Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jeff Gordon? A Question Full of Answers for NASCAR

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jeff Gordon? A Question Full of Answers for NASCAR
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Is it Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jeff Gordon?

That was the beginning of a phone conversation my father told me about recently.

It wasn’t about picks to win a race or the championship. It was about baby clothes and fan paraphernalia for my nephew.

He's a little more than a week old, and already he's being classified.

Earnhardt and Gordon represent the line in the sand on the NASCAR landscape.

Collectively they represent a huge piece of the NASCAR fan pie. It’s a reasonable bet that most fans when asked who their guy is will utter either one name or the other.

Earnhardt has been the most popular driver in the sport for the last eight years, and it’s a decent argument that Gordon was at least partly responsible for the sport’s boom in the 1990s.

Over the last several years, both have seemingly been shut out of the conversation in the sport, and NASCAR has suffered.

Gordon hasn’t won a championship since 2001 and has gone winless since 2009, and Junior hasn’t been to victory lane since 2008.

Both are struggling to find their past magic despite being teammates of five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who has seemingly overshadowed two iconic names in the sport.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads Jeff Gordon at Martinsville in October 2010.

Network officials fret over declining ratings, and NASCAR continues to search for the “Goldilocks zone” with its rules to appeal to the traditional fans while keeping the new fans engaged.

For the sport to really return to its 1990s health, it would probably be well served if people were asking the same question now as many of them were asking 15 years ago.

“Are you an Earnhardt or a Gordon fan?”

Throughout most of that decade, many of the sport’s fans could be divided into one of those two camps. In the stands there would be crowds of people wearing their multi-colored Jeff Gordon swag punctuated by the black clad Earnhardt faithful.

The sport was at its pinnacle.

It was Wonderboy versus the Intimidator. It was the Rainbow Warriors versus the Flying Aces. It was us versus them (depending on which side of the divide you sat).

It was simple: Earnhardt versus Gordon.

That battle waged for supremacy in the sport during the 1990s defined NASCAR. Its new fans and its new guard found their place and their driver among the legions of followers of the Man in Black.

The NASCAR of 2011 isn’t in crisis as some would have us believe, but the edge of the sword has gotten dull.

David Taylor/Getty Images
Dale Earnhardt Sr. leads Jeff Gordon at Atlanta in November 1996.

NASCAR has found it more difficult to find a place to cut through the kaleidoscope of sports options out there to bring people in. Compelling storylines always transcend, and NASCAR is lacking them.

Jeff Gordon was able to bring new fans to the table. He broke the mold of the typical NASCAR driver. He wasn't a mechanic, nor was he a farmer or the fruit of a tree with Southern roots. He didn't even say "y'all."

But Gordon came in and brought a crowd with him, bucking the conventional wisdom about what it took to become popular in NASCAR.

Dale Earnhardt was the people’s champion. Even after he won his last points championship in 1994 he continued to operate in that elite class of drivers worthy of the sport’s biggest prize.

His death was one of the darkest moments in the sport’s history. It was also one of those compelling stories that transcended the NASCAR fan bubble. It led the news and created a curiosity about what those boys in the South are doing with those stock cars.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. became the logical heir to his father’s rabid fans. For better or worse, he also became heir to the staggering expectations that go along with his famous last name.

Perhaps the best thing for NASCAR would be if he inherited his father’s rival as well.

The story would be mythical: the son comes to challenge the fallen father’s nemesis.

Chris Trotman/Getty Images
One of the sport's most popular drivers could renew excitement in NASCAR.

The last moments of NASCAR’s boom era were the times not long after Earnhardt’s death. In time, those who came to the door in order to peek inside the NASCAR world after his passing went back home.

They went back to football, baseball, basketball or perhaps left the sports landscape all together. Their curiosity was piqued by the tumult of news coverage over Earnhardt’s passing and then waned again.

It’s time to find a way to invite people back to NASCAR. The sport has to find a reason for people to come visit again.

A universal storyline would help.

Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. are still capable of drawing a crowd. The storyline in light of the passing of Junior’s namesake and the rivalry his father had with Gordon would be sure to cause a stir.

Throw in the quirky twist of fate that has made the two rivals in name teammates on paper and facility, and you have the recipe for excitement.

There’s a lot of opinion out there that seems to indicate that the sport would be best served if someone could dethrone Jimmie Johnson as the sports flavor of the moment— sorry, flavor of the last half decade.

It’s not enough.

NASCAR needs something that people can identify with, something beyond simplified points and a playoff to make racing feel like every other sports endeavor.

Even those outside the NASCAR universe knew about Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt in the 1990s. They’ll remember it again, even if there’s that suffix attached to the Earnhardt name.

The son comes to battle the father’s rival. One of the great stories of literature could be turned to help the average person identify with the sport of common men doing uncommon deeds.

Rules changes and shorter races and playoffs may help the sport’s bottom line by satisfying the networks or appealing to certain constituencies within the NASCAR world, but NASCAR’s real problem is finding a way to make that world a little bigger.

Big stories with bigger names on the biggest stage in American motorsports can do that.

Now the only question is, can Junior and Jeff do their part?

 

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