By Toby Christie (Originally appeared on RubbingsRacing.com)
At the end of 2000, NASCAR had reached it’s zenith, it’s plateau. The sport was much more recognized and watched than ever. There was hype, Dale Earnhardt had just finished 2nd in the point standings and everything was pointing to a dominating year for the seven-time champion in 2001.
The Daytona 500 had moved to FOX, which provided even more exposure for the sport, millions of fans who had never tuned into a race before tuned in to watch the next chapter in the ever growing American sport we know simply as NASCAR.
The sport would have capitalized that day… the race was fast and ferocious. Lead changes left and right, it would have been the best way to usher in new fans. Every week there is one winner and 42 losers, but that day the entire sport was a loser. We lost the most recognizable man in the history of our sport, Dale Earnhardt. Richard Petty made people look in the papers for results to the race back in the day, but it was Earnhardt who brought the sport mainstream.
The sport was reeling, and people needed a new face to fill the void of Dale, so many naturally placed the weight of the world on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s shoulders. The guy was only 26 years old, just going into his second season in the Sprint Cup Series, not to mention he just lost his father in the very sport he competes in. Everyone expected him to win and win big… that’s what dad always did.
Jr. merchandise sales went up, so did the hype, so did the pressure. The 26-year-old immediately had the sport’s largest fan following. No matter where he turned people were all over him, he couldn’t get a moment to think at all. More autographs than anyone else (he even had to shorten his signature to just Dale Jr. because of this). More commercial shoots than any one else. Way more sponsorship obligations than anyone else. All of this happened instantly over night.
Just the year before he was the new kid on the block who was racing to just finish the races… now he had to win a championship, because if he didn’t NASCAR would collapse.
Fast forward to 2009 Dale Earnhardt Jr. is now 34 years old. The sport he is in is now declining in viewers, and the stands at races aren’t any longer sold out on a weekly basis. He is now the most scrutinized race car driver in the series, yet his 18 career victories in the Sprint Cup Series ranks him eighth among full time active drivers.
So why is he under the microscope? Why do people who don’t even watch NASCAR say he is a failure? It’s simple he hasn’t lived up to the ungodly expectations that were heaved his way on that Sunday in 2001. We need this man to succeed for our sport to prosper, but the only way he can do that is to give the him some breathing room.
This week if your going to talk bad about anyone talk about Carl Edwards, or Kyle Busch.. Maybe Greg Biffle or Kevin Harvick. Heck maybe even an article about Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne or Denny Hamlin being a failure. Why? Well they all have less wins in the Sprint Cup Series than Dale Earnhardt Jr.
So give him a break from the constant pressure in the media and the message boards, not out of pity, but because he deserves it.