by Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports
October 6, 2004
Think we can get those guys punished?
NASCAR took Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of first place in the Nextel Cup points standings and into second for uttering a four-letter word that everyone older than age 5 already has heard and said about a thousand times.
"It don't mean s--- right now," he said when asked about winning his fifth race at Talladega. "Daddy's won here 10 times."
NASCAR appears to want its drivers to break down a thrilling race using a sleep-inducing monotone of bush-league shout-outs to every donor that's thrown some cash their way. You've heard it.
They had one of these interviews Sunday on NBC, just after Earnhardt's entertaining comments. The network cut to one of the robots who finished behind Junior, and he immediately started with the sponsor soliloquy.
I quickly changed the channel.
(On a side note, I would approve of this after college football games. It would actually bring some honesty to the table.
Ask the star running back about his three touchdowns and he says, "I want to thank Rich Guy Cadillac for providing my ride, booster Claude Jones for getting my mom a new washer and dryer and Sammy Smith back home for taking the SAT for me."
But I digress ...)
NASCAR's punishment of Earnhardt shows the league's shortsightedness. This is about the only driver going who expresses to fans – many of whom, like me, are relatively new to the sport – what it is like to be him. And NASCAR wants to stifle him.
NASCAR is the worst at using its athletes to provide information on the wild reality of the sport.
Derek Jeter, free from shilling for every corporate partner of the New York Yankees, can discuss what pitch he was looking for, why he was looking for it and then how it felt when he blasted it for a game-winning home run.
But in NASCAR we get dial-tone dull and the feeling that this is some kind of minor-league fringe sport that has to thank everyone for returning its calls. Maybe once it was, but not now.
Let's consider all that happened during the final few minutes of Sunday's race.
Earnhardt decided to pit just as a caution flag came out, and his crew made a split-second and critical decision to take the opportunity to change two tires. As a result Earnhardt spent the final laps of the race weaving past other cars like it was "The Fast and the Furious."
I am not a regular NASCAR fan but this was riveting.
Then, just as Earnhardt took the checkered flag, Elliott Sadler provided an obvious reminder of how nuts this sport is when he flipped his car over, skidded it on its roof and then at the last second flipped back over as he crossed the finish line.
The guy finished the race in the midst of a wreck!
"It was just a few tumbles," Sadler laughed.
NASCAR is an insane sport because at any time in any race someone can die. So when Earnhardt finished a most daring and dramatic victory, pulled his 220-mph coffin to a stop and immediately had a microphone stuffed in his face, you can't blame him for expressing a bit of excitement.
Unless you are NASCAR.
What Earnhardt said was everything to like about this sport. Yes, he should have chosen his word better (maybe he deserves the monetary punishment – NASCAR did fine him $10,000) but his comments were instinctive, honest, humble and to the point. It is why he is so popular.
After winning the Daytona 500 in February he got out of his car, took a swig of Budweiser (his sponsor) and then took a second to thank "mama" back home.
That is what I call family values.
It is the kind of interview that allows some perspective on just how exhilarating it must be to win a race.
If I am NASCAR I applaud that rather than silencing it in favor of some more cheeseball, little-league sell-out speeches that make viewers run back to the NFL.
Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Wednesday, Oct 6, 2004 7:38 pm, EDT