Dale Earnhardt Jr. heard it when people associated with NASCAR would openly say, “We need Junior to do well.”
“I didn’t understand the whole context, and I may get offended or my feelings hurt,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said this week in a phone interview. “I would hear, ‘You’re not good enough,’ or, ‘You’re not doing good enough for us.’ My sister and I talk about that and we battled self worth all the time. That made me feel that way.
“I get it now.”
When Dale Jr. retired in 2017, he was easily the sport’s biggest name without being its most successful, like a Jimmie Johnson.
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The problem was, and remains, a guy like Jimmie Johnson is dull to the consuming public whereas Junior had a personality and panache to complement wins on the track. People well outside of the track knew Dale. Jr.
There are few drivers, if any, that fans outside of the sport know the way they did Junior. NASCAR is becoming like Indy Car in that sense.
NASCAR is still a good product for its traditional gear-head fan, but the evolution of its drivers from having some character to product-endorsing robots, combined with its marriage to too many races, plagues what was once a thriving sport across America.
On Sunday, NASCAR returns to Fort Worth for the AAA Texas 500, the third remaining race on the schedule, and the playoff series. Dale Jr. will be an analyst on the NBCSN telecast, which begins at 2 p.m. CT.
Now that he has retired, Dale Jr. readily sees today what so many executives and NASCAR officials pined for when he was driving.
“When I would hear that ... that’s a lot to put on one guy’s shoulders. I didn’t understand the context of the comments until I got out of the car myself,” he said. “Now I catch myself saying, ‘We need Chase Elliott to win.’ I don’t mean we need him to do better but I mean I hope he has a great career for the sake of NASCAR. I never just felt pressure to keep going because of that. It was more like, ‘I’ve done a lot and I’ve done plenty for this sport but it’s time for these guys to carry the torch.’ It’s time for those guys to take it on. They are the next generation.”
Can you name the ‘next generation’ of NASCAR’s top drivers? You could when it was Dale Jr., Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and a few others.
Today, the sport’s top names simply do not generate the same wattage. Pro sports sell based on personalities. Few, if any, of today’s drivers cause the sporting public to turn its head the way it did for Dale Jr., a guy who lived a life full of confidence, of enjoyment, and would speak his mind.
“There will always be peaks and valleys in personalities we have,” Dale Jr. said. “We’ve always had somebody that was captivating and polarizing. Chase Elliott; that’s one if he can continue that kind of success. We have to have young guys winning that young fans can relate to. When it comes to drivers, we are always going to have characters. We like characters.”
Junior is right, which is why NASCAR loved, needed, and misses him so much.
TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING
The NASCAR season will end on Nov. 18, for the finale in Homestead, Fla. That will be the 36th and final race of the 2018 season.
It’s a tired, but valid, point that this schedule covers too many months with too many races. NASCAR’s infusion of races in its chase for cash ultimately hurt its brand, and the value of a single race.
“Just like they are pulling seats out of tracks because they can’t sell them, it’s probably time to think about scaling back the schedule,” Dale Jr. said. “Too much candy will make you sick. There is some saturation in the length of our schedule going up against football late in the year. Maybe we need to end our season sooner and not try to compete with the NFL.
“I think they need to trim some of the fat. I’ve been saying for years our season is too long.”
Losing Dale. Jr to retirement is not the single biggest reason why NASCAR struggles in TV ratings, or in attendance.
The series just can’t find his replacement, so he gets it when he someone says, “We need Chase Elliott to win.”