NASCAR 10 years after Dale Earnhardt Sr.

CHRIS PUMMER: Of course the NASCAR season began Sunday with its signature event, the Daytona 500. Besides the fact that a rookie racer won it this year, there’s been significance attached because it was at Daytona where Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed 10 years ago. I’ve been reading about how a lot of people attribute the dip in NASCAR’s popularity and profitability outside of the general economic downturn to the void Earnhardt’s death left among the ranks of NASCAR’s stars.

Was he really such a transcendent figure for the sports? I don’t know that I buy this argument.

KRYSTEN OLIPHANT: I really don’t care too much about NASCAR, although my dad was a HUGE fan when I was growing up. In my home we were taught to love Earnhardt, despise Jeff Gordon and be ambivalent about Richard Petty, in that order.

For some reason, as a kid I was always super into Terry Labonte, and to a lesser extent, his younger brother Bobby. Maybe it was the fact that they’re from Texas, maybe it was an underdog thing — maybe it was because Terry had that sweet Kellogg’s rooster on his car. I don’t know. But I do remember exactly where I was when I found out Dale Sr. had died — sort of a Princess Diana, JFK thing, as odd as it sounds.

What I don’t understand is the obsession with his son. Everyone knows he can’t win a race. Is it the good looks? The name? Because from what I’ve heard, he’s a complete asshole, so it can’t be his charming personality.

JASON CLINKSCALES: Briefly and assuming NO knowledge of NASCAR: I’m not sure I buy that, either. Didn’t the surge and rather quick descent in popularity happen in the mid-2000s, a couple of years after Dale died? I’m scrolling through the outstanding Sports Media Watch and from the posts regarding NASCAR, it seems that after 2008, all the broadcasting partners (FOX, TNT, ESPN) took significant tumbles. I’m linking a couple of posts on how some races have fared in the last three years for each net.

FOX
TNT
ESPN Carfax 400: This shows a graph for ratings since 1998 and with a switch in networks.

CHRIS PUMMER: Where would NASCAR be if Dale Earnhardt were still around?

The guy unquestionably inspires a lot of passion in people. A friend of mine has a standing bet with anyone who will take him up on it. The deal is, they put a decal on the rear window of their car with one of those pissing Calvins taking a leak right on Earnhardt’s No. 3. The decal has to stay there for one month and my friend will pay that person $300. The caveat is that my friend will not pay for any vandalism to the car.

Nobody has taken him up on it. That’s how strong the fear of those rabid fans retaliating is.

Dale Earnhardt. Sr. would likely not be racing today if he were alive and nearing 60, at least not very competitively. But if not for his untimely demise, would Dale Earnhardt. Jr. be the most popular driver in the sport today?

This defies some logic of sports. In contrast to his father, who tied another racing icon for most season championships, Junior has never finished better than third in that measure. Last year he finished 21st. It’s been five years since he finished in the top 10. The guy hasn’t even won a race in two years. Yet he is still leaps and bounds more popular than multiple title winners Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. That group combined has finished out of the top 10 in a full season only twice this decade. Johnson is on a run of unparalleled dominance with five straight titles.

It seems to me part of Earnhardt Jr.’s popularity has to be attributed to fans projecting a longing for his father.

Can that be good for the perception of NASCAR as a competitive sport, as opposed to the perception of it as personality-driven entertainment along the lines of professional wrestling?

Jason, the numbers you point out line up pretty well with my gut-level, non-expert memory of things. I think rather than Earnhardt Sr.’s death, the spike in popularity happening a few years after that tragedy probably lines up more closely to the beginning of regular HD broadcasts of races, and probably a wave of interest from Danica Patrick breaking the gender barrier by racing at the Indy 500. (Yes, not a NASCAR event, not even a stock car race, but something that still probably created a wave of interest for racing in general).

Could NASCAR not be in a better position now, even after that wave of interest has crested, if fans of the sport were appreciating its best competitors instead of its favorite sons?

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