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‘All-Right Dude’ Puts NASCAR In All-Right Mood

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, June 18 2012

Dale Earnhardt Jr. got his first win in four years on Sunday. And a popular win it was. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Brian Lawdermilk)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

To be a sports writer is to be a cynic when it comes to sports heroes. When you get to witness first hand the behavior of top athletes after the television lights go off, after the last  begrudging autograph is signed and the back is turned to the public at-large, it’s easy for cynicism to take root.

Because, in that job, you get to see that even those perceived as good people have unsightly patches of well-hidden dry rot.

It is that side of athletes that often serves as the topic of lunch-room talk in media rooms. Human nature and all.

But in all the lunch room conversations I have had over the years since Dale Earnhardt Jr. moved into NASCAR’s center ring, I have really not heard his name come up when the talk turns derogatory.

Yes, I’ve heard reporters gripe about access. All of us want/think they deserve constant one-on-one attention with athletes.

And, oh, there has been the occasional incorrect comment that Earnhardt is dull in press conferences. While there is seldom big, arm-waving, spittle-firing emotion involved, there is usually good information flowing. Insightful information. Candid information. You just have to stop tweeting for a couple minutes, be attentive and listen.

And there is the occasional gripe, usually from a hip new-breeder or “citizen journalist”, that Junior is skill-challenged on the track; that he is more sizzle than fajita. Please.

But overall, Earnhardt Jr. has played to kind reviews in the media center.

The reason is dirt simple. There’s just not much too dislike about Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a person or as a

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is congratulated by Kasey Kahne. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

journalistic subject.

To be honest, I have never gotten very close to Junior. Perhaps the longest one-on-one was at Texas Motor Speedway before he was a Cup full-timer. “Nice kid,” was the thought as the hauler door closed behind me.

But since then, through countless press conferences, post-race interviews, hauler chats, furtive stalkings and the occasional sponsor appearance, its been the same reaction; except these days “nice kid” has been replaced by “nice guy”.

The guess is that many good reporters felt good about Earnhardt’s slump-busting victory at Michigan on Sunday. The guess is, admit it or not, a lot of reporters were glad for the guy too. Again, human nature and all. Respect being a a two-way street and all.

There is no guessing involved in this statement: There were a lot of people in the garages and shops who were genuinely happy after Sunday’s race and not just because a victory for the most popular driver in the sport was sure to produce a spike in NASCAR’s popularity and profile and earnings potential.

See Earnhardt Jr. is pretty dang popular in the garages, too.

Following his victory, the one which ended four years of futility, driver after driver went out of their way to offer attaboys to the peer without peer when it comes to support among fans. There seemed to be an en masse sense of “If I couldn’t win, then I’m glad Earnhardt did.”

From his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, of course: “I just couldn’t be more happy for my teammate. Junior has been chipping away at it and has been so close to victory and I’m real happy for him and for Stevie (Letarte, his crew chief).”

But also from competitors. Like Ford driver Greg Biffle, who offered this unsolicited comment about the Chevy driver: “I am really excited for Junior. What a great day (Father’s Day) for him to win on.”

The drivers all know what Earnhardt has been going through the past four years. They know about the external pressures and abuses he has had thrust upon him after moving from the team owned by his iconic family to the super team at Hendrick.

They know about expectations placed upon him by the fact that Junior is the son of the a legend of mythic proportions.

Teammate Jeff Gordan has seen it all from up close.

“I think when Rick (Hendrick) brought (Dale Earnhardt) Junior on and especially when they made the swap a couple of years ago there is a lot of pressure that comes along with having Junior on there,” Gordon said. “You get beat up by everybody if he is not winning. Even Junior has gotten beat up some himself. There is a lot of pride on the line. You know that when Junior wins it’s going to be great for the sport. You know that it’s a great thing for the whole company. Yeah it’s a win, win.”

Junior was asked about the reaction his victory was eliciting in the grandstands, where fans were going berserk, and in the garages.

What’s it all mean? he was asked.

“I guess it means I’m an all-right dude,” Junior said.

See what I mean about insightful?

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, June 18 2012
One Comment

One Comment »

  • ginger says:

    I’ve read a lot of stories today about Dale Jr’s win. Most of them seem about the same. Although some were snarky and some were vile. But this one really got my attention. Finally someone in the media who has really thought about Dale Jr the man. Who he is. What his character is. You have insight that few have ever written about. You understand why he has so many fans, and no, not all of us were fans of his father’s. He gathered many, many fans while he was winning two Busch Championships. Sure a lot of fans came aboard when his father died, but they would have never stayed if he weren’t the man he is. He keeps fans simply because he is who HE is. Thank you for not only seeing that but writing about it as well.