April 30, 2009
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is NASCAR's most popular driver. Has been since his father died on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
The most eloquent driver?
Not so much.
Need a racing, or even worldly, issue addressed in the garage? Try Jeff Burton, Mark Martin or, depending on his mood, Tony Stewart.
Conversely, Junior seems more comfortable with hell-raisin', Bud-drinkin', good-time chasin' banter. Or fussin' and cussin' at his crew over the radio.
But this week has been refreshingly different.
Sunday at Talladega, Earnhardt finished second to Brad Keselowski after a terrifying last-lap collision that sent leader Carl Edwards' car airborne and into the catchfence protecting the main grandstand.
That spectators and/or Edwards weren't maimed or killed was a by-product of advanced technology and amazingly good fortune.
Darn near everyone associated with racing has chimed in since. Larry King even examined the subject on CNN, the equivalent of sports columnists analyzing Arlen Specter's defection to the Dems.
Few have been as measured and insightful as Earnhardt.
Maybe it's natural maturation — at age 26, Junior was not prepared to confront his father's violent death and assume his role as racing icon. Or maybe it's the influence of Hendrick Motorsports combined with his divorce from the team owned by his stepmother.
Regardless, despite standing a pedestrian 15th in points entering Saturday's race at Richmond, Earnhardt has rarely measured better.
His primary message was directed at media and NASCAR officials, who long have trumpeted the potential fireworks, a.k.a. The Big One, of restrictor-plate races at Talladega and Daytona.
"For years and years," Earnhardt said during a Tuesday teleconference, "they've been telling everybody, 'Turn the TV on and watch the Talladega race, see when the Big One happens, see who's in the Big One, see who can miss the Big One, see who can win the race and not get caught up in the Big One.'
"Now everybody associates that type of action with Daytona and Talladega, which is fine if you're going to celebrate it. But now you can't sit here and turn around and change your opinion, because everybody knew this was the possibility of the style of racing. …
"It's amusing to me that everyone's interest is all of a sudden perked by what happened when that possibility was there all along."
Earnhardt is as right as a 12-second, four-tire pit stop.
Enticed by thrills, money, fame or all of the above, drivers choose to accept the danger. Fans revel in it, media and NASCAR market it.
Earnhardt's record adds more intrigue. Of his 18 Sprint Cup victories, seven have come at Talladega (five) and Daytona (two).
Moreover, Earnhardt does not deny his taste for plate racing.
"I really enjoyed the race other than (the final wreck)," he said. "I enjoyed the hell out of it. I enjoy racing at Talladega. I kind of like running in the big packs."
That's the rub of restrictor plates. They level the playing field, so to speak, creating three- and four-wide packs on tracks banked high enough to produce speeds approaching 200 mph.
Such aerodynamics are impossible at more compact venues such as Richmond International Raceway. They can be incendiary at Talladega and Daytona.
But Earnhardt was quick to remind of the many safety upgrades adopted since Bobby Allison's 1987 airborne crash at Talladega and his dad's passing 14 years later.
"People have raced in this sport under far, far more dangerous situations," Junior said. "We're in pretty good shape right now with how safe the cars are, what NASCAR's done to try to keep things within reason. ...
"It's hard to tell whether the wreck Sunday was an oddity or whether that's something that could easily happen again, because we haven't seen it since Bobby's wreck at the same track at the same spot. We haven't seen it in years. But how easily could that happen again? I think that's the question you've got to ask yourself."
Amid all the Talladega fallout, Earnhardt also answered questions about his tame-by-comparison entanglements with Kyle Busch at both Richmond races last season. Busch love-tapped Earnhardt out of the way in May; Earnhardt returned the favor in September.
Neither took the checkered flag. Clint Bowyer won the spring race, Jimmie Johnson the summer.
"It was pretty wild," Earnhardt said. "That was pretty disappointing how the first race finished. The second race was a little rough, too. ...
"I like racing Kyle. ... But hopefully we don't have any of that going on this weekend. Hopefully we can all try to win a race and not be bouncing off each other."
Well said, but as Junior knows all too well, racing is a contact sport. And for some, the more the better.
Russ Friedman 400
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