MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Something nearly happened on Sunday that hadn’t happened since 2008.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. nearly won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. Had it not been for a closing Kevin Harvick, he would have. And that would have been good for NASCAR as a whole, not just the 88 team.
I know that some of you want to hear about anything other than the 88. Understandable, because as a group, y’all are rather parochial when it comes to your favorite drivers. But stick with me a minute here, and I’ll tell you why you should care.
First, a healthy Dale, Jr., and by that I mean a Dale, Jr. that is in contention on a weekly basis, means that more people pay attention to NASCAR. Rising tide lifts all boats, right? More people paying attention to NASCAR means, arguably, that the TV ratings will go up and sponsors will take note.
If they take note, they’ll put more cash into the sport, and that means the sport overall is healthier.
Second, Junior hasn’t won in 97 races, since Michigan back in 2008. That was on fuel mileage, which has been noted more than once by people who do not like Earnhardt for whatever reason.
Let me break it down for you: fuel mileage is just as much a factor in a NASCAR race as horsepower or driving talent. If you win a race, you won a race. Period freakin’ dot. If Denny Hamlin had better mileage, he would have nailed down the title at Homestead instead of losing it at Phoenix.
That Junior is back in something approaching 2004 form is a compelling story. It’s at least as compelling as Jimmie Johnson winning title after title, attendance woes and bad TV ratings.
I don’t know if it is that people still don’t forgive him for bolting DEI for Hendrick or what, but I do know that the young man is doing better than he has in a while. Is it really preferable for him to wallow in misery for the rest of his career?
It’s not like he wants to run bad. If anything, he presses a little too much. It’s gotta be hard to carry NASCAR’s fortunes around on your back, in addition to the matched set of luggage he’s still toting from 2001 and the inevitable breakup of DEI. That has a lot to do with his stepmother and some bad feelings, but that’s another story.
Who among us can say we’d do any better than he has? Yes, he has great equipment. Yes, he has a powerful team behind him. Yes, Rick Hendrick has good people working for him. But none of it matters if you can’t communicate, and it’s been a couple of years since he was able to communicate like he’s doing now with Steve Letarte.
I’ll go on the record right here and right now and say that Earnhardt Jr. will win a race before Daytona in July.