My Brain on NASCAR: You can’t blame a guy for winning

col-cathyelliottJimmie Johnson’s victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Feb. 28 perfectly illustrated the fact that even though 15 years have passed since a tragic accident at Daytona International Speedway took his life, all roads still lead to Dale Earnhardt.

It was victory number 76 for Johnson, who has been steadily climbing the win-list ladder faster than big guys in plaid shirts shimmying up a pole in those crazy lumberjack competitions. The win moved Johnson to seventh on NASCAR’s all-time victory list … but he doesn’t have sole possession of that spot. Instead, he is currently tied with the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr.

And a whole lot of people don’t like that fact, even a little bit.

Earnhardt was perhaps the most polarizing figure in the history of NASCAR, and one of the most influential. He was a genius behind the wheel, instinctively knowing what to do and when to do it. Some claimed that he could “see air,” and while personally I’m skeptical on that point, I’m not going to publicly say so because I’m fond of my head and don’t want to have it bitten off.

Not known for being particularly patient, Dale Sr. was a hard-charging wheel man who didn’t shy away from encouraging competitors to get out of his way by giving their rear bumpers a “kiss,” when the time was right. In other words, if they felt disinclined to voluntarily move aside and let him through, he just went ahead and did it for them. HIs nickname, “The Intimidator,” was well and truly earned.

He also won races. A lot of them. His fan base was, and remains to this day, one of the most loyal not only in NASCAR, but in any sport. I’d put them up against those crazy Pittsburgh Steelers fans any day.

In the NASCAR community, Dale Earnhardt is legendary. Mythic, even. So when guys who look like they would fit right in with the chic and stylish crowd at New York Fashion Week come along and start breaking his records and moving past him on various achievement lists, it doesn’t sit too well with some people — millions of them.

I wonder why this is the case. NASCAR may be slicker and more polished than it was during Earnhardt’s early years in the sport, but in fact, he is a big part of the problem. Those souvenir haulers you see at the racetrack featuring drivers’ faces on items ranging from leather jackets to boxer shorts? You can thank Earnhardt for that. Merchandising took on a life of its own thanks to him. He trademarked and copyrighted his likeness and his name before most corporate sponsors were even aware of NASCAR.

I’m not going to say that Jimmie Johnson is the Dale Earnhardt of his era (see “because I’m fond of my head,” above), but you have to admit there are similarities. Johnson may look be articulate and look like a movie star, but he doesn’t go out of his way to be flashy. He simply straps in on Sundays, gets on the gas and does his job. He spends a lot of time in Victory Lane. He wins championships; six, so far. Is it just me, or does that sound a lot like you-know-who? Fans should love that, right?

Wrong. When Jeff Gordon earned his 76th win in 2007 — tying Earnhardt — he made his victory lap carrying a No. 3 flag. The crowd booed him. In Atlanta, Johnson thrust his arm out of the driver’s side window, raising the classic three-finger salute to the man he said he deeply regrets never getting the opportunity to race against. Again, the crowd was … unsupportive.

“I entered the sport just hoping I could win a race and keep a job for a few years,” Johnson said in a post-race interview. “For myself personally, to have 76, it’s a little bit of attachment to the great Dale Earnhardt, and something I’m very proud of.”

Heroes fade. Earnhardt’s life ended too soon, and to this day the loss is keenly felt, but that doesn’t mean we should take our sorrow and frustration out on the new generation of heroes that has risen up to take his place. It’s just not right to dislike a guy for who he’s not.

Johnson did everything right in what turned out to be a terrific finish at Atlanta. He earned win number 76 fair and square, and giving credit where it is due does nothing to detract from the accomplishments of those who came before, setting the high bar he is currently tackling.

Since his rookie season in 2001, Jimmie Johnson has averaged five wins per year, and if early indications mean anything, that number doesn’t appear likely to dwindle. The next name to be conquered on the all-time win list? South Carolina’s own legendary Cale Yarborough, in sixth place with 83 career victories, including three consecutive championships. It may not happen this season, but barring catastrophe, it will happen.

I can’t wait to see how that goes over.

Cathy Elliott is the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway and author of the books Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR and Darlington Raceway: Too Tough To Tame. Contact her at cathyelliott@hotmail.com.

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