The Intimidator's Last Victim: Chasing a Ghost
Everyone even remotely familiar with NASCAR knows the story of Dale Earnhardt. He was a living legend that became a god the moment he hit the wall at the 2001 Daytona 500. His life, carefully detailed on television sets and in movie theaters around America, was a real American Dream come true. A small town Southern boy worked his fingers to the bone and became a wealthy, public hero.
His smile was genuine. His love for his sport was inspiring. His grit, determination, and even his skirting of "fair play" was celebrated. You either loved him or you loved to hate him. Either way, love was involved, and either way, you respected him.
He was a simple man, for the most part. Earnhardt was the son of a race car driver, but nothing like the drivers of today. Dale came of age at a time when competitors worked on their own cars in the garage behind the house throughout the week, took it to the track, then (hopefully) brought it back home again when the weekend was done. There was no room for error in those days, and great drivers had short careers because they just couldn't afford to keep racing.
Dale helped usher in the modern era of stock car racing. He brought the kind of fan following that caught the attention of major sponsors and made NASCAR the draw it is today. Though he didn't graduate high school, he was savvy when it came to marketing and smart when it came to putting rules in place that would benefit all involved.
He fostered rivalries with Darrel Waltrip and Jeff Gordon on the track. Off the track, he was friends with both of them and even helped shape The Boy Wonder's career to an extent. The head offices of NASCAR listened to Earnhardt when they wouldn't listen to anyone else. Other driver's listened as well, even if they didn't want to. He was just the kind of man that commanded your respect.
He was also dangerous, and everyone loves a bad boy. It was that sense of danger that ultimately caused his demise. Though he knew the benefits of the HANS head device, he refused to wear one. When he hit the outer wall at Daytona, it was the lack of that restraint that facilitated his untimely death. It was a matter of risk versus reward and Dale saw the risk as worth the reward. He took his chances and danced with the Reaper to be The Intimidator.
How could you not love a story like that?
Glossed over in that story were the less pleasant parts, though. It talked about the fact that Dale had dealt with a failed marriage and that his children came from different mothers. What it didn't detail was how that split, and the Intimidator's hectic schedule, strained the familial bonds. Left out was the lifelong search by his children for a father they barely knew and never completely understood.
Son Kerry touched on this at the Induction Ceremony for his father into NASCAR's new Hall Of Fame when he said he got into racing to see "what took my daddy away so much". His daughters talked about what their father taught them and left behind for them, but one could almost sense what wasn't said. The son who bore his name refused to succumb to the pressure to even talk on such personal terms about his father and chose instead to discuss a race in which they competed against each other. The residual pain was palpable.
But this isn't about Dale. At least, it's not about that Dale.
The Boy Called "Junior"
Right from the start, when Dale Earnhardt Junior entered the premier league of stock car racing (formerly known as the Winston Cup, now the Sprint Cup), he was the heir to his father's throne. Kerry attempted to race cars as well, but never really got above the Busch Series (now Nationwide) and, even then, found relatively little success. The one called "Junior" was the one. He bore the right name, had the looks, and had the desire to be a superstar. He had everything going for him.
Oh yeah, and he could drive.
His first win came at Texas in 2000, and he picked up another win later that year at Richmond. He fiercely competed with Matt Kenseth for Rookie of the Year honors, falling just short, but making a strong statement that he was a bonafide race car driver.
Dale Junior wasn't just the son of racing royalty. He was the real deal. Perhaps he didn't drive quite like his father, but he came into the series following back-to-back Busch Series Championships and showed that he could run with the big boys on the big stage.
His quiet, bashful demeanor endeared him to his growing throng of fans. Less charismatic than the Rusty Wallace's of the racing world, Junior let his driving do the real talking for him, and people respected that about him.
Perhaps the only thing he inherited from his father, other than natural ability, was a place to call "home" at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated - the race team his father owned and Junior drove for. Meanwhile, Dale Senior continued his dominant ways at Richard Childress Racing, a somewhat unique and interesting paradigm.
The Darkest Day in NASCAR
Coming out of turn four at the 2001 Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Sr., holding off the entire field of race cars, crashed head-on into the concrete wall and was instantly killed. As Daryl Waltrip openly shed tears, and unashamedly rooted for his brother's first Daytona 500 victory, an American legend passed into the nether realm known as History.
It was a shock to millions of Americans, whether they were die hard fans of the sport, casual observers, or merely "aware" of what NASCAR was. He wasn't an old man, and men like him don't die anyway. They can't die. They're just too tough.
To this day, if you ask millions of Americans where they were on the day Dale Earnhardt died, they can tell you in precise detail every second leading up to and immediately following receiving the news. Like Elvis, JFK, John Lennon, or Marin Luther King Jr. before him, Dale's death was so important and so shocking that the moment was permanently ingrained in the minds of people he'd never met.
It was one of the darkest days in NASCAR history. For the remainder of the season, FOX maintained broadcast silence on the third lap of every race as a "moment of silence" in honor of him. Fans throughout the stands at every venue held up three fingers, in tribute of legendary #3 he drove.
The Family Truths Partially Revealed
When NASCAR returned to Daytona in July of 2001, all eyes were on Junior. How would he hold up? Could he face the track that took his father? Would the emotions be too much? No one would have blamed him for skipping that race entirely.
But he didn't skip it. He raced. In fact, he raced like he had never raced before. With a passion unlike anything we'd seen from Dale Junior, he pushed his red #8 Chevrolet to the front - and took it to victory lane. There was a hardly a dry eye in the stands as the son of the Intimidator conquered the very track that took his life.
All was not necessarily well at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, though.
In the wake of Dale's death, rumors started swirling of discontent in the DEI fold. His widow, Theresa Earnhardt had taken control (inherited) of the family business, and her style of leadership didn't set well with the people still mourning their hero.
Slipping in between news of Dale Junior's driving and memorials to his father, reports were sneaking out that Theresa Earnhardt had cut key members of Dale's staff (and family) out of the decision-making processes at DEI. Most notable of the group was Tony Eury Sr, Dale's long-time friend who had been with Earnhardt from the outset of his company and had spent countless hours at the Earnhardt household, working on cars and talking business. Eury was undoubtedly one of the most familiar individuals in the organization - intimately knowledgeable of the workings of the business.
The writing was becoming clear. It was Theresa's way or no way. There was no middle ground.
Rumors also started swirling that Dale Jr. was having personal issues with his step mother.
The Downturn of Dale Jr.
The problems within DEI started to manifest beyond the rumor mills. Tony Eury Sr. departed DEI, for starters. On top of that, Dale Jr. started to dwindle in his performance on the track.
It wasn't all Junior's driving either. Mechanical issues (most notably, engine failures) seemed to constantly sideline DEI cars. Often, Dale Jr. would be running with the lead pack, well within striking distance of the front car, only to retire to the garage with a blown engine or transmission problems.
Fans were starting to wonder if Theresa was sabotaging Dale Jr; if she was using cheap parts to save money; or if she was just incompetent at leading a world class organization like DEI.
Changes continued throughout the DEI organization, including removing Tony Eury Jr as Dale Jr's crew chief for a short time, and then reinstalling him again. The changes only had temporary effects before things returned to the same ol, same ol'.
Junior's wins were becoming fewer and farther between. His top ten finishes were dwindling as well. Theresa Earnhardt publicly stated that maybe the problem wasn't her management. Maybe it was Dale Jr's driving. Obviously, that didn't sit well with his fans, who already hated Theresa and saw her as a gold digger.
In 2007, Dale Jr. decided that enough was enough. He became one of the most sought-after free agent in sports history when he decided to leave his father's company.
He didn't make his fans wait long before making a decision though. By July, Junior had announced that he would join Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports.
Surely, this would be the revival of Dale Earnhardt Jr. After all, Rick Hendrick had put together the New York Yankees of stock car racing. Junior would get the very best equipment to work with. He would get the best crew to help him out. He would have the full resources of the most dominant car owner in the industry to get him back into victory lane.
For Dale Jr. fans, this was a moral victory. While many would have preferred that he went with Richard Childress, whom his father drove for, Hendrick would give Junior the kind of equipment that wouldn't break down in the heat of the chase. He would show Theresa that the problems at DEI had nothing to do with his driving.
The problem is, Dale Jr. fans have witnessed their worst case scenario. In three seasons with Hendrick, Junior has failed to make the chase the last two. He hasn't won a race since mid-2008, and even that was due to playing the fuel mileage card rather than putting up a dominating performance on the track.
It would almost appear that maybe Theresa was right. Maybe part of the problem really was Junior's driving.
Chasing a Ghost
And so, as Chase for the 2010 Spring Cup is upon us - with no Dale Jr. in the hunt - the questions abound. What's wrong with Junior? Why can't he find success like Mark Martin has, under the Hendrick umbrella.
People have speculated. In fact, some fans have gone so far as to suggest that Hendrick isn't giving his most popular driver the best equipment at all. They've suggested that Hendrick picked Junior up for his marketing value and that he's placed his best equipment under the hoods of Johnson and Gordon, ensuring that he capitalizes on his investments by having both the most popular driver in NASCAR, a former champion shooting for his fifth title and the most successful in the modern era all at once. That the three aren't one and the same is actually a bonus. It boosts marketing for all three.
I sincerely doubt this theory. Hendrick has to be seeing the drop in merchandising that has come with Junior's failures on the track. It would benefit him (and the sport) much more to have Junior visiting Victory Lane on a semi-regular basis, at least. It would send it through the roof if Junior were to win the coveted Sprint Cup title. Holding him back does nothing positive for Hendrick.
I think the honest truth is: Junior is still chasing a ghost. He's still fighting with the memory of his father, the fans that refuse to let Senior die, and his own place in NASCAR.
I think the evidence is there to support my theory as well.
"I'm not my father"
He's said it, himself. He can't help the fact that he's inherited a large number of his father's fans, but he can try his darndest to make sure people undestand. He's not his father. He doesn't drive like his father. He doesn't engage the cameras and the reporters the way his father did. He sure as hell isn't as aggressive as his father was.
There was only one Intimidator, and Junior ain't it.
Sometimes, I think it's a motivator in his driving as well. Look at the 2010 Daytona 500. Dale Jr. dove in between two cars to jump into second place on the last lap and challenge Jamie McMurray for the win. He was aggressive. He was shooting gaps. He was letting it all hang out. With another lap, he might have gotten the win.
Strangely, after that race, aggressive Junior disappeared into the sunset. No one saw him again (with a couple of exceptions that I'll talk about in a bit).
I can't help but wonder if it's partly by design. Could it be that every time Junior gets the itch to push the envelope, shoot the gap, or get on someones backside, he subconsciously lets up? Maybe driving aggressively is so closely associated with his father, and he's so insistent that he's not his father, that he tries to drive the opposite of his daddy, just to make the point.
I don't pretend to believe that this is a conscious decision by Junior. But the mind is a tricky thing, and it does some pretty drastic things all on its own. Could it be that Junior - somewhere deep inside - wants to ensure that he's not forever linked to his father in the annals of NASCAR by driving a style that's so counter-Intimidator?
I don't blame him for wanting to be remembered for his own deeds and not what his father accomplished. It could also be a reason he's faltering, even with some of the best equipment in the business. He can't find a style that's all his because, like it or not, he is his father's son.
What's really unfortunate is that the fans refuse to separate Junior from Senior. There's hardly a good finish that can go by without someone remarking "that reminded me a little of his daddy". There's hardly a poor finish that doesn't garner a comment similar to "his daddy would have pushed those guys out of the way and gone to the front". No matter what he does, he's compared to his legendary father.
Face it fans, we could be a large part of the reason Junior Nation has had so few moments in the sun the last few years. He's been trying to get us to watch him drive and let his father's memory rest in peace, but we just don't listen. We insist on raising the ghost of his father.
He really can drive - and win
I've already pointed to the victory at Daytona in July of 2001, as well as his second-place finish at Daytona this past February. Those two races are good examples of Junior being the real Junior.
There's another race that demonstrates Junior's ability to a tee.
In July of this year, Junior slipped behind the wheel of his father's Wrangle #3 car for the Subway Jalapeno 250, and drove to Victory Lane. He survived a green-white-checker finish to get a win on the same week that his father was inducted into the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall Of Fame in Charlotte.
Detractors (and conspiracy theorists) have tried to say that the 2001 Daytona win and the Subway Jalapeno 250 win were set up for dramatic effect. If you believe that, please visit a race shop near you to see how incredibly ridiculous this notion is.
There are so many things that can potentially go wrong in a race that it's virtually impossible to "script" a NASCAR finish. From mechanical failures to blown tires, to getting caught up in someone else's mistake - just getting to the finish line is as much luck as it is skill. It's part of what makes NASCAR so exciting.
It's also what makes it so unlikely that anyone in an office anywhere could possibly script a win for Junior.
Is it possible that the guys running second in each of those races gave a little extra room? Sure, it is. Is it possible that they understood the importance of the win to the fans and decided not to push quite as hard as they might normally have? Of course it is.
That's not the same as scripting a Junior win, though. He still had to get the car up front. He still had to keep it in one piece. He still had to avoid mistakes on pit road and miscues on the track to survive to the finish at the front of the pack. Junior did all of that and more.
And don't underestimate the competitive spirit of Junior's fellow drivers. While it might be one thing to convince guys like Jeff Gordon (who really was a "friend" of Dale Sr.'s) or Tony Stewart (who has a healthy respect for the history of the sport) to lay back a bit, it's entirely different to convince a bunch of guys who knew that the whole NASCAR nation was watching Junior in the #3 car and would have seen an opportunity to get noticed. Don't underestimate just how inviting that checker flag is when you see it right in front of you and there's only a couple of cars to get by. You'd be asking an awful lot of people who make their living by winning races and don't give two hoots about the son-of-a-legend who was leading the race.
No, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won those races because he wanted to win those races. He won those races because his father's memory was up front in the minds of the fans and he wanted to honor him. Junior won those races because he was motivated to win those races - and he drove like he was fully capable of driving.
Go back and watch those races. Tell me what's different between them and any other week on the stock car circuit. I think you'll see what I'm talking about. Junior drove like his fans wish he'd drive every week.
Once again though, he was chasing the memory of his father. In Junior's greatest victories since his father's passing, it seems there was either a motivation to remember the Intimidator or to honor him in some way. Junior rose to the occasion.
But the rest of the time, it looks like he's trying to run from the memory of his father - much to his detriment.
If you find that one moment where Junior seemed the happiest in his public life, I think you'd have to rank his first Cup victory near the top. At that moment, in the winner's circle, he was congratulated by his father, had the respect of his rivals, and stood in the spotlight for his own accomplishment.
For one moment, he was exactly where every man - young and old alike - wants to be: beneath the approving eyes of a loving, proud father.
Now, whenever he does get to the podium, there's something missing from his smile. There's something missing from the scene. It seems a hollow victory, as though Junior is expecting a moment that can never be re-lived, and is sadly disappointed.
"What's the point?"
After his victory driving the #3 in the Subway Jalapeno 250, Junior told the ESPN crew, "If you didn't win, what a waste of time, why did you do it?" (speaking about what the fans would think). In essence, "what's the point?"
He understood the need for victory. He understood the folly of failure and the impact it would have. So, he drove like a man possessed, and achieved his goal in dramatic fashion.
If I could speak with Dale Jr., I'd tell him this:
Watch your #88 roll off the truck. Think about all of the money AMP Energy, Mt. Dew, and the National Guard spent on advertising on that vehicle. Think about all of the money Rick Hendrick spent on building, testing, and adjusting that car. Think about all of the man hours spent to assemble it, to set it up, and to service it throughout the race. Then ask yourself, "what's the point?"
What's the point in going through all of that if you're not going to drive it to Victory Lane? What's the point in strapping in behind the wheel if you're not going to win?
I would tell him that because, when he's wanted to, he's won (or nearly won). When he had the motivation to get to the front, he's done it.
Anyone who doubts Junior's ability to drive hasn't really watched his career in its fullest. The man has the ability. He can drive with the very best of them, and if he had the kind of motivation week-in-week-out that he had back in July, he might very well match his father's incredible victory statistics and even approach his record of seven championships. He absolutely could do it - if he wanted to. He could if he saw "the point" in doing it.
Why he won't ever win a championship
Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr. will likely never win a Sprint Cup title. Why? The simple answer is because he doesn't really want to.
Between trying desperately to separate himself from the memory of his father and coming to terms with the fact that he'll likely never be able to do so, he's stuck in limbo. He's his own man outside of the race car, but inside it, he will always be the Intimidator's son. There's nothing he can do about that because NASCAR fans are loyal to a fault.
I believe a part of him doesn't want to succeed. He's caught in a catch-22. If he wins, people will compare him to his father, which he's sick of, to be frank. If he wins, he could also have the opposite effect. He could actually take away from his father's memory. People might actually start to let his memory die and root for Junior for Junior's sake.
Which option is worse?
Maybe, in his mind - which has never really been allowed to go through the process of burying his father - using a vanilla style of racing, and coming away with equally mediocre finishes keeps the memory hounds at bay. Maybe being an average driver in a league of superstars keeps the discussions about his daddy alive and well, and keeps people wondering what Dale Sr. would have done. By doing that, they remember his father, and don't allow him to become a name only a select few remember - like Kenny Irwin Jr.
Granted, Irwin was not at the popularity level (or success) of Earnhardt, but he also hadn't been driving Cup races as long as Earnhardt.
Losing has started to hurt Junior's following, to be sure. It's taken a long time, though, and even a small turnaround could re-energize his slipping fan base.
Part of me wonders if he hasn't slipped into mediocrity to scrub off some of his father's fans and get down to those who love him for him - if that's even possible for a sports figure.
He carries his father's name. He inherited his father's fans. To a degree, he also inherited (or learned) his father's ability. Apparently, he doesn't really want any of it, other than, perhaps, the name.
What if there were no Chase to the Sprint Cup?
What if Dale Earnhardt Sr. had just been another driver?
What if people only followed the drivers they really liked and only liked drivers based on what they did on the track?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. could forget about all of this, if he wanted to. He could race the way all drivers used to race - for the win. He could forget all about "points racing" and just go for the checkers every time he straps in the car.
He could forget the fact that most of his fans were originally his father's fans. He could race as hard as he can and let the fan following fall where it may.
Junior could do all of that and then some. He could win races. He could challenge for the Cup title. Maybe he could even set some records of his own that don't involve popularity.
But Dale Jr. just can't seem to shake the ghost. He's haunted as few people in the world are ever haunted. In victory and defeat alike, the specter of the Man in Black is always just behind him, looking over his shoulder and whispering in his ear.
The fact that the ghost is that of the man he'd spent his entire life trying to get close to should not be lost. The fact that there is a bitter-sweet hole in Junior's soul over a man he will never get the chance to fully understand should not be underestimated, nor dismissed.
What's Junior to do about it all? He's not exactly a therapy kind of guy.
The Intimidator's Last Victim
Until Dale Jr. puts the past firmly in its place and embraces who he is as a man, this entire argument is an exercise in futility. Nothing will change.
Eventually, Rick Hendrick will have to part ways with the most popular driver in NASCAR. He's in the business of championships after all, and Jimmie Johnson can only win so many. Jeff Gordon is a hair's width away from retirement and Mark Martin may be gone in just a year or so. Hendrick has to protect his dominance over the sport and, if Junior can't step up and be that champion, he'll have to find someone who will.
Surely, someone will want Junior on their payroll. But if the fans keep fleeing NASCAR, he won't be as attractive as he used to be and, until he starts winning again, there's no reason to believe that fans will stick around.
As Dale Earnhardt Sr. came out of turn four of the 2001 Daytona 500, he fearlessly, single-handedly fought off the villainous horde that threatened to take down his son and his driver. Like a Spartan of the famed 300, he stood his ground despite unthinkable odds and ensured that victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat. Like all great tragedies, he sacrificed himself to the NASCAR gods and became immortal.
It's almost poetic irony that, of the multitude of tangled cars and bruised egos, the last victim the Intimidator left in his wake, was his own son...
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