Random Lugnuts: Dale Jr., Complaining & Schedules
Topics: Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR
What is Random Lugnuts? It's random bits of stock car racing commentary written on an irregular basis by an irregular racing fan. The name is a reference to the lugnuts that go flying off a car during a pit stop: you never know where they are going to go, what they're going to do when they get there, they can be annoying, they're often useless after a race, and every once in a while someone gets hit and they don't know exactly where it came from.
Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.
June 17, 2008
I am a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan. I've even got a t-shirt and little #88 cars on my desk.
Unlike a lot of his fans, last year I was not. Nor am I a Hendrick Motorsports fan welcoming a new driver to the team. I like a bunch of drivers, guys from other teams. I used to like him a bit, back when he was Michael Waltrip's teammate and the two were trading restrictor plate wins.
Anyway, last year I called him overrated and underperforming. Especially after Martin Truex, Jr. scored his first Cup win. I thought of him as a name, a nice way for many fans to connect to a piece of the past that they lost in February of 2001. The way everyone called him "Junior," needing no other name to distinguish him, an endearment to fans but to me suggesting that he was just a shadow of his legendary father and not his own man. By the beginning of last year I thought of him as just a guy riding around a track and selling millions of Budweiser t-shirts on his father's name. Sure, 18 wins is a lot more than most NASCAR Cup drivers ever achieve, as well as his Busch Grand National Championships. But those accomplishments don't bestow upon a driver a following the size of a small country...itself nicknamed Junior Nation...and status as the "face" of NASCAR.
All that changed last year, one morning sitting on my couch (as I often do), watching the press conference where he named Rick Hendrick as his new owner. The outcry from some of his longtime fans was immediate - and loud. I won't go into details here, that could be another article in and of itself, but it was then that he really proved me wrong. He could have easily walked in his father's footsteps at Richard Childress Racing, reaping the benefits of being the top driver of a winning team and doing what his fans wanted him to do, making them happy and selling a lot of new t-shirts and die-cast in the process.
Instead, he chose to walk his own path, the one he felt best for his career, and certainly not the easiest one for him to take. He wasn't going to be the undisputed top gun in a team that had won 5 Cup championships between two of its drivers (at the time Jimmie Johnson hadn't won his second Cup yet). He was risking a lot of the popularity that he had gotten being an Earnhardt to race as teammate to his father's hated nemesis, Jeff Gordon. No, not the easy path at all.
It paid off last Sunday, winning his third race of the year and his first points-paying race of 2008. He's in third place in the standings, and has a 2008 points-win total equal to that of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson combined (I had to mention that for all those who were concerned last year that he'd be shortchanged by the Hendrick team).
So here I am, at a desk with Dale Jr. cars on it and empty cans of Amp nearby, going on to the next topic...
"Shut Up and Drive" seems to be the message delivered to NASCAR drivers this last weekend. NASCAR seemed to be level-headed on this one, gathering the drivers for a little eight-minute meeting instead of letting the fines fly first and leaving people afraid to ask questions later. And I agree with their message.
Yes, it is a privilege to race in NASCAR, especially in the Sprint Cup. If the 43+ drivers who don't like conditions want to race elsewhere, I'm sure another 43,000 will be lined up to take their places.
However, the powers that run NASCAR need to remember a few things:
One, that this is America, and that since NASCAR likes to wrap itself up in American patriotism every weekend they should realize that it would be very, very hypocritical to force a driver's silence (by fines or suspension). That whole freedom-of-speech thing is kind of a big part of America, after all.
Two, that part of certain drivers' appeal is their personality. Even drivers that don't win as often as others have more fans, and sometimes drivers who win a lot don't have so many fans. Otherwise, Jimmie Johnson would be the undisputed most popular driver thanks to his performance of the last two years, and there wouldn't be any Kyle Busch detractors left after his early-season run this year. But that's not how the sport works, personality matters. And NASCAR already tried to control the drivers, realized their mistake, and backtracked. Well, sometimes when drivers show their emotions, those feelings aren't always going to be warm and fuzzy adoration for their sanctioning body.
Three, it's a new car and there are still kinks to be worked out. But maybe the drivers are complaining to the media because they don't feel they've been heard by the folks that run NASCAR. These are, after all, the guys who drive the car week after week, unlike the suits at the top level of NASCAR, so maybe they know a thing or two about how the cars drive and how they can be improved. Also, these are the drivers whose performances have lined the pockets of the France family and their associates for years (decades in some cases, over a half century when you count their predecessors), and a little respect shown to them wouldn't be a bad idea.
Four, that if certain drivers leave, a lot of fans are going with them. Or do you really think that all the fans in Home Depot colors at the track each week just like the snazzy orange car and don't really care who's behind the wheel?
I'm just saying that before NASCAR pulls out the old standby, "Actions Detrimental to Stock Car Racing," that there are other, better ways to handle their drivers than with an iron fist.
I'm sure plenty will be said about the lawsuit brought against NASCAR filed by Mauricia Grant last week. And I'm sure it will come from people more knowledgeable on subjects of NASCAR's garage culture and human resources law than me. And I haven't read the details of the case yet. But I do have something to say on one thing: $225,000,000. Two-hundred and twenty-five million dollars? What kind of discrimination is worth more than the gross domestic product of several small island nations?
Now, before you go off saying that a lot of that is "punitive damages," I'll say it, and I'll also go ahead and say that "punitive damages" is basically lawyer speak for "cha-ching!"
In regards to this weekend's (and every weekends', it seems) discussions about who is getting a new track and who is going to lose a race date to accomodate the new track, I have two ideas for schedules posted at the CarsAndRacingStuff.com Forum, one a traditional schedule with rotating track weeks, another a split series with an Eastern Division and a Western Division.
Basically, the first one sets aside several weeks' Sundays to rotate different tracks into and out of the schedule, on the presumption that a race every other year is better than no race at all for some venues. The other splits the series, thereby actually creating a problem of not having enough tracks to go to, even with more than a dozen races combining the two divisions, and operates on the presumption that half a NASCAR field every year is better than no NASCAR race at all for a lot of tracks.
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