Who would have thought that a billboard above a Texas highway could sum up what NASCAR misses most: a genuine, on-track rivalry?
"Reason #88: Step-Mom."
That's the message on four Dallas-area billboards meant to promote an April race at Texas Motor Speedway.
For those who need a refresher course, Dale Earnhardt Jr. now drives the No. 88 car. He used to drive the No. 8 for Dale Earnhardt Inc. but left the company his father founded after irreconcilable differences with his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt, widow of the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Now that we have that straight, let's get back to the issue at hand, which is a lack of on-track rivalries.
Eddie Gossage is the president of Texas Motor Speedway and a master promoter. He knows how to bring people to his track, and rivalries are a good way to do it. Right now, Dale Jr. vs. Teresa is the best one NASCAR's got. If it weren't, Gossage wouldn't have played the step-mom card.
"What we said is what everybody is thinking," Gossage explained. "I'm not leaving anybody out. Everybody is thinking it – what that billboard says."
Oh, Dale Jr. can insist all he wants that he holds no ill will toward his former employer. But it's not up to him who fans like and don't like, and right now they think Teresa forced him out of his daddy's company and they're ticked.
That Junior's sister Kelley Earnhardt Elledge requested that the billboards be taken down doesn't really matter. The fans have already built up the rivalry in their minds, and there's not much she or her brother can do about that.
As far as rivalries go, Junior vs. Teresa isn't exactly Yankees-Red Sox or Auburn-Alabama. But right now, it's all NASCAR's got, which is sort of pathetic.
Since Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in 2001, there's been no rivalry that's stoked fans quite like Earnhardt vs. Gordon did throughout the 1990s. Tony Stewart has never had a real rival. Neither has Jimmie Johnson. Matt Kenseth is too reserved to have one. And Kurt Busch's biggest rival has been himself.
Over the past seven years, rivalries have become all but extinct, in large part because everyone's a teammate of someone else. Gordon and Jimmie Johnson could have staged a great rivalry this past season. Unfortunately, they're teammates and friends.
"As a promoter, you don't want to see drivers going to victory lane congratulating each other," Gossage said. "You want them throwing helmets at each other."
The closest thing the sport has had resembling a rivalry since Earnhardt's death has been Dale Jr. vs. Gordon. But other than each other's fans trying to out-scream one another during driver introductions and a few can-throwing incidents, this rivalry never reached much of a boil mostly because neither challenged each other for championships.
(Think about this for a moment: Do you remember how "heated" the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry was before the Red Sox actually got good? Neither do I.)
What little rivalry remained between Junior and Gordon at the end of last year was officially put to rest when Earnhardt Jr. signed with Hendrick Motorsports, making him Gordon's teammate.
With no other challengers, in stepped Dale Jr. vs. Teresa, leaving Gossage little choice.
To be sure, he's not trying to be cute or even funny. Well, maybe a little funny. But what he's really trying to do is sell a product, and right now the product's best selling point is anything Junior related, and on that sales floor the most tricked-out model is Junior vs. Teresa.
Gossage has a few other billboards floating around town. "Reason #20: Road Rage" for Stewart; "Reason #48: Twice As Good As 24!" for Johnson. The Johnson billboard isn't exactly the one Gossage approved. He wanted it to end with a question mark, not an exclamation point.
"We're trying to cause a debate," Gossage said. "It's the age-old argument: Are the 2007 Patriots better than the '72 Dolphins? You'll never settle it, but you sure can debate it all day long," Gossage said, "and that's what we're trying to accomplish."
If you can't have a rivalry, might as well create one.
At the request of Earnhardt Elledge, Gossage will change the Junior billboards to read: "Reason #88: New Car Smell." While it's a clever alternative, if Gossage thought it would have sold more tickets he'd have used it in the first place.
Don't worry, though, he's got something else up his sleeve.
"We need to reward drivers for throwing helmets," he said, which sparked another promotional idea. "I'm going to give a bonus to any driver for throwing his helmet the week before (the Texas) race."
- Texas Motor Speedway
- Teresa Earnhardt