Replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR history, isn’t what the sport needs. Gaston De Cardenas AP
Replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR history, isn’t what the sport needs. Gaston De Cardenas AP

Tom Talks

Tom Sorensen's off-beat and often biting take on the world of sports

Tom Sorensen

Replace Dale Jr.? A fool’s errand, so here’s what NASCAR needs to do instead

By Tom Sorensen

Correspondent

November 23, 2017 09:15 AM

I will miss Dale Earnhardt Jr., who on Sunday climbed out of his Chevrolet Sunday, shared beers with his team and then walked into whatever comes next.

But wait. Remember the time that Earnhardt did the deed that was so arrogant and made everybody mad?

I don’t either. Earnhardt is the guy who extends his hand and asks how you’re doing.

Earnhardt, who last month turned 43, is told every week or perhaps every hour how special he is. But he doesn’t act special. He acts as if he has this great job, in which he attempts to drive a car faster than others drive theirs.

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I asked him once about that humility, and about the honorable way he treats people. At the end of the interview, I asked him what his legacy would be. He said that maybe it will be the way he treats people.

Earnhardt will soon win his 15th straight NASCAR Most Popular Driver award. Only Bill Elliott, with 16, has more.

The departure of NASCAR’s most popular driver creates a dilemma for the sport. There was a time when the U.S. loved NASCAR, loved the clean-cut drivers, loved that, unlike the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, racing never experienced a work stoppage or strike.

Thrilled with all the new fans, NASCAR worked to accommodate them, a development that angered some of the old fans. NASCAR was inflation in miniature. The growth of the fan base was built on a false premise. The new fans were merely guests, and they quickly went away.

How does NASCAR win them back without Earnhardt? It doesn’t. The idea ought to be hanging onto the fans it has.

Somebody has to be the most popular driver. Will it be Martin Truex Jr., who capped a sensational year and won the championship with a victory Sunday in Homestead, Fla.? Neat guy to be around, but I don’t think so.

Perhaps it will be Chase Elliott, the son of Bill Elliott, who next week turns 22. He certainly has the talent. He finished fifth this season in the Cup standings.

I don’t think Earnhardt is finished racing. He’s finished with Cup racing. But he might find an old car he likes, make it fast, haul it to Myrtle Beach Speedway and run there.

If enough people see him, he might again be the most popular driver. If there’s no official category for that car, NASCAR will have to invent one.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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