Did a radio show the other day with Ricky Mast, son of former driver Rick Mast, one of NASCAR’s greatest characters, and Ricky asked me what was driving the increased interest and enthusiasm for NASCAR this season.
The answer is obvious and Ricky knew it – and so do you.
I told him a story to emphasize how much interest in, and knowledge of, NASCAR has grown this early in the season.
I have a friend who is only a casual NASCAR observer. He watches on TV only rarely and, as far as I know, has never spent money on a race ticket.
“Why does there seem to be such a buzz about NASCAR right about now?” he asked.
I started to answer him when he interrupted me.
“Wait, I know,” he said. “It’s Dale Earnhardt Jr.”
Of course he was right. When a casual observer reaches the same conclusion as every fan and media member, well, all is very obvious, isn’t it?
There’s good reason why Earnhardt Jr.’s accomplishments – a win in the Daytona 500 and two subsequent runnerup finishes – have revitalized NASCAR.
He’s easily the sport’s most popular driver with a legion of fans that mightily cheer his accomplishments and suffer disappointment over his shortcomings.
His visage has been so widespread via television and other media that people who know nothing about NASCAR recognize him. It was the same for his father.
An anecdote if you will: Years ago Dale Earnhardt was a guest on the Tonight Show. Jay Leno came onstage and didn’t even bother to do his monologue.
Instead he simply said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Dale Earnhardt!”
The audience went nuts in a standing ovation.
Now, how many of those mostly Californians knew much about NASCAR? They sure knew Earnhardt.
It’s the same for his son, perhaps more now than it ever has been.
Earnhardt Jr. has been racing in that “take no prisoners” style that so exemplified his father. At Daytona he was flawless – he probably drove the best restrictor-plate race of his life.
But it was at Las Vegas that Earnhardt Jr. did the one thing NASCAR wants more drivers to do – take a chance; go for it.
Earnhardt Jr. was leading the race on its final laps. But he was in danger of running out of fuel. He put the danger aside.
“As much as you want to win, and believe me, we were out there trying to win, you do take pride in a good performance, a good finish,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We weren’t going to run in the top five if we hadn’t have used that particular strategy.
“If we’d have run the same strategy as our competitors we would have probably run just inside the top 10, where we were all day.”
What Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte decided to do was gamble. If the fuel held out, they would win. If not …
“We figured we were a lap short, and I was lifting early and let Brad (Keselowski) get there,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I felt like if we were good enough to hold him off, then we’d win the race. If we weren’t, we would have saved enough fuel to have finished the race, at least get to the end.”
Earnhardt Jr. came up less than a full lap short. He finished second to Keselowski.
However, Earnhardt Jr. displayed the type of strategy dictated by NASCAR’s new Chase for the Sprint Cup format.
The “playoffs” are open to winners only. And when a driver wins a race he’s got the satisfaction of knowing he’s in the Chase.
Which means, as a winner, when a gamble might be necessary he can take it. He can go for the victory rather than play it safe and hope for a top-10 or so finish.
“I think everybody has seen that over the last couple of weeks that this format has definitely allowed teams to gamble like we have,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “You know, it did pay off. Not the ultimate prize, but we did run second.
“Would we have done it without the new format? Absolutely not. I can say that without a doubt.”
Keselowski, who swept the Nationwide and Sprint Cup events at Las Vegas, knew what Earnhardt Jr. was trying to do. And he admitted that if put in similar situation he’d do it too.
“The chance that Dale and Steve took with the No. 88 car was way out there and it was a good risky move on their part, because they had nothing to lose because of this format,” he said. “So I think that shows some of the opportunities that come up and how they can be stress-free days.
“I’m looking forward to being able to take those same opportunities because, believe me, I’m not scared to take them.”
All of this bodes well for NASCAR because it clearly indicates that its new format has the potential to create bold, risky strategies.
They aren’t reserved solely for winners. Any driver searching for that first, important victory may have to gamble to get it.
As for Earnhardt Jr., he may not be able to keep up his torrid pace. He’s first in points but only by one over Keselowski.
But it would seem that, this season, he’s ready to challenge for the championship.
That’s one reason why he’s jolted NASCAR like a cattle prod.