The Man Who Would Be King
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. came close in today's Michigan race. Fast car, good luck, fresh tires. Leader Jimmie Johnson ran out of fuel (again). With two laps to go, Junior was in third place. Brian Vickers and Jeff Gordon stood between him and the checkered flag. Both of those cars were low on fuel.
White flag. One to go. Things do not look good for the boy wonder. Not good at all.
They weren't. He finished third, which is not bad. He hasn't won in fortysome races, though, and a win would have been sweet. He wasn't complaining about third. In fact, he was quite happy.
NASCAR fans know the problem here. The Earnhardt legacy is long. Ralph Earnhardt was one of the pioneers of the sport. Dale Earnhardt, Sr. was a god among men. The reputation of the one they called the Intimidater is the stuff of legends. The black number 3 car coming up behind you was the kiss of death. He didn't win the most races of drivers, but he won some of the most spectacular. Love him or hate him, he was a force to be reckoned with. When he died, his son had already obtained a sizable fan base. With the elder Earnhardt gone, many turned their allegiance to his boy. They were big shoes to fill, and the man knows it.
Junior will never be his father. As much as fans would love to see that, he will never be that man. His driving style is not the same. His demeanor is not the same. His way of dealing with problems is not the same. He is his own man, and while fans like that, they also still hold him to higher expectations than, say, some like Kevin Harvick. They cheer when he leads. They boo when someone takes him out. Sometimes they get vicious. They don't seem to care that he doesn't win a lot of races, but you know it's there, and you know he feels the pressure.
Earnhardt Jr., like it or not, is the face of NASCAR. He is what the fans think of when they think of the sport. Jeff Gordon might be a media darling. Tony Stewart may get much deserved praise by the racing journalists and reporters. But Junior is the sport. It's a role I don't think he is comfortable with, and that is obvious by the way he fields some questions. He knows his place is important, but he also knows people unfairly compare him to his father and they are waiting for it come out of him.
It never will.
There have always been rumors that Junior will quit the sport. I'd hate to see it happen, but I wouldn't blame him if he did. The legacy is not something he asked for, and I doubt he wants it. He just wanted to race, and that has been tainted. As if the pressure of racing weren't enough (and make no mistakes, the sport is nothing but pressure both mentally and physically), he gets the pressure of living up to a man who has been turned into a deity by fans and the media. How can anyone live up to that? How can anyone withstand the scrutiny? I believe the only reason he hasn't quit already is because he loves the sport so much, and if you love it, you want that championship.
I know Junior is capable of it. I know he has the skills to pull off a championship run. I know he can stand up under the microscope. But how long does a person want to do that before it just becomes a hassle? If he walks away, he will have my respect. If he stays, same deal.
I just wish the comparisons would stop. Focus on the driver, and not his heritage. Save that for the highlight reel that comes after the championship win. That's when it will matter.