Monday, November 13, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Tim Cindric is four days away from what could be the proudest day of his life. Unfortunately, his son has a target on his back as he competes with Johnny Sauter, Christopher Bell and Matt Crafton for the Truck series championship. Speaking of championships, three JR Motorsports drivers of William Byron, Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier take on Daniel Hemric in NASCAR's second division while Brad Keselowski joined Martin Truex, Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick in the final four for the Cup series. The MotoGP season ended with one man nearly throwing the title away and another man losing it in the gravel. There were no surprises in Motegi and there was a Formula One race but it will be remembered more for the muggings. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Here is a Dale Earnhardt, Jr., farewell piece that will get lost at the bottom of the pile of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., farewell pieces.

I grew up at a weird time in American motorsports. The CART-IRL split was in its infancy and the early stages of war had already soured my family. While my grandfather continued to watch the Indianapolis 500 on a yearly basis, he and my uncle had starting watching more and more NASCAR. Naturally, it was what was on most Sunday afternoons when I went over to visit. While the speed of IndyCars on ovals, in those final glory days of CART breaking 240 MPH and even the sublime speeds of 215 MPH of the IRL always hooked me in, I was one of millions who couldn't ignore NASCAR.

The series took the honor of top motorsports series in the United States and ran away with it. Numbers soared to unprecedented heights and there was something for everyone. The King abandoned his throne but for nearly a decade an old stalwart battled a boy from the West for the identity of the series. In-between the clash of champions there was a who's who of mustachioed veterans contending each week and a rise of racers from a path that had never led to the series before.

Then there was Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Somewhere between the drivers who were entering from USAC because even with the IRL American open-wheel racing still had no place for them and the veterans who entered from the short track route in the 1980s, the son of one of the series most noted drivers came in and he stole the attention of the entire room and everybody looking in.

He was a guy coming from a less traveled path and he did it with much less help than most young drivers with rich fathers get today. Dale Earnhardt didn't continuously pump money into his son's career. He got him going and then he was on his own, working with mechanics and racers left behind on the short tracks in the Carolinas. He could have lived in a palace and but he spent his time with those from the salt of the Earth, following the footprints his father had left behind.

The short tracks of the Carolinas paid off and when the time was right his father gave him an opportunity in his team's Busch Grand National Series team. He won the championship in his first full season, repeated as champion in 1999 and was in the Cup series for the turn of the millennium. You know the rest of the race career.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr., reminded me of my older brother and that is one reason I was drawn to him. When Earnhardt, Jr., made it to the Cup series my brother, who is a few years younger than him, was on his way to college and not long after that he would join the Air Force. I looked up to my brother and wanted to be just like him. Then he was gone and multiple tours of duty overseas kept us apart for the better part of six years. There were similarities between the two. Both were a product of an MTV Generation, confident 20-somethings who wore their baseball caps backward and wanted to have a good time.

His last name helped Earnhardt, Jr., but his demeanor, the good time guy promoted in Budweiser commercials, is what made him transcend NASCAR and become a national sports icon in the United States. He wasn't polished. He was regular. Watching him you didn't get a sense that he was a spokesperson trying to get you to buy a crappy beer. He was a guy you wished was hanging out with you and your friends on Saturday night.

There is something weird about the end of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s career. I can't find a place to put him on the spectrum of NASCAR drivers. He enters what will likely be his final Cup race tied for 29th all-time in victories with Fred Lorenzen. He wasn't a slouch but he isn't in the conversation with those drivers at the top and the problem is many will likely put him ahead of his contemporaries even though a few have him beat on paper.

Take his career-long rival Matt Kenseth. The Wisconsinite picked up his 39th victory at Phoenix yesterday, that is 13 more Cup victories than Earnhardt, Jr., and Kenseth won a Cup championship, something that eluded Earnhardt, Jr. Even when it came to the big races Kenseth holds an advantage. Each driver won two Daytona 500s, Kenseth won the Coca-Cola 600 in 2000 (his first career victory) and he won the Southern 500. Earnhardt, Jr., did not win any of the other crown jewel events. However, I feel Earnhardt, Jr., will be ranked ahead of Kenseth by many and mostly because of the name he carries and the following he had. But while he stood above everyone in terms of popularity it isn't worth a championship or a handful of victories.

Besides Kenseth, five other active drivers are ahead of Earnhardt, Jr., in Cup victories and four of those drivers have a championship. The only one of the four not to have a championship is Denny Hamlin, who has 31 career victories. Besides Hamlin, only four other drivers have more victories than Earnhardt, Jr., and did not win a championship. Those four are Junior Johnson, Mark Martin, Fireball Roberts and Carl Edwards.

Earnhardt, Jr.'s rear view mirror is clear as he heads into retirement. Brad Keselowski is two victories behind him and it is only a matter of time before the apprentice passes the master. Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman are tied on 18 victories. He likely won't have to worry about Kahne and Newman. Logano is only 27 years old and nine victories seems likely especially if he races until he is 40 years old.

After that, it isn't clear who will overtake Earnhardt, Jr. Martin Truex, Jr., sits on 14 victories but he is 37 years old and while he has bloomed late there is no guarantee he will continue this form into his 40s. After Truex, Jr., there are no other active drivers with double-digit Cup victories but the day will come when somebody either already in NASCAR or someone who has yet to race a go-kart will surpass Earnhardt, Jr.

It will take decades before we know Earnhardt, Jr.'s place in NASCAR history, who he is ahead and whom he is behind. He will remain in the limelight thanks to a move to the broadcast booth so it is likely a generation of fans will grow up with him even if they never saw him in a race car. The man will not be forgotten even if he isn't in NASCAR's pantheon.

Champions From the Weekend

Marc Márquez clinched his fourth MotoGP World Championship and sixth world championship overall with a third place finish at Valencia.

The #37 Lexus KeePer TOM's Lexus of Ryō Hirakawa and Nick Cassidy clinched the Super GT GT500 championship with a second place finish at Motegi. The #4 Goodsmile Racing & TeamUKYO Mercedes-AMG of Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka clinched the GT300 championship with a third place finish in class.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Matt Kenseth but did you know...

Sebastian Vettel won the Brazilian Grand Prix.

Dani Pedrosa won the Valencian Community Grand Prix. Miguel Olivera won in Moto2, his third consecutive victory to close out the season. Jorge Martin took his first career Moto3 victory in his 50th career start.

The #23 NISMO Nissan of Tsugio Matsuda and Ronnie Quintarelli won the Super GT race from Motegi. The #65 LEON Racing Mercedes-AMG of Naoya Gamou and Haruki Kurosawa won in GT300.

William Byron won the NASCAR Grand National series race. Johnny Sauter won the Truck race, his second consecutive victory.

The #911 Herbert Motorsport Porsche of Daniel Allemann, Ralf Bohn, Robert Renauer and Alfred Renauer won the 24H COTA.

Other winners at the 24H COTA:

A6-Am: #34 Car Collection Motorsport Audi of Johannes Dr. Kirchhoff, Gustav Edelhoff, Elmar Grimm, Ingo Vogler and Max Edelhoff.

991-class: #85 PROsport Performance Porsche of Charlie Putman, Charlie Espenlaub and Joe Foster.

SP2: #214 MARC Mazda V8 of Malcom Niall, Clint Harvey, Brett Niall and Robert Thompson.

TCR: #308 Team Altran Peugeot of Guillaume Roman, Gonzalo Martin de Andres, Thierry Blaise and Marc Guillot.

SP3: #41 Brookspeed International Motorsport Porsche of Freddie Hunt, David Pattison, Alan Metni and Joseph Toussaint.

CUP1: #158 Classic BMW of Mike Vess, Jason Hart, Matt Travis, John Capessto-Dubets and Max Fedler.

A2: #171 Team Eva Solo/Jönsson Consulting Peugeot of Jan Engelbrecht, Thomas Sørensen, Henrik Sørensen, Claus Bertelsen and Søren Jønsson.

Coming Up This Weekend
All three NASCAR national touring divisions crown champions at Homestead.
Three championships will be decided in the FIA World Endurance Championship finale in Bahrain.
The World Rally Championship season ends in Australia.
Macau hosts the Macau Grand Prix, the World Touring Car Championship and the FIA GT World Cup.