Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 27, 2017

Junior Heads For The Garage

The popular tale is that the sport originated with Prohibition-era moonshiners who souped up their cars in order to outrun the authorities as they transported their illegal liquid cargo through the hills of Appalachia. If there is some fantasy to the supposed prominence of an outlaw element in the development of stock car racing, it certainly isn’t the only sport with a mythological aspect to its history. See baseball and Abner Doubleday, for example.

What is irrefutable is that when Bill France Sr. convened a meeting of drivers and promoters at Daytona Beach’s Streamline Hotel late in 1947 with the goal of bringing order to the growing sport, stock car racing was a largely regional activity, with an ardent following in the South and lesser appeal in the rest of the country. All of the prominent figures in NASCAR’s early history were southerners. Petty, Baker, Pearson, Allison, Yarborough, Earnhardt, Waltrip, Elliot – pick a name and their biography begins in the Carolinas or Georgia, Kentucky or Florida.

France Sr. and his sons Bill Jr. and Jim, who would in time assume major roles in the family run business that is stock car racing’s governing body understood that the growth of the sport required expansion outside of its southern base. With the advent of what’s known as NASCAR’s “modern era” in the early ‘70s, the sport abandoned dirt tracks and races of less than 100 miles and began its national growth. Soon there were NASCAR races in Michigan and California, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. This year half of the 36 races on the premier Monster Energy Cup Series calendar are at tracks outside of NASCAR’s traditional home territory.

The expansion of racing into a national sport applied to its participants as well as its venues and fan base. Defending and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is a California native. He supplanted Nevadan Kyle Busch as the Cup titleholder. One has to go all the way back to 1999 and Dale Jarrett, who was born and grew up in Conover, North Carolina and still lives in nearby Hickory to find a champion of NASCAR’s top series from the South.

No one in the sport has been more emblematic of NASCAR’s growth and outreach than Dale Earnhardt Jr. As the son of the racing legend who was killed during the 2001 Daytona 500, he began his Cup Series career in 1999 with an immediate fan base among the sport’s long-time faithful. But while he may have been raised in the Charlotte suburb of Kannapolis, North Carolina, the driver known to every fan as Junior immediately transcended that regional appeal. Just 24 years old in his first season driving in the Cup Series, which was also the year he won the second of back-to-back championships in NASCAR’s developmental series, Junior was the face of a new generation of drivers who brought waves of young fans to the sport.

Even more important, while he had worked as a mechanic while moving up through the minor leagues of stock car racing, Earnhardt connected to those fans in ways that went beyond the nuts and bolts of the 725 horsepower vehicles that have long since but anything but “stock” cars. His taste in music ran more to alternative rock and hip hop than country, and his style was similarly more urbane than pressed jeans and tee shirts. Early on he grasped the power of social media, giving him a means of connecting with fans that his father’s generation wouldn’t have been able to fathom. Junior was the bridge between the southern roots of his sport and the national fan base that NASCAR’s management was building, as evidenced by the fact that he’s been voted the sport’s most popular driver fourteen consecutive years.

Along the way, he’s taken the checkered flag in 26 Monster Energy Cup Series races, including twice at the Daytona 500, the biggest prize in his sport. What he has not done is drive his way to a championship, although he’s finished in the top ten in the season-long points standings seven times. But where many of his contemporaries come across in interviews as bland corporate spokesmen, Junior has always been surprisingly open and direct. It’s a trait that has earned him yet more fan loyalty, and his many followers have shared his frustrations and supported him in defeat just as much as in victory.

That openness was on display again this week when Earnhardt stunned his sport by announcing he will retire from driving at the end of this season. He missed half of last year’s schedule after being diagnosed with a concussion, his second in five years. His slow recovery from the aftereffects of the head trauma led him to conclude that while only 42, he wanted to leave the sport on his own terms. It was in some ways a startling admission, given the tendency of so many athletes to project a macho image.

The 2017 NASCAR schedule has a long way to go, but so far this year Junior has just one top ten finish, a fifth place showing in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway earlier this month. Odds are he will end his career still chasing that elusive championship. But this is decidedly not a story of some middling driver deciding to park his car. Junior’s announcement was a punch in the gut to NASCAR.

Earnhardt’s decision comes in the wake of a string of high-profile driver retirements. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon retired at the end of 2015. Two-time titleholder Tony Stewart climbed out of his Cup Series car for the final time at the end of last season. In January Carl Edwards announced he was stepping away from racing at the age of 37. All three were huge fan favorites, though none matched Junior’s broad appeal.

Now the sport is losing its most recognizable face, at a time when it’s popularity is flagging. Over the last decade, NASCAR’s television ratings have dropped by nearly fifty percent, and fans who do tune in to watch on Sunday afternoons can’t help but notice the swaths of empty seats in the grandstands, even at venerable tracks in the sport’s historical home territory. Yes, it is true that the torch is passed from one generation to the next in every sport, but as team owner Rick Hendrick said at Earnhardt’s Tuesday press conference, “There will never be another Dale Earnhardt Jr.”

Perhaps Chase Elliott or Kyle Larson or some driver now running in the developmental Xfinity Series will soon emerge as the sport’s next big star. Perhaps. In the meantime, heavy weekend rains forced last Sunday’s scheduled race at Bristol Motor Speedway to be moved to Monday. Because of the delay, Jimmie Johnson took the checkered before grandstands that were less than half full. At the time NASCAR officials no doubt believed the Sunday rainout was the worst thing that could happen this week. That was before Tuesday.

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Responses

  1. This is a very thorough look at a man who has made a tough decision. I think that it makes him even more human and identifiable. Deep down we all want to be able to say when enough is enough and not have retirement forced on us.

    Jimmie Johnson may not be driving NASCAR next year, but that doesn’t mean he is out of the sport. A seat in a broadcast booth may be his next challenge.
    Ω


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