September 29, 2011
Welcome to Chasing Whims, a new mini-column series that isn't a Lifetime movie but only sounds like one. Here, we'll kick around various what-ifs during the Chase. Got a suggestion? Want to recommend a driver? Hit us up at email@example.com and we'll get you covered. Now, enjoy this little hypothetical...
Let's not even try to pretend here: if Dale Earnhardt Jr. were to win the 2011 Sprint Cup, it would be the most significant moment in NASCAR history since the 2001 Daytona 500, and the most significant good news in NASCAR history since ... when? His father's victory at Daytona in 1998? It's been years, if not decades, since NASCAR has had a seismic, culture-impacting event like a Junior championship would be.
You can scream about Earnhardt all you want, but even his most ardent loathers have to concede that the guy has a fan following to rival any athlete. Whether it's displaced affection for his father or a disturbing attachment to Diet Mountain Dew, Junior's fans are a quasi-religious bunch, and the incandescent glow of their fandom is visible even to people who aren't sure whether NASCAR cars turn left or right.
For that reason, an Earnhardt win would extend far beyond the bounds of NASCAR, deep into the realm of popular culture. Earnhardt would be on every TV talk show from daytime chats to late-night comedy, and he'd be even more visible than he already is. Junior is the very embodiment of the NASCAR driver for a huge swath of the American population — Southern good-ol'-boy, minus the nasty race-based tinges — and his victory would cement exactly the kind of image NASCAR wants to portray.
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For NASCAR, an Earnhardt win would strap a rocket engine to the sport's steady growth. It's already possible that Earnhardt's presence in the Chase is improving TV ratings; can you imagine what a competitive-on-a-weekly-basis Earnhardt would do for the sport? More returning fans, more bandwagon-jumpers, more ratings, more sponsors, more cash. No pressure there, Junior.
On a more visceral level, an Earnhardt win would set off a fit of fan infighting that would make Yankees-Red Sox and Michigan-Ohio State look like backrub societies. Junior fans would become absolutely insufferable in their victory, all tinges of humility and thankfulness blown away in a green, Amp-sponsored tide of Screw You. Junior haters, meanwhile, would double down on the crazy, screaming conspiracy at every turn. It'd be entertaining as hell for the rest of us, that's for sure.
The big question, then: can he do it? Can Earnhardt close the deal this year on an improbable Cup championship? The answer ... probably not. Earnhardt seems to have the goods this year to finish in the top 10 for the season, which is a huge boost over previous seasons, but as for winning this? He'll need to win at least one and maybe two races, and considering how much success he's had winning races in the last half-decade, that's not exactly a good bet. Still, a resurgent Junior is better than a floundering Junior. Baby steps, 88 fans. Baby steps.
All right, your turn. Put aside the "could it happen" question. Assume it DID. What would a Junior championship mean to NASCAR?
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