During FOX's broadcast of last Sunday's NASCAR race at Michigan two Dale Earnhardt Jr.-related moments caught my attention.
The first has been widely commented on: Darrell Waltrip, who usually sticks to the company line and tries not to be controversial, suggested that Dale Jr. needed to take responsibility for his team's lousy performance this year. Waltrip was really quite polite about the whole thing, even though many Dale Jr. fans got bent out of shape over this mild criticism of their idol.
The second came during Chris Myer's silly (but generally entertaining) pre-race "5 Questions" segment. In the "word association" part of his interview, Kurt Busch instantly answered "Dale Jr." when Myers served up the word "Partying".
Putting this all together, it seems there's a growing concern that Junior needs to get his act together.
There are a couple of big problems though, and they all touch on issues that NASCAR, many NASCAR fans, and most NASCAR pundits prefer to ignore. But Junior's really awful performance this year is making it difficult to look the other way.
Dale Jr. is NASCAR's most popular driver. Conventional wisdom holds that if he doesn't make the cut for the 10 race Chase for the Championship (by either being in the top ten or within 400 points of the leader after the 26th race of the season, for those of you who aren't big NASCAR fans) it will be bad for NASCAR. Cynical NASCAR fans, like me, have even been known to insinuate that NASCAR adopted the Chase for the Cup format--creating a "play off" type situation among the top ten drivers during the final 10 races of the season--in order to help Dale Jr. stay within striking distance of 1st place all season long.
(Supposedly the Chase for the Cup format came about because watching Matt Kenseth run away with the title in 2003 was so boring. But I'm pretty darn sure that NASCAR would have been perfectly happy to watch Dale Jr. run away with the title. Instead of all the talk about the "boring" 2003 season, the story would've been about how inspirational and exciting it was to see Junior live up to his true potential. He would have been praised for his "consistency", a word that was used to damn Kenseth with faint praise.)
And Conventional Wisdom is probably right: NASCAR went through all this trouble to set up a points system that favored inconsistent, but popular, teams like Junior's and the guy can't even get it together enough to stay in the top 15. Michael Waltrip--Junior's teammate--is, at best, an average Cup driver, but he's 14th in points and heading in the right direction. At this point in the season, with 11 races to go before the Chase, Mikey is far more likely to make the cut than Junior is. If the Chase starts up and Junior isn't in it, no doubt his fans will be pissed off and that might translate to fewer viewers and less money for NASCAR.
And here's where we get to the stuff that NASCAR folks don't like to talk about:
Jeff Gordon, NASCAR's second most popular driver, earned his popularity by winning lots of races.
But Junior inherited his popularity (and most of his fans) after his father died.
And Junior simply isn't as talented a driver as his father was. Not only that, there's at least a half-dozen current Cup drivers who are more talented than Junior.
But talent isn't everything in NASCAR. I don't think Greg Biffle is half the driver Jeff Gordon is, but Biffle more than makes up for his talent deficit with drive, determination, teamwork, good sense, maturity, and, most of all, hard work.
Junior is at least as talented as Biffle, but he's not nearly as disciplined. He doesn't have the right attitude to be a consistent contender. He responds to a challenge by doing worse, while Biffle has responded to a challenge by digging deep and figuring out a way to beat it.
In this case, I think it helps that Biffle knows that his continued employment by Roush Racing depends on his performance. When there was talk at the end of the 2004 season that he was just a journeyman driver, warming a seat for the next Rousch wunderkind, he responded to his critics by winning a bunch of races.
But Junior is in no danger of losing his job. If he performs badly he doesn't face unemployment (although his crew might), but merely embarrassment.
Now, don't get me wrong. I think Junior is a pretty good driver. And there are certainly other pretty good drivers that are having a bad season--like former champs Kenseth and Bobby Labonte. But Kenseth and Labonte combined aren't close to being as popular as Junior is. There's a built-in instability in having so much of NASCAR's popularity tied up in a driver like Junior, who's good, but not that good.