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State Of The Sport: On Johnson, Patrick And Earnhardt Jr.

Although many fans proclaim that she hasn’t performed well as a stock car driver, Danica Patrick maintains a huge fan base and is considered one of the most-ably marketed drivers in racing.

The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race was a bust for some of the fans of the sport. They poo-pooed Jimmie Johnson as winner, tried to eschew Danica Patrick winning the fan vote and were once again upset about Dale Earnhardt Jr. not performing better or getting too much coverage.

One friend of mine posted about how the live audience hated on Patrick so badly and was then shocked at the replies the thread garnered. He asked me privately to explore the reasons why women hate Patrick. I wish it were an easy request.

First let’s explore the NASCAR landscape. From 2005-2011 there were only two NASCAR Sprint Cup champions. Their names are Tony Stewart (2005, 2011) and Johnson (2006-2010). Even when not winning the Cup, Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team are winning races.

Stewart, while performing well earning bookend Cups to Johnson’s unprecedented five in a row, is far less consistent a competitor and although still “in the mix” last year and this, is not a dominant force at present.

The Johnson juggernaut, make that the Johnson/Knaus/HMS juggernaut, is virtually unstoppable. Some may argue that they were stopped for two seasons running by the likes of Stewart and last year’s surprise champion Brad Keselowski. But Johnson was right there in championship-striking distance.

Winning five in a row was the exception, not the rule. Even champion Dale Earnhardt won in couplets rather than all championship years strung together. That’s more “normal”.

What’s happening here is history. Johnson is making it and when you witness it the enormity of his accomplishments can easily be lost to the annoyance of having seen this before – over and over again.

Johnson has, quite frankly, done it all in NASCAR Sprint Cup. Won Daytona 500s? Yes. Won the All-Star Race? Yep, a record-breaking four times.  Won championships? Heck yeah, the only driver to do it five consecutive times. He’s won at the best tracks, the most difficult circuits, and every kind of way. Johnson is, in a word, amazing.

Looking back in history other amazing NASCAR drivers were also loved by many and detested by scores of people. Dale Earnhardt? Even in death and ‘til this day, yes. Richard Petty? Yes, him, too. With 43+ drivers to throw your fandom to, it’s very frustrating to have one dominate so completely. It can be, well, boring.

It appears that Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t getting all the attention he once did – he still gets plenty – however, he’s quietly gone about creating a good start to the 2013 season.

But one day your children and your children’s children will be asking you whether you remember this era in NASCAR and you can tell them yes.  They’ll be awed and ask you what it was like and you’ll chuckle. Revisionist history will kick in and you’ll tell the children how truly exciting it was to watch Johnson and his team rack up the accolades, wins, and championships. Because somewhere, deep down, you know it is awesome.

As for Patrick, I have to say my piece. So many people ask my opinion of this driver. Many times, for reasons I don’t quite understand, I have to defend her to people who wrongly pick on her. Quite frankly, this is frustrating to me.

Does Patrick perform up to the par she, her team, her fans, or I would like her to? Certainly not. But there is a tremendous learning curve coming from open wheel  – IndyCar in Patrick’s case – to NASCAR stock cars.

Patrick has done well enough in her first seasons running NASCAR and certainly does garner a ton of attention. She does for NASCAR what is sorely needed, brings mainstream fans over to our sport.

Informal polling on my part has found that most people I talk to about NASCAR who don’t know anything about our sport know about Patrick. They are drawn to her like the proverbial moth to the flame. Patrick is a headliner, a superstar, and a sublime creature that the whole of America seems fascinated by completely.

And what hardcore, “curmudgeony” NASCAR fans refuse to see is it has nothing to do with her talents in the cockpit and that is OK. The sport needs a superstar. Earnhardt Jr. has filled the role for well over a decade. He is still a mega-star. But the time is now for the diminutive driver with the pretty smile, long locks, and big sponsorship dollars.

Patrick earned the fan vote last Saturday night at Charlotte. She is, by far, the most popular driver out in the field. Little girls, grown men, moms and dads, open wheel fans and all race fans with pure heart root for Patrick. She is a phenomenon who has learned to market herself brilliantly, play up her assets, and assemble a fan base that defies reason. I say good for her.

There was no illicit wrongdoings, cheating, nor subterfuge to allow Patrick to win the fan vote. There didn’t need to be. She won it fair and square as “the people,” the fans, voted. It wasn’t a surprise to anybody because she has that big of a fan base. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Would it have been cool for another driver to get the vote? I suppose, but he would have had to amass an enormous campaign to win and, let’s face it, no one did.

Then there are the complaints that Patrick did nothing in the race. Too true. She didn’t. Patrick is not an all-star because of a fabulous string of wins; she is still a rookie. But the fan vote wasn’t about the best record; it was about putting your favorite in the race. Their favorite is clearly Patrick.

So, back to the original question, why don’t women (and some men) like her? I think jealousy is a big part of the equation. There, I’ve said it. People who are successful are often the target of those wishing they, too, were as successful.

Patrick is very attractive, very wealthy, and living her dream driving a race car for a living. Her path to the “Bigs” was not paved with the same hardships as others. And given her rather lackluster performance in the top tiers of motorsports, Patrick has driven makes people upset that she is still lauded over and still has a top ride.

But as a team owner, having Patrick in your stable is nothing short of brilliant. In an economy that has been suffering for years Patrick still commands huge money. She commands it because the people seek her out.

My theory is this: if the media hadn’t fawned all over Patrick when she first started sniffing around NASCAR and continue to do so with rabid attention when it hasn’t been earned, no one would be as upset about her career.

It’s the over-rambunctious, over-solicitous, overly nauseous media coverage of this driver that makes her the center of such scorn.

The only person who seems to really be benefitting from this is Earnhardt Jr. With the constant limelight off of him – there still is a pretty huge limelight on him and always will be – Earnhardt Jr. has been able to quietly get the racing job done in the last couple of seasons.

The critics of our sport say it’s “boring”, “going in the tanks”, and “not the same product as it was”. Well, no, it’s not the same.

NASCAR has had to modernize, adjust, evolve, and just plain change. From expanding its regional borders to better safety equipment, more money and more media involvement, this sport is nothing like its predecessor. Only it is.

There were always people who complained, argued, and swore they’d never watch again. But the people are watching, the fans are cheering, and the drivers are performing. Johnson is making history, Patrick is revitalizing the sport, and Earnhardt Jr. is, well, Jr. And for Junior Nation that’s all he ever needs to be.

Now, I’ve got to be going, I’m gearing up for the Coca-Cola 600. I can’t wait to see how Johnson, Patrick, Earnhardt Jr., and the rest of the NASCAR Sprint Cup field do! How about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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