Dale Earnhardt Jr Haters Should Shut Up

He's ranked 8th going into the 2015 season. The haters should take that into account.

He’s ranked 8th going into the 2015 season. The haters should take that into account.

To all the Dale Earnhardt, Jr. haters out there: Wake up from your self important, uneducated and, no doubt, boring dreams, no matter how many small farm animals are involved.

Earnhardt Jr. is one of the best drivers in NASCAR and that’s that. Is he the best? No. I’ll defer to Brad Keselowski’s assessment that Carl Edwards probably takes that top honor as we go into the 2015 season.

When you can win 4 races in 2014, finish in the top ten 22 times, the top five 12 times and are ranked 8th out of over 40 drivers, you can easily say he can get the job done. Some seasons he hasn’t.

What if you had inherited the passion and desire to follow in your Fathers footsteps only to discover what a huge, and sometimes inflated, shadow you had to walk in?

It would be hard to be compared to a guy that didn’t care what anyone thought, did or wanted him to do. Dale Sr. marched to the beat of a different drummer. NASCAR doesn’t work that way today. He would, most likely, have lost more races on penalties than he could have won. Let’s not forget that he would also have had the Jimmie Johnson juggernaut to contend with.

Dale Sr. would not have been happy with the atrocious things said about his son.

Dale Sr. would not have been happy with the atrocious things said about his son.

Comparing Dale Earnhardt Jr. to his Father is complete folly. Dale Sr. would not have fared much better than anyone else in post 2001 NASCAR. The competition is far too great.

In Sr’s day the competition wasn’t nearly as great as it is today. There is more funded talent than there are seats now and that simply wasn’t the case in the 1990’s.

Dale Jr has had to live with his Fathers death, a man who was creating a small empire for his him to own, a step mother that I, with all due respect, refer to as Cruella de Vil, and the usual chemistry afflictions that ALL racing drivers/teams contend with.

Earnhardt Jr never overstates his importance, he always takes the high road and bears down when things are tough. On the other hand, he does have a problem communicating with others, mainly his team. Not everyone in racing is Ronald Reagan.

He’s not an MBA or even a college undergraduate. So what? Neither was Steve Jobs. So let’s not overstate the importance of having a college degree as a measure of your chances of success. Earnhardt keeps racing because it’s what he loves to do and no one should deny him that.

Now he has a new crew chief: Greg Ives. Everyone wonders whether the same momentum can be carried into 2015 that Little E had in 2014. The same can be said for any driver in the field right now who are operating under the new rules, but it looks promising.

According to Rick Hendrick: “Greg was our number-one choice,” he added, “This is a talented guy who already has a terrific rapport with Dale Jr. and is a fit with the organization. He and Chad had a lot of success together, and all of our crew chiefs think the world of him and what he’s accomplished. Greg’s proven that he can win races, and he has all the tools to do big things.”

If they already have a good working relationship then it only makes sense that they can put a season together that will rival 2014. Ives has worked as a crew chief for JR Motorsports and has wins with Chase Elloitt.

He obviously knows how to communicate with Earnhardt and that is the key. If Ives and Earnhardt can translate the relationship from owner/crew chief to driver/crew chief, then we should expect good things to come from the 88 camp.

It makes no sense to me that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. seems to be so polarizing. People either hate him or they love him. Maybe it’s his jewelry phobia.

No, he hasn’t won a Sprint Cup Championship.

But then, neither has Carl Edwards, yet.

 

 

 

Quest To Learn More About Tim Richmond, NASCAR’s Fallen Hero

In just a short time Tim Richmond became one of NASCAR's most exciting, winning drivers. But during a good portion of his short career, he battled a very deadly disease.

Recently I’ve been reading about one of NASCAR’s fallen heroes, a driver from the 1980s whose star shown very brightly for an all too brief period of time. His name was Tim Richmond.

If you missed his era you may not know a lot, or anything, about him. I became a fan of NASCAR in 1990 and missed everything about Richmond. While I was filling my coffers with all things NASCAR past, present and right now, Richmond’s name was rarely, if ever, mentioned.

Once I became active on Facebook, with its NASCAR and fan sites, his name came up more regularly.

I knew Richmond had a reputation for being a man with whom women wanted to associate and men wanted to emulate. His racing prowess was enviable – and, to be honest, so was his reputation as a lothario.

At a time when jeans, cowboy hats, and big belt buckles were the dress uniform for many drivers and crewmen in and around the garage, Richmond showed up in Italian suits, feathered and coiffed long hair and a devil-may-care attitude.

There was no mistaking his intensity. He was, forgive the pun, totally driven in a race car. Whether it was in IndyCar or NASCAR, Richmond drove a car to the outer limits. He won many poles in his short Winston Cup career, running hard and fast – some say even recklessly – but initially he found it difficult to win races.

In Richmond’s first two years in Cup, 1980 and 1981, he had no poles, wins, or top fives, but he did earn six top 10s.

Paired with a legendary crew chief Harry Hyde in 1986 on Rick Hendrick’s fledgling team, Richmond learned to rein in his aggressiveness just enough to produce wins and challenge for a championship.

He challenged, but his good friend Dale Earnhardt denied him the title. Regardless, in that season Richmond’s statistics were very impressive. He won eight poles, seven races, earned 13 top fives and 17 top 10s. Richmond finished third that year, only six points behind second-place Darrell Waltrip.

Richmond cut a dashing figure and was considered something new and different in NASCAR circles as far as drivers were concerned. But what he might have achieved was cut short by AIDS.

That was the pinnacle of Richmond’s career. Unbeknownst to many, a disease was riddling Richmond’s body, weakening him and stealing his thunder in the sport he so desperately loved.

Richmond, it’s now known, had contracted HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS. This happened at a time when hysteria was high about the disease and knowledge was pathetically little.

Masking his illness with lies and bravado, Richmond was able to return to a partial schedule. In eight races in 1987, he earned one pole, two wins, three top fives and four top 10s. But those were the last glimpses of Richmond’s greatness.

By the summer of 1987 Richmond’s erratic behavior, reminiscent of drunkenness and/or drug abuse, caused uproar among many of NASCAR’s drivers, crew members, and officials.

Not knowing or understanding the true cause of Richmond’s behaviors – manic moods one moment and sleeping for hours afterward regardless of what appearances were on his itinerary – gave concern to those with whom he was in close competition.

Drug tests were implemented, results were mishandled, and judgments – mostly wrong – were made. All the while, Richmond continued to hide the fact he was stricken with AIDS.

He desperately took the only medicinal cocktail available at the time, AZT. He went so far as to take himself off the medicine to make certain he passed NASCAR’s drug test.

But it was too late. The prejudice against Richmond was palpable. His career was over in NASCAR. Unfortunately, his health was deteriorating at a rapid pace as well.

Richmond shook things up dramatically in NASCAR. The mostly Southeastern sport full of “good ol’ boys” was not sure how to handle the slick Midwesterner who was a natty dresser, had “pretty hair” and drove his race car full bore on every track.

Richmond not only provided a Hollywood feel to NASCAR during the time he was present, he also posthumously brought a discussion to the table about AIDS affecting the NASCAR community, not just the homosexual or Hollywood ones.

As for the man himself, all of that has only gone so far. Even after noted journalist David Poole wrote a book about Richmond, who died on August 13, 1989, entitled “Tim Richmond: The Fast Life And Remarkable Times Of NASCAR’s Top Gun” (2005), I still heard remarkably little about him and his place in the sport I had grown to love.

If nothing else, I’d love to read the thoughts, remembered and reminisced about Richmond from those who actually saw him race.

Teach me about the Tim Richmond I cannot access through books and YouTube clips. I’d love to learn more about the man some said was NASCAR’s most dynamic driver.

NASCAR Was Indeed Great In The Past And, Yes, It Is Today

In years past, NASCAR racing was good, but over the course of many years there were only a few drivers who won consistently. One of them was, obviously, Richard Petty.

I always find it so interesting when I hear people reminisce about NASCAR’s past. They seem to wear an especially strong style of rose-colored glasses as they romanticize about the time gone by.

I am guilty of the same when I recall favorite races with Dale Earnhardt, but for others, it colors so much of their memories that nothing NASCAR produces is “acceptable” in its current form.

I heartily disagree. The entertainment I get from watching the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is incomparable.

Certainly I admit that some races of old were extraordinary and some drivers mythological in their skill and prowess. The past holds gems throughout its rich history.

Recently I have been reading my colleagues’, Tom Higgins and Steve Waid, book “Junior Johnson: Brave in Life”. The book is a fascinating account of Robert Glenn Johnson, Jr. – or Junior as he is widely known.

In the myriad stories told, Junior tells of seasons in the early 1980s when Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison swapped wins for seven or more races. For fans of those drivers that was amazing and assuredly fun to watch, but if your driver was not one of the two winning, it must have been a bit dismal.

Looking even further back, when Richard Petty was dicing it up with the likes of David Pearson and others, yet continued to dominate with many wins per season, it must have been a bore to some.

Jimmie Johnson is the most recent dominant star I have experienced in today’s NASCAR. I found it tedious to watch him win so many times during his five championship seasons.

But, now that we’ve had a reprieve, I’m anxious to see how far Johnson can go in his career. I have come full circle and find myself thrilled by the prospect of Johnson winning and possibly setting more records.

In addition, current racing has a depth of competition that is unparalleled in NASCAR. In any given week far more than half the field can win.

For example, in 2011, there were 18 different winners.

In the current season there have already been 10 different winners in 14 races.

Gone are the days when Ned Jarrett won the Southern 500 by 14 laps. Or that Earnhardt won the championship in 1987 by 489 points.

Now we have seasons like 2001 where the championship was determined on the very last lap of the final race of the season.

My point is not to malign, discredit, or undervalue the stars of the past, but to point out that what is perceived by some is more an emotional attachment to the time period than an actual realistic look at the week in and week out racing that was going on.

Another driver who seemed to dominate the competition was the late Dale Earnhardt (left). Today, however, it would appear competition has equalized. It's a given that, more than ever before, more drivers can win races.

Furthermore, I can completely identify with the folks who look to the past and remember it fondly, and hold it as the bar with which to compare all other eras of NASCAR. As I have stated often, I am an Earnhardt fan and recall the years I watched him race as “the best ever.”

Every book I read, however, relates that situations NASCAR is experiencing in 2012 it also did the same in each part of its past.

Accusations of cheating by competitors, criticism of NASCAR’s iron fist and grumblings of its lack of consistency circulated since year one.

Domination of one team stinking up the field of competition until the rest finally caught up with, and eventually surpassed, the so-called “king of the heap du jour”.

Now there is a pervasive feeling that NASCAR is nothing but “corporate image guys” on the track. Names like Jeff Gordon and Johnson are offered up as examples of polished spokesmen who have no relation to racers of old; they lack greasy fingernails and an intimate relationship with every part on the car.

That may be true. But that is the evolution of the sport. Larger purses were always sought to infuse more talent in NASCAR. As the economy waxes and wanes sponsorship money is more difficult to come by – so having a driver who looks good and understands how to hawk for companies is a highly sought after commodity.

Safety concerns have led to a far more technological set up of the car, which in turn has led to college-educated engineers, diagnostic interpreters and other specialized team members to become integral to the race team.

No longer can a driver with a car, a few hardscrabble guys and sponsorship from a couple of Mom and Pop stores make the race on Sunday. It’s sad, yes, but the nature of change.

The bottom line is racing was spectacular in every year of NASCAR in which you were a fan. Each “era” carries great times for the person who remembers them. As history shows, however, the same arguments, conditions and squabbling existed “then” as it does “now”.

Jeff Burton was speaking to the NASCAR media at his test session at the newly reconfigured Bristol track this week. He voiced what has been on my mind for years. Burton said that NASCAR is the only sport that is scrutinized so heavily. He mentions that in the NFL, people may be upset with a referee’s call, but the NFL itself is not slammed.

Burton went on to say that not every race is going to be spectacular. Some will be fantastic while others may be “sleepers.” He continued by saying that not every NBA game is great either. “Some suck,” he said succinctly.

Racing at the Sprint Cup level is inherently flawed yet still vastly entertaining.  Talent runs amok, personalities bubble over (the Busch brothers, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards, among others), and the racing is still drawing crowds.

My feelings are, Sprint Cup racing is still the sport to which I gravitate every weekend for 10 months of every year. I root for different drivers, am awed by talent, captivated by teamwork, and infected by brash behavior. I get my investment back tenfold when I put the time in to watch NASCAR – still.

Of course, I will always miss the best who ever was… Dale Earnhardt.

Excuse me while I take off my rose-colored glasses to wipe away a few tears.

JUNIOR JOHNSON: In 1987 First Choice As Driver, Dale Earnhardt, Inexplicably Turned Down

When Junior Johnson's two-car operation came to an end after the 1986, it evolved that he hired Terry Labonte, the 1984 champion, as the driver for his single-car team in 1987.

After the 1986 NASCAR Winston Cup season, things underwent significant changes at Junior Johnson & Associates in Ronda, N.C.

Gone were the tandem drivers Darrell Waltrip and Neil Bonnet – a union that lasted the three seasons Johnson committed to a two-car team.

Waltrip had been with Johnson since 1981. Together they won three championships and 43 races. From 1974-80, Cale Yarborough also won three championships and earned 44 victories driving for Johnson.

All three men are now members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

But in 1987, Johnson was at a crossroads. He had to determine if he was going to continue to operate a two-car team or return to a single-car operation.

But what was even more important was for Johnson to find a new driver.

At the time there were more than a few accomplished drivers available.

But Johnson really didn’t consider most of them.

He knew exactly who he wanted.

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

The 1987 season was going to be a new start for Junior Johnson & Associates. You might say the slate was clean.

After Darrell and Neil departed I mulled over what I should do. I didn’t think it was possible to field two teams again because I was pretty certain Budweiser didn’t want to stretch its investment.

I decided to put the sponsorship money in one basket and field just one team. I thought that would increase our competitiveness and I knew it would help the budget.

I knew who I wanted to be my driver – Dale Earnhardt. Yep, that’s what I said.

I know this sounds very surprising, given I got very angry and upset with him because of his actions at Richmond in 1986, where wrecked Darrell and took him out of the race.

Despite that, I knew Earnhardt was the man.

Yes, he wrecked Darrell but that, to me, was the sign of his aggressiveness and willingness to win at all cost.

His run-in with Darrell certainly wasn’t the only one he had in 1986, but it did enhance his growing reputation as a driver who wasn’t going to be trifled with.

He reminded me of Cale. Both of them knew only one way to race – very hard and up front as much as possible.

Besides, Earnhardt won five races in ’86 and beat Darrell for the championship. It was his second career title and I thought he could win a lot more.

So why not let him grab of couple of championships in my cars?

The driver Junior wanted in 1987 was none other than Dale Earnhardt, who had his run-ins with Darrell Waltrip in 1986. However, Junior's sponsor, Budweiser, would not approve.

In the past Dale had indicated to me that he would like to be my driver some day. In 1987, he was scheduled to be Richard Childress’ driver for the third consecutive year.

They first joined forces for the last portion of the 1981 season, when Dale bolted from owner J.D. Stacy, and they reunited in 1984.

I had done a lot of favors for Richard over the years, both when he was driving and when he concentrated on being an owner.

I had helped bring him and Dale together in ’81 and also assisted in locating a sponsor.

So I didn’t feel bad about offering Dale my ride.

But I couldn’t.

For some reason – and I don’t know what it was to this day – Budweiser didn’t want Dale.

I was very, very surprised. He was an up-and-coming driver who had already won two championships and was likely to win more.

His presence on and off the track had to make the folks at Wrangler – his sponsor for six years – delighted.

But Budweiser was insistent. It wanted me to get someone else.

So after a while I got together with Terry Labonte.

Labonte was a winning driver. He was also the 1984 Winston Cup champion. He had raced since 1979 with team owner Billy Hagan but by 1987 that was coming to an end due to Hagan’s financial problems.

Terry might not have been my first choice but he was the man Budweiser wanted.

There were a lot of drivers I could have tapped at the time but Budweiser had been part of Terry’s career in the past and liked him and what he did for them as far as public relations was concerned.

When I hired Terry, I knew things were going to be different – and not necessarily only on the track.

Terry had a personality unlike Darrell’s and even Cale’s. I don’t have to tell you how outspoken and, let’s face it, “mouthy” Darrell could be.

Terry, well, his nickname was “The Iceman.” That was partly due to his cold, calculating style of racing – he reminded folks of David Pearson.

But he also got the name because he didn’t talk much. He was just a quiet guy who said something only when he felt he had something to say.

It was going to take a while for all of us at Junior Johnson & Associates to get used to him.

I liked his demeanor. He took his racing in stride. It didn’t matter what happened to him. He didn’t blame anyone for what happened to him. He took all the blame, even when I thought it wasn’t necessary.

For the most part he let others do the talking.

When the 1987 season began I was optimistic that we could do good things with Terry. He was a proven commodity and, if we could put good cars under him, there was no reason we couldn’t win.

But even with that, inside I felt like a man who let a record-setting fish get away.

If I had it to do over I would have put Terry in the Budweiser car and found the sponsorship to put Dale in a second car. I think me and Dale would have done very well together.

That, however, was not going to be the case.

Nevertheless, I still thought Dale was going to do very, very well in 1987.

Turns out it didn’t take long at all to learn I was right. Not long at all.

JUNIOR JOHNSON: With The 1986 Season Came Winds Of Change

In 1986, Junior Johnson's teams struggled. It wasn't until June that Darrell Waltrip finally won a race and that made it much more difficult for him to challenge Dale Earnhardt for the championship.

The tone of the 1986 season was set, at least for Junior Johnson & Associates and driver Darrell Waltrip, after an incident at Richmond in February.

Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt were involved in a frightening crash while racing for the lead. Theirs were two of four cars eliminated from the race, which was won by Kyle Petty.

Junior fumed over the incident for some time. But he also realized that if his team was to win another championship, it was going to have to beat Earnhardt.

That, indeed, turned out to be the case.

Although Waltrip spent most of the remainder of the season second in points to Earnhardt he could not overtake him.

In fact, the season was almost half complete before Waltrip won a race. He won only three times in 29 starts. Teammate Neil Bonnet won just once.

It was one of the most lackluster performances for either of Johnson’s teams since the two-car operation began in 1984.

But then, there seemed to be a very good reason for that.

 

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

 

When I recall the Richmond incident, even today, I still can’t help but feel that Dale caused it. I think he did it on purpose.

Dale just couldn’t stand for Darrell to beat him with a pass that late in the race. So he pulled an old dirt-track trick.

Dale had been a good dirt-track racer in his early days. He learned a lot from his daddy, Ralph, who was as tough as there was on dirt.

When Darrell was almost past him, Dale just kept his left front wheel at a point where Darrell’s car wouldn’t take a set to get through the corner.

You have to cock the rear end out to get the car to turn, but Dale held his ground. Darrell couldn’t get the rear out.

So to me, as much as I had raced on dirt, it was clearly deliberate. Heck, in the early years I had done the same thing myself.

NASCAR handed out punishments to Dale – fines, probation, that sort of stuff. But I really don’t think he cared anything about that.

He was in his third season with team owner Richard Childress and their union had reached the point where Dale was confident in his cars.

He felt he could win anywhere. And he felt so confident in his ability that, well, I wonder if he sometimes thought he could get away with anything.

I was certain of one thing: He was the man we all had to beat.

Neil Bonnett won just one race for Junior in 1986 and finished 13th in the point standings. Well before season's end he announced that he was leaving the team - Waltrip did likewise.

For months after Richmond, Junior Johnson & Associates didn’t come close to beating Dale.

He won three of the nine races following Richmond. During that time, neither Darrell nor Neil won anything. As the 1986 season moved into June my teams were winless.

We had never gone that deep into a season without a victory. Even at North Wilkesboro, Bristol and Martinsville – the short tracks on which we always seemed to do well – we came away winless.

It was puzzling and frustrating.

Finally, on June 1, Darrell got a victory. And it wasn’t easy. On the road course at Riverside, Calif., Darrell and Tim Richmond – a talented kid who drove for Rick Hendrick – were beating and banging on each other pretty hard during the closing laps.

At the end a race-closing  caution period began and Darrell managed to slip past Tim to win by four feet.

We needed that victory for a couple of reasons: First we had to restore our usual – and expected – level of performance. Riverside was a start.

Second, we had to keep some sort of pace with Dale. Even though it took us almost five full months to get the first win in 1986, Darrell was still second to Dale in the point standings.

After Riverside Darrell was 119 points behind. We had plenty of work to do, but then, there was time.

Remember I said Dale was the man to beat in ’86? After Riverside, it sure looked like that was not the case at all.

Tim went on a tear. He won four of the next six races and was the runnerup in one other. He was on one heckuva hot streak.

Darrell cooled him down, just a bit, with a victory over Terry Labonte at Bristol on Aug. 23. Hey, we won on a short track – now that was more like it.

We were still in the championship hunt. Dale finished fourth after an accident with Bobby Hillin Jr. So we came away 121 points behind Dale with nine races remaining.

We could do it. We’d made up more points than that with fewer races remaining.

Remarkably, Tim won the next two races at Darlington and Richmond – which dropped Darrell to third in points.

Darrell won at North Wilkesboro in September and was back in second place in points, 122 behind Earnhardt.

Darrell was feeling good about it so he pulled out the stops – at least verbally. He tried mind games on Dale. He said, “I would try to put some psychological stuff in the newspapers, but Dale and his boys can’t read.”

Dale pounced back after he won at Charlotte.

“I can read,” he said. “Just like in a kid’s early reading book, ‘See Darrell run his mouth. See Darrell fall.’”

Which, unfortunately, is exactly what Darrell did – make that what Junior Johnson & Associates did.

Dale won his second career championship by 288 points over Darrell.

Neil, who finally won at Rockingham in October, finished 13th in points.

There’s something I haven’t told you.

By June, everyone in racing knew that the 1986 season was going to be the last for Darrell and Neil at Junior Johnson & Associates.

I wasn’t surprised at all.

I had known for quite some time that it was coming.

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