Minter: Edwards’ Nice-Guy Rep Is Up In The Air
By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
As the Carl Edwards-Brad Keselowski saga moves forward, one of the bigger questions will be what the incident, on top of others before it, does to Edwards’ image.
There’s no doubt he’s been a media favorite, as he’s been open and cooperative since he first came on the NASCAR scene back in 2002 to race trucks.
And the press has been a big part of the “Aw shucks, Cousin Carl” image that is associated with him.
But there have been dark moments too. His confrontation with teammate Matt Kenseth after a race at Martinsville in 2007, where he appeared ready to take a swing at Kenseth is one, as was his bumping incident with Dale Earnhardt Jr. after a Nationwide Series race at Michigan the year before.
How Edwards deals with the latest situation will go a long way toward solidifying whatever his reputation turns out to be. To his great credit, he’s never put a lot of stock into the nice-guy reputation he had early on, saying more than once that there would come a time when we’d see a different side of him.
One wonders if his frustrations are related to the fact that he was the odds-on favorite to dethrone Jimmie Johnson last year after leading the circuit in wins in 2008, only to go winless all of 2009 and so far into 2010.
The Edwards situation brings to mind the image and actions of another driver who has failed to live up to his and his fans’ expectations but handled the situation, and other messy ones before it, with a tremendous amount of class.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had had to shoulder the weight of poor performance on top of the burden of being the sport’s most popular driver. He’s had to deal in a very public way with the loss of his father, the break-up of the team his father founded and the failure of his Hendrick Motorsports team to make him a winner again.
But through it all, he hasn’t let his frustrations lead to a string of classless acts on or off the track, and for that he should be greatly commended.
It’s not just old scribes like me who appreciate the way Earnhardt has handled the cards he’s been dealt. His fan base has remained surprisingly loyal in spite of his struggles.
Former promoter H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, possibly the greatest observer ever of all things involving auto racing, explains that the fans’ fascination with Dale Earnhardt Jr. tells us more about the thinking of NASCAR’s true audience than any number of focus groups ever could. He said that when it comes right down to it, NASCAR is still very much a country, Southern thing, and Junior is as country and Southern as they come on a circuit that now has more drivers from California than the Carolinas.
“I think his popularity comes from the core fan who is hungry for the roots,” Wheeler said. “He is Hank Williams Jr. when country (music) went to cross over and tried to become Broadway.
“NASCAR has strayed so far from its roots that to many people he is one of the only things left. He has that Bill Elliott, down-home look. He wears jeans. He has that [you figure it out] grin that one might see in the pool hall in Valdosta (Georgia). He’s Willie Nelson laid back and drives a pickup truck.
“He is the epitome of the country boy next door – cute, courteous to women, humble and soft-spoken.”
Wheeler said Earnhardt’s image, his philosophy, and his kinship with his fan base appeal to long-time racing fans, even those who don’t live in the South, as Earnhardt always has.
“The core NASCAR fan is still country although he or she might be from Bakersfield or Peekskill and not Griffin, Georgia,” he said.
And. Wheeler said, NASCAR’s core audience can relate to hard times, even though Earnhardt’s hard times on the race track haven’t kept him from accumulating millions of dollars, staying in luxury motorhomes at the track and commuting by private jet.
Success is fairly easy to manage. Adversity is not. But it’s how one handles adversity that truly defines who they are.
If Cousin Carl was from Columbia, South Carolina, and not Columbia, Missouri, maybe some of the old-line Southern fans might be more willing to cut him some slack.
But not for long. In the end, most true fans are looking for drivers who give and get respect, as David Pearson and Richard Petty once did and still do.
That’s why the time-honored phrase used to start a NASCAR race begins with “Gentlemen.”
– Rick Minter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments