping “at no time did we exceed 175 mph.”
Gurney was a co-founder of Championship Auto Racing Teams, which sanctioned open-wheel racing in the United States from 1979 to 2008.
"Dan Gurney was not only a great innovator, he was a great driver,” said Foyt of his fallen comrade. “It didn't matter if it was a road course or an oval, an Indy car or a stock car. I never use the word `legend,’ but in the case of Dan, he was a true legend of our sport. We became close friends at Le Mans in '67 and winning it brought us closer together. He was a super guy. Even though we were competitors in the Indy cars, we always respected each other highly.
"As we got older we became closer, (we called) each other on birthdays or when we were sick. Now I'm glad we got to spend the time together we did at Long Beach last year, along with Edsel Ford. We told a lot of stories and we had a lot of fun talking about the old times. It's hard to believe he's gone and I'm really going to miss him. My thoughts are with Evi and his family."
Mario Andretti eulogized Gurney on Twitter, saying, “I was first inspired by him when I was in midgets, dreaming of being like him. I was last inspired by him yesterday. Yes, I mean forever. He understood me better than anyone else, which is why he wrote the foreword for my book in 2001.”
"When we talk about legendary American drivers, owners and car constructors on an international stage, Dan Gurney is one of the all-time greats," said J. Douglas Boles, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "His skill in all three areas helped him make an indelible mark and serve as a huge influence in this sport. Dan was a giant in the racing world in every sense. Our sincere condolences and prayers are with his wife, Evi, and the entire Gurney family. Godspeed, Dan Gurney."
Daytona International Speedway President Chip Wile said, "Dan's success -- and his sheer presence -- helped elevate our facility to the world-wide stature that our founder, Bill France Sr., originally envisioned. As a driver, (he) helped establish the speedway as a pre-eminent road-racing circuit. Years later, as a champion car owner in IMSA, he helped cement the speedway's legacy in that regard. We all are fortunate to have crossed his path."
The Gurney family will hold a private funeral in the near future. They have asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Hoag Hospital Foundation in Newport Beach, Cal.

Monday, January 08, 2018

COMMENTARY: Money Helps, But Talent Is Still King

It’s a top water-cooler topic across NASCAR Nation these days; the ongoing battle between money and talent in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Some observers – including many longtime fans of the sport – believe that the almighty dollar has supplanted driving talent in determining NASCAR’s Sunday afternoon starting grid. And while there is no denying the importance of financing, a simple examination of the MENCS roster reveals far more wheelmen than sugar babies.

MENCS champion Martin Truex, Jr. made good use of family money early in his career, campaigning family-backed entries all the way to what is now the NASCAR K&N Pro Series. From then on, however, the New Jersey native has made his way solely on talent, winning a pair of Xfinity Series titles for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., before being promoted to the Cup ranks with DEI, Michael Waltrip Racing and Furniture Row Racing.

Runner-up Kyle Busch began modestly in the Legends Car ranks in his native Las Vegas, before advancing to NASCAR’s Southwest Tour. He brought little or no money to that series, but immediately displayed a level of talent sufficient to gain the attention of NASCAR owner Jack Roush. The same story can be told for older brother Kurt Busch, who climbed an identical ladder on his way to NASCAR stardom, there 2004 Cup Series championship and a win in last year’s Daytona 500.

Harvick brought nothing but talent
Last year’s third-place finisher, Kevin Harvick, came to national prominence by winning the 1998 NASCAR Winston West title for Spears Motorsports, an operation owned by Wayne and Connie Spears. Harvick was hired solely for his driving talent and brought no money to the dance. That talent eventually made him the heir-apparent at Richard Childress Racing when Dale Earnhardt lost his life on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Brad Keselowski finished fourth in the 2017 MENCS standings, and his family’s racing story is well known. His parents, Bob and Kay Keselowski, mortgaged the family home on multiple occasions to keep their family owned race team afloat, before finally closing the doors for good in 2006. Keselowski’s big break came when Germain Racing tabbed him to replace the suspended Ted Musgrave in a 2007 Truck Series race at Memphis Motorsports Park, where he won the pole, led 62 laps and contended for the win. That performance convinced Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to put Keselowski in his No. 88 Nationwide Series Chevrolet, where he won the 2010 championship. Today, he is a perennial title contender for Team Penske. 

Hamlin: from humble roots.
Denny Hamlin came from similarly humble roots. He began racing go-karts at age seven, eventually progressing to the Mini Stock and Late Model Stock ranks at Langley (VA) Speedway. Hamlin won 35 LMS races in just two seasons, including 25 victories in 36 starts in 2003. That was more than enough to earn him a driver development deal with Joe Gibbs Racing, an opportunity on which Hamlin has clearly capitalized.

Kyle Larson was a top threat for last year’s MENCS title, eventually finishing eighth in points. “Young Money” raced his way to NASCAR through the USAC Open Wheel ranks, winning Sprint Car and Midget races at a clip that quickly got him noticed in the NASCAR garage. Like Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman before him, Larson made it to NASCAR without buying a single full-fendered seat, making his way to the top on talent, and talent alone.

Of the 16 drivers who qualified for last year’s playoffs, only three – Truex, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney – can be said to have benefitted significantly from the presence of family money. The rest got there the old fashioned way.

They earned it.

Edwards was willing to beg
For every winless rich kid floundering around in the middle of the XFINITY or Camping World Truck Series pack, there are a dozen drivers like Clint Bowyer -- who got his call to the big time while sanding Bondo in a two-bay auto body shop – and Carl Edwards, who famously handed out business cards begging team owners to give him an opportunity behind the wheel.

For every hapless newcomer with a ton of cash and no clue what to do with it, there is a Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Erik Jones or Chris Buescher, all of whom came to NASCAR with nothing but talent, then attracted top-dollar sponsorship by running consistently at the front of the pack.

There is no denying that Paul Menard’s career – including his win in the 2011 Brickyard 400 -- has been bolstered by the presence of family money and the constant guarantee of full-season sponsorship. Danica Patrick struggled through five winless Cup campaigns, assisted by the presence of high-dollar sponsorship.

Money has always played an important role in determining who wins and loses on Sunday afternoon. Richard Petty and David Pearson possessed awesome driving talent, but also benefitted from substantial sponsorship, factory backing and immense technological support. G.C. Spencer, Elmo Langley and James Hilton could also twist a pretty wheel, but never had the resources to compete with the big dogs. Some things never change.

In the end, an honest assessment of the NASCAR roster proves that driving talent remains the most important form of currency.

Monday, December 04, 2017

BREAKING: Ingram Seriously Hurt In Highway Crash

NASCAR Hall Of Famer Jack Ingram is hospitalized today after suffering serious injuries in a highway crash Sunday morning near his home in Asheville, NC.

According to the Asheville Police Department, Ingram and two passengers were on their way to breakfast Sunday when their 2002 Chevrolet was struck in the driver’s side door by a 1999 Ford pick-up. Ingram was transported to nearby Mission Hospital in Asheville with a collapsed lung, five broken ribs, and a puncture wound on his left side. Once in ICU, it was determined that he had suffered a spleen injury that was causing internal injury. He underwent surgery Sunday evening and remains in ICU.
A statement from his family said, “We are currently by his side, managing his care with his clinicians and will decide next steps. We remain hopeful and positive, and appreciate all thoughts and prayers. We will provide updates as information becomes available.”
The 1982 and 1985 champion in what is now the NASCAR XfinitySeries was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s 2014 class. One of Ingram’s two passengers was transported to the hospital with pain in his right arm. Ingram’s other passenger and the driver of the other vehicle were reportedly uninjured.

Friday, November 17, 2017

COMMENTARY: Thank You, Dale

Dale Earnhardt, Jr., will run his final race as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver at Homestead Miami Speedway Sunday. A two-decade career pockmarked by a series of debilitating concussions prompted NASCAR’s perennial Most Popular Driver to announce that he will step away from the sport at season’s end, relinquishing the seat in Rick Hendrick’s potent No. 88 Chevrolet while still blessed with physical and mental faculties necessary to live a normal, happy life after racing.

Dale, Jr. will be missed
Dale seems fine with that decision. The rest of us, however, are struggling with the idea of a NASCAR race without Junior in it.

Drivers come and go with time. They always have, and they always will. Father Time is undefeated, and Earnhardt is not the first driver to be coerced into an early retirement by injury. As safe as NASCAR has become in recent years, Dale Jr. knows better than most how cruel this game can be, and how tenuous our grip is on tomorrow.

We will most certainly miss him on the race track, where every pass generated a joyous eruption from the grandstands. Junior never equaled the on-track success enjoyed by his legendary father, but if he had been born Dale Smith, Jr. -- rather than Dale Earnhardt -- his 26 career MENCS wins would have him discussed alongside the sport’s elite. Add another 24 victories and two championships in Xfinity Series competition and you’ve got a resume that 99% of racers would be proud to call their own.

It is off the track, however, where Earnhardt will be missed most.

 Junior's Homestead throwback car
Over the years, he has gone from a reticent, painfully shy interview to one of the most insightful and candid voices in the sport. In the early days of his career, Earnhardt’s press-conference repertoire was limited to, “yup, nope” and “guess so.” Not yet able – or willing -- to step out of his father’s all-enveloping shadow, Junior struggled to find his voice, staring at the ground, sucking nervously on his lower lip and wondering aloud why reporters and fans cared about his opinion at all.

In time, however, Junior became his own man. The loss of his father, coupled with the painful and senseless demise of the Dale Earnhardt, Inc. race team taught him valuable lessons about the unfairness of life. An eventual move to the juggernaut Hendrick Motorsports organization established him as a superstar in his own right; far more than just his father’s son.

In subsequent seasons, the once subdued Earnhardt slowly evolved into a Media Center favorite; a “go to guy” for reporters in search of insightful quotes and opinions on the current state of the sport.

Earnhardt always seemed to feel a sense of responsibility when dealing with the media. He told reporters once, “If you’re going to ask me a question, the least I can do is to think about my answer.”

Earnhardt was thoughtful with the media
Far more than the wins and Top-5 finishes, that’s what I will miss about Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

In a testosterone-rich sport where the reaction to injury has historically been “suck it up and walk it off,” Earnhardt singlehandedly changed the tenor of the conversation. After suffering a concussion in a high-speed crash at Talladega Superspeedway, Junior’s decision to step out of the car in the midst of the 2012 playoffs changed the way professional athletes – in all sports -- look at head injuries. If it was okay for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to put his health above all else, it was okay for others to do so, as well.

We will never know how many lives have been impacted – or even saved -- by his example.

With that said, however, Earnhardt is already dropping subtle hints that Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 may not be his final race, after all. Spirits soared here at Homestead earlier today, when he asked reporters whether NASCAR rules would allow him to take part in next season’s Xfinity Series finale. Whether he’s truly thinking of racing again one day, or simply yanking NASCAR Nation’s collective chain, Earnhardt proved once again that very few athletes “move the needle” as effortlessly as he.

"Quickly making up for lost time..."
Whether or not he ever straps in for another NASCAR race, Earnhardt will continue leave an indelible mark. Next season, he will move to the broadcast booth as an analyst for NBC Sports, bringing his unique insight and perspective to fans around the globe. It is entirely possible that Earnhardt will prove more valuable to NASCAR as a TV analyst than he was as a driver, and his JR Motorsports Xfinity Series team has established itself as one of the premier organizations in NASCAR’s second-tier.

Junior may be retiring as a full-time driver, but he’s definitely not going away. With a loving wife and a new baby on the way, Earnhardt is finally poised to experience the joys of life, outside the race car. By his own admission, he was a bit late arriving at that particular dance. But from all indications, he and Amy are quickly making up for lost time.

We wish him the best in that, and in his continuing efforts here in NASCAR.

Thanks, Dale, for sharing yourself with us. Thanks for sharing your talent, your intensity and your competitive fire. Thanks for sharing your successes and failures, your triumphs and your tragedies. Thanks for making us a part of your family, and for becoming part of ours.

Godspeed, and thanks for the memories.

Monday, November 13, 2017

40 Random Thoughts After a Wild Weekend At Phoenix

1.     When you wreck the Most Popular Driver, you get booed and called a “dirty driver.” When the Most Popular Driver wrecks you back two weeks later, he is praised for “standing up for himself.” Do not attempt to make sense of these two statements.

2.     Most NASCAR fans are less interested in what happened than who did it.

3.     That’s because “fan” is short for “fanatic” and fanatics are generally not the most logical people on the planet.

4.     Fans root with their hearts, not their heads. And that is a wonderful thing, even though it makes them a little crazy sometimes.

5.     Hang around this sport long enough and you will hear the words, “Red flag! The wall is on fire.”

6.     Kevin Harvick is lurking like a vulture on a low branch right now. He’s not the hottest driver in NASCAR, but he might be the hottest driver on Sunday night. And that’s all it takes.

7.     Of all the drivers I expected to see shed tears in Victory Lane, Matt Kenseth was ranked 272,603rd. And it was awesome.

8.     Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., arrived in NASCAR at the same time. And it is somehow fitting that they appear set to leave together, as well.

9.     I hate the fact that Kenseth is effectively being forced out of his ride, in favor of a younger driver. And if I was Joe Gibbs, I would almost certainly make the exact same call.

10.  Complaints are a dime a dozen. Solutions are tougher to come by.

11.  All you Hendrick-haters, enjoy it while you can. Because Jimmie and Chad aren’t going to take this lying down.

12.  Father Time is undefeated.

13.  During driver introductions, the best thing to hear is cheering. The worst thing to hear is not booing, however. It is silence.

14.  Kenseth telling “Dad Jokes” in the post-race press conference? Pure gold.

15.  Those who dislike the “winner take all” championship format at Homestead Miami Speedway are too young to remember when the late Dale Earnhardt showed up at Atlanta Motorsport Speedway for the season finale wearing the champion’s leather jacket he earned two weeks earlier.

16.  Or when Jimmie Johnson showed up at Homestead Miami Speedway needing to finish 27th to clinch the title. #Exciting

17.  Trevor Bayne hit the wall so hard, it hurt ME.

18.  There are two kinds of NASCAR fans; those who say they get charged-up by the wrecks, and liars.

19.  Brad Keselowski is playing with house money this weekend at Homestead. And that should worry the competition.

20.  Daniel Hemric and Cole Custer raced their asses off Saturday in Phoenix -- with a playoff berth on the line -- and nobody got wrecked. Nicely done, boys.

21.  My guy is a saint. Your guy is a jerk. Nothing will ever change those facts, so stop expecting it.

22.  This sport needs more guys like Landon Cassill and Matt DiBenedetto. You know… goofy.

23.  “What goes around, comes around” is more than just a cliché. It is the truth, especially in a sport as volatile and testosterone-rich as stock car racing.

24.  Avoid clichés like the plague.

25.  Ryan Blaney is going to be a huge star in this sport.

26.  The same goes for Kyle Larson, Erik Jones, William Byron, Daniel Suarez and a bunch of other kids under the age of 23.

27.  In fact, I’m not sure NASCAR has ever been as flush with outstanding young talent as it is today.

28.  No offense, but remember when guys like Kevin Conway won Rookie of the Year in the Cup Series just by showing up for some of the races?

29.  Austin Cindric is an aggressive, rookie driver whose exuberance and desire to win sometimes put his fellow competitors at risk. This pisses of some of those fellow competitors, who did exactly the same thing when they were rookies.

30.  Many of those fellow competitors seem to be harboring grudges against young Mr. Cindric, which is disconcerting for anyone betting on him to win the 2017 Camping World Truck Series championship this weekend at Homestead Miami Speedway.

31.  Is it just me, or does William Byron have that “All American Boy” thing, down-pat?

32.  If Chase Elliott wins the season-finale at Homestead, it’ll be okay with me. The kid’s due.

33.  Denny Hamlin winning would be good for a few extra storylines, as well.

34.  And while we’re at it, Brendan Gaughan parking it in Victory Lane in what is (almost certainly) his final NASCAR start would also be a bit of a heart warmer.

35.  JR Motorsports has quietly assembled an Xfinity Series dynasty. Compared to where they were five years ago, three cars in the Championship Four is an amazing achievement.

36.  Kyle Busch is getting along with everyone this season, and contending for a championship. Those two statements have something to do with each other.

37.  In sports, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you earn. If that were not true, Martin Truex, Jr., would be a MENCS champion by now.

38.  And Elliott Sadler would have a half-dozen Xfinity titles on his mantle.

39.  You cannot feud with your fellow drivers and win a championship at the same time.

40.  Austin Cindric, read No. 39 again.