People are fascinating. I am biased towards the ones in auto racing. Let’s face it: that is what I surround myself with, so that is my frame of reference. Human beings are by far, to me, the most interesting piece of the motorsports puzzle.
In any realm, it is people who make the spark and the interest. Politics can be a very dry and clinical topic to study. One can read about laws and policies and crave some caffeine product. But let’s read about how different people with varied beliefs interpret and practice our politics and then we have some interesting subject matter.
Religion falls into the same category. Pick up a textbook and read a few chapters written centuries ago regarding another civilization’s beliefs. Good readings if that is what you are into. However the attention commanding material in usually about how citizens can read the same book, yet come to multiple conclusions about the same written lesson.
Switch scenes to our favorite sport we all know and love and people provide the most captivating topics. Business and machinery help stir the NASCAR pot. Men and women add the spice and flavor.
Week after week, race after race, new chapters are written. No two are exactly alike. In 2009 two men stand head and shoulders above the crowd for attention. They command it from the time the race haulers enter speedway grounds late in the week, to the time those same haulers are making the long journey down a dark interstate back to some race shop after completing a weekend’s work.
And their time in the world’s critical crosshairs was not earned from what they might do, but from what they already have done. Both drivers have entered the zone of “what will happen this race?” because of what has already occurred.
Circumstances have brought Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to where he is today. He is a man with a tremendous namesake. Second and third generation athletes live under a microscope and a heat lamp. Only unquestioned success brings relief. Ask a Manning brother.
Junior was brought into racing not just as a driver, but also as a son. He was a late model racer with a team his father owned. He was employed as a then-Busch Series driver by a team his father owned. He was brought to the Cup level with a team his father owned. And the day after Dale Earnhardt died was, very sadly, the news story that garnered the sport the most attention it ever received.
Front-page headlines about the Earnhardt passing were carried in newspapers that absolutely ignored auto racing. NASCAR’s most recognizable name was gone. Millions of fans and non-fans mourned the loss. This man was also a father. And one of his sons was left to carry the sport’s torch whether he was ready or not.
“Big E” was the guy who was introduced in pre-race ceremonies and nobody in the grandstand was using the seat they paid for. Some cheered. Others booed. All reacted. His presence was enormous.
Junior’s Nationwide resume shows two championships and twenty-two race wins. The Cup Series’ victory lane has had him as the guest of honor on eighteen occasions. He resigned from Dale Earnhardt Incorporated at the 2007 season’s conclusion.
His driving tenure for Hendrick Motorsports began in 2008, arguably Sprint Cup racing’s strongest team. The championship car has come from Hendrick’s effort the past three consecutive years and eight times total since Jeff Gordon’s initial crown in 1995.
Joining Hendrick Motorsports was supposed to have his best chance of success, but it has not gone according to plan
Now Junior has his best chance for success being with a quality racing team. He also is under more scrutiny than ever for the same reason, being with a quality racing team. So far in 2009 Earnhardt’s three stable mates have won races and are within the top ten in the title standings. The number eighty-eight stands out for its lack of performance compared to the five, twenty-four and forty-eight.
A recent crew chief change has legions of Dale’s fans chopping at the bit for a strong on-track improvement. Junior Nation’s large membership has had their patience tested.
If any of the above details were not part of the story, Dale would not be the center of attention that he is.
Kyle Busch entered the sport with another famous last name. Busch’s older brother Kurt entered NASCAR’s Truck Series in 2000. His move was quick to the Sprint Cup Series, entering events later that same year. He won the tour’s championship in 2004 and was regarded as a top driving talent. His attitude and personality did not endear himself to fans in the same matter as the third generation Earnhardt racer. Kurt had his collection of followers, and his detractors.
Guilt by association was what Kyle had to deal with from the people who did not like his older brother. There were some that took an anti-Kyle stance prior to his ever turning an upper level NASCAR wheel. His full time Sprint Cup career began in 2005 with the Hendrick organization.
Some of his attitude and behavior endeared him to his following of fans. It alienated him to others. The younger Busch brother’s driving talent became evident to everyone who watched him closely.
His personality comes out and appears in bright lights most weekends. Controversial moments have drawn battle lines between Busch supporters and Busch bashers. “Rowdy” has made comments after near wins that criticize his crew and other drivers, whomever he feels negatively impacted the victory effort. He does not bite his tongue and says what he thinks.
Busch’s actions, such as his guitar-smash in Nashville, polarize both media, fans and competitors alike (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR).
There are observers who praise the fact that a Sprint Cup driver actually gives his opinion and shows emotion, and not just rattles off sponsors and gives a sound bite whenever a microphone is put in front of him. Others jump to the other side of the fence and do not like Kyle’s style or substance. Witness the differing opinions after the recent Nashville Nationwide Series guitar-smashing incident.
The cherry on the cake that intertwines the two drivers is the fact that Rick Hendrick had Kyle Busch driving in his group. They agreed to part company and move on to other relationships. Busch filled a seat with Joe Gibbs Racing. The driver chosen to move under the HMS driver umbrella was Dale Earnhardt Jr. It reads a little like a “Seinfeld” episode, where random occurrences often are tied together at the conclusion of the show.
Auto racing trade paper op-ed pages and radio call in shows have three topics every week. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, and whatever actually happened on the speedway. The first two have their fans and detractors wound up. Plenty are eager to wave the flag and cheer, or look for the opening to knock the legs out from either.
Something pretty strong has to happen to steal a piece of the fan’s debate. And it has at times. Carl Long’s penalty is a good example. Carl Edward’s spectacular crash at the spring Talladega race is another. But they are only temporary diversions. Eventually the hot topics come back around to our two lead characters.
This article is part of that phenomenon. We listen to the fans and watch what happens on the racetrack. There is no escaping the bench racing topics that keep coming up. I wonder what big story will come up that will eventually displace our current discussions? I know I will really enjoy watching. Racing has lots of characters and lots of stories waiting to happen. I can’t wait.
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