Friday, October 5, 2007

What makes a Fan a "True Fan"?

Note: This was originally posted June 19, 2007.

I've been taking the relative temperature of the Nascar world again, as usual by reading message board. Some boards are a delight to read. Some are rather idiotic, and some are down right infantile.

Of course, the biggest subject on pretty much any message board this year is the ongoing saga of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Where will he go? Will he get to keep the 8? Will Budweiser stay with him?

At least 1 of those questions has finally been answered, with Dale Jr. announcing last week that he will be driving for Rick Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 and beyond. The questions about his number and sponsorship remain, however.

On virtually message board I've read over the past week, I've seen at least a few fans report that they've "had enough", that they can no longer be fans of Junior if he drives for Hendrick, the latter of whom I've heard referred to as the "criminal", the "felon", and a few descriptive terms that don't bare repeating on this blog.

For those that don't know, Rick Hendrick was placed under house arrest after pleading guilty for mail fraud about 10 years, and paid some huge fines as well. He was also denied any contact during that period with his two main businesses, his racing teams and his car dealerships. At around the same time, Hendrick was also diagnosed with leukemia, and his poor health was the reason for his house arrest, rather than serving prison time. The year was 1997, and Rick basically was not at the track, or at his shops for a year or so. Even without his boss' hands on support, Jeff Gordon won the Winston Cup that year, and at virtually every opportunity supported his boss' fight for his life by giving as many public plugs to the Leukemia Foundation as possible, including sporting a decal on his in car camera panel with the number "1-800-Marrow" as a way for fans to donate to the foundation that was leading in research to safe the lives of patients such as Rick Hendrick.

As far as I know, Rick's leukemia is in full remission, and 10 years later, he appears to be reasonably fit and healthy. Jeff Gordon's unfailing support of his boss in the hard times is what has undoubtedly helped earn the support of Rick Hendrick for Jeff, and basically a lifetime contract between the two. Lifetime contracts are virtually unheard of in Nascar, especially during the last 15 years or so. I firmly believe that if Jeff Gordon wanted to still be driving the 24 Chevy at age 60, Rick Hendrick's shop would prepare the best equipment available for Jeff.

I imagine that virtually every other Nascar driver out there, and drivers of every other series, any athlete on any team anywhere would love to have a relationship with their owner like Gordon has with Hendrick. Both have been unfailingly loyal to each other, and I firmly believe that Jeff would not have achieved nearly as much success as he had without that commitment from his owner.

Could Dale Earnhardt Jr. have driven his entire career for Dale Earnhardt Inc.? Of course he could have. Dale Jr. has won 17 Cup wins, 22 Busch series wins, and 1 All Star race driving for DEI. Dale Jr. has also seen drivers who have driven less races than him win championships already. Matt Kenseth has won a championship, but hasn't won an many races as Junior. The same can be said for Kurt Busch. Junior also has watched his friend Jimmie Johnson come from virtually nowhere, and win an amazing 27 Cup races and a championship in only 5 full years of Cup racing. Johnson was not a 2 time Busch champ as was Junior. Johnson only has 1 Busch win in his entire career.

So why is Jr. leaving DEI? His record isn't that bad, in fact it's pretty good. A lot of drivers who have been driving for a decade or more longer than Dale Jr. would love to have his stats. Junior obviously has had some good equipment over the years. Nobody wins 17 races with poor equipment in a sport as competitive as this.

I don't think the equipment has much to do with it. Jr. knows they can improve that situation, and already have been working toward that goal with the announcement that DEI and Richard Childress Racing will be working together on their engine programs. Richie Gilmore, DEI's engine guru has been working more closely with the existing engine program at DEI, and the results have already paid off. Junior has praised his engines as of late, which is much better than earlier this year and over the last 2 years or so, when he often complained about a lack of horsepower. Tony Eury Jr. and Tony Gibson have been doing a better job this year with the chassis setups. Gone are the days when they threw changes at the car just to see what worked and what wouldn't. Junior has become much more confident in calling for his own detailed changes with Tony Gibson over the last few weeks as well, and more than often, they pay off.

Teresa Earnhardt and Dale Jr. have had what has been described many times as a strained relationship. Apparently this is nothing new, but dates back to the time when Dale Jr. and his sister Kelly came to live with their dad and step-mom when Junior was still a young child. Relationships between step-parents and children are often strained. Heck, relationships between parents and children are often strained as well. Dale Jr.'s relationship with his father was often not a happy one in his teenage years. It was really only when Dale Jr. started driving and winning races that he and his father became truly close.

Dale Earnhart was a racer. He had little time for much else, for most of his life. His doubts about Dale Jr. early in Junior's career have been documented in many places, but when he saw that his son was committed to the job at hand, he became his son's biggest fan. Dale became not only Junior's father, in a real sense, but his mentor, his teacher, and a boss that supported his son, the driver. Dale's own career was reaching its twilight years, and I honestly think that he died a happy man, knowing that his son was going to be successful in this, the sport that he loved with a passion unmatched by almost all others.

Would Dale be happy with Junior's decision to leave the company business? I guess we'll never know for sure, but I do know one thing. If Dale had become unhappy with Richard Childress as his owner, he would have left. Racers race, and the ultimate goal of racing is to win. Whatever keeps you from winning is something to be concerned about. In Junior's case, I think it's mainly the feeling that he doesn't like the direction that the family business has taken over the last few years. He feels like he know longer has an owner who supports him, but will happily trade barbs with him in newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal, of all places. I think most of this year, Junior has felt like it's him and Kelly against the world, and with Rick Hendrick, he sees a man his father respected who's willing to take Junior to the next level, which is winning championships.

I personally feel that if Dale Earnhardt were still alive, Dale Jr. would be happily driving for DEI for the rest of his career. Dale Earnhardt is gone though, and though his legacy lives on, nothing will ever bring him back. Dale Jr. is probably a different person in some ways than he would be were his dad still alive. But at heart, Teresa Earnhardt needs to know one thing. Junior can be a celebrity, and will continue to be, but in the end, Dale Jr. chose racing.

As I said above, racers race. Racers always choose racing. Rick Hendrick is giving Junior an opportunity to race and more importantly, to win. I think Dale would support that decision.

So, you folks that are planning to throw your Dale Junior die cast cars in the dumpster? Send 'em to me. I'll even pay for the shipping.

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