Sep 19, 2011
The Dale Earnhardt Jr. phenomenon is one of the strangest sagas in all of sports. Usually the most popular athlete in any sport is one who is enjoying a phenomenal level of success -- think Alex Rodriguez, Peyton Manning and Tiger Woods at their prime. But Earnhardt has continued to reign as the fan favorite in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, even though his success on the track has waned considerably from his prime. While some careers go through a ditch, the decline in his fortunes may be defined as a canyon. Yet that is why there is considerable joy in Mudville today: While Mighty Casey struck out and was never heard of again, Earnhardt has made the Chase for the Sprint Cup. All those millions of fans who have been looking for reasons why they still back him have found it.
OK, it wasn’t at all easy. After the season’s first few months, Earnhardt looked like he was a cinch to make his first Chase since 2008, but then the travails began. His cars had mechanical problems, he got involved in crashes, and the Chase began to elude him once again. It took a 16th-spot finish in the final non-Chase race in Richmond, Va., to allow him back into the Chase at the very tail end of the pack. But the fact is he did get in, and now he has a chance -- albeit only a theoretical chance -- to win the Sprint Cup championship. That alone has prompted the blowing of air horns in the Earnhardt Jr. camp, because their guy has leapt from the ranks of the also-rans.
It is not as if Earnhardt is without talent as a race driver. You can’t win 18 Sprint Cup–level races if you lack talent. And certainly no one has ever questioned Junior’s courage, but we have to admit that a few -- maybe more than a few -- have questioned his judgment. Even after he joined the elite ranks of Rick Hendrick’s team, it was a big struggle for him. But now there can be joy in Mudville because, instead of striking out yet again, Earnhardt is still in the game and will get the chance to swing his big club again. It would be great fun to see him connect.
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