Junior's Leaving, By Mark McCarter


Down here around Talladega Superspeedway, where Interstate 20 begins to plot its escape from Alabama into Georgia, they say they used to teach kindergarten kids to count this way:

“One … two … Earnhardt … four … five … “

That was back when The Intimidator and that badass old black Chevy was dominating the sport. Dale Earnhardt Sr. “could see the air,” people would say in amazement, trying to explain mystically his aerodynamics expertise. Truth be told, it was probably best explained that other people could see Earnhardt in their mirrors and got the hell out of the way.

Anyway, as you well know, Dale Earnhardt Jr. came along after his father’s death in 2001, single-handedly saved NASCAR, won a pile of races and recently said he’d retire at season’s end. So seismic was the announcement, the network evening news broadcasts bumped their typical C-block videos of adorable animals to include Junior in the rundown.

With each passing weekend, the Junior eulogies are being typed.

With each passing weekend, it’s almost as if eulogies for NASCAR are also being written. Life after Junior is going to be an enormous challenge for a sport with attendance and ratings already figures shrinking like they’re on a fad diet.

Soon, NASCAR reaches the halfway point of the season, after which every race will become “The Last Time Dale Earnhardt Junior Ever Races At Fill-in-the-Blank.”

Now, you may well believe that stock car racing is a terrible waste of fossil fuel. That spending three hours turning left in the company of likeminded speed demons does not constitute sport. You may regard the fan base as folks awaiting the casting call for a “Deliverance” sequel.

But if you are or have been in the media business any length of time, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been an unavoidable presence.

Maybe he has been the compelling story that transcends the sports pages, the heir to the great Intimidator’s legacy, the son uncomfortably but graciously emerging from sorrow, and shouldering the burdens of fame and name.

Or you’ve been challenged to shrink one of those typical thoughtful three-minute Junior orations down into a 25-second sound bite.

Maybe you’ve had the opportunity for a pensive one-on-one, or you’ve been in a media center when some off-the-wall something gets thrown at him and you get something like this, when Junior acknowledges he seldom remembers to carry a wallet:

“Usually, if I ain’t got my wallet and it’s time to eat whoever is with me is going to buy the food. I’m good for it though, so it’s usually not big discussion. I mean, yes, probably fifty percent of the time I will leave the house, unintentionally without my wallet.

“And it’s a pain in the butt because I go over to JR Motorsports and I don’t have my key to get in the door and have to get somebody to come down there and get me in. Which is a little embarrassing for the boss or the guy that owns the building.”

You don’t replace that. Whoever replaces Junior as the Face of NASCAR is Colbert following Letterman, Trevor Siemian after Peyton Manning.

Now, there’s another junior at Hendrick Motorsports.

William Clyde “Chase” Elliott II drives another of the Chevys for the sport’s mega-team. There is no amount of pride as Chase points out Dale Junior has won 14 Most Popular Driver awards – and Bill Elliott won 16.

There is no small amount of appreciation for Junior.

“Dale has been a great ambassador for our sport and I have a lot of respect for him in a lot of different ways,” Elliott said. “But, going through all the things he’s gone through and to still be the person he is today, it would be so easy to go off down a bad path in his situation and going through the things he went through and having the opportunities he had.

“It would be easy to not treat people right or do things wrong. I commend him for his efforts there in doing things the right way over the years from when he started all the way to now. I think he’s a better person now than he’s ever been.”

Trouble is, NASCAR is not going to be a better place.

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Mark McCarter, a four-time Alabama Sports Writer of the Year, is Senior Writer for the City of Huntsville Communication Office. An author of two books, he can still be found loitering around NASCAR tracks on occasion in the employ of The Chattanooga Times-Free Press, The Anniston Star and Tuscaloosa News.

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