Dale Earnhardt Jr. rises as NASCAR's conscience in final season
DOVER, Del. — Retirement Dale has been Blunt Dale. As his final season ticks away, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has grabbed a bullhorn and demanded change — in 140-character bursts, on his podcast and through the media — on matters big and small in NASCAR.
He referenced John F. Kennedy in a tweet and was the first driver to take a stand on NASCAR's place in the national anthem debate. He angered fellow veteran drivers when he suggested they may have to accept pay cuts. And he chided NASCAR for allowing drivers to blow out their tires in victory celebrations and for parking drivers on pit road during an entire practice.
Earnhardt stands up for NASCAR — and isn't shy about telling the sanctioning body when it needs to stand down.
Oh, and it's not over in seven weeks after he is done racing.
He is headed to the broadcast booth and will join NBC Sports Group's coverage of stock car racing next year. Junior unleashed with a live mic for 20 Cup races next season should make for must-see TV for race fans.
Worried about sponsors or alienating a dwindling fan base, most drivers don't have the desire or clout to speak out on much more than if the car felt loose or tight headed into a turn.
Not Earnhardt. He opines on the sport each week on his “Dale Jr Download” podcast, and on his latest episode, he took aim at the “same tired stigma” NASCAR has faced over its racial and political overtones. When two race team owners threatened to fire employees who refused to stand for the national anthem, Earnhardt, who has 26 career victories, including the 2004 and 2014 Daytona 500, said he refused to judge athletes who take a knee in protest.
“I don't always claim to be right,” Earnhardt said, “but I think in transparency in conversation and compassion you can learn from others. There is only one way to sort of do that and that is by communication and sharing. I have always sort of been eager in a sense to know more and to learn more and to try to understand both sides.”
Earnhardt's farewell season went off the rails early and he will end his career without a Cup championship. He hasn't won this season and is 22nd in the standings headed into Sunday's race at Dover International Speedway.
But the disappointment on the track hasn't squelched his candor on the issues that affect the sport.
Sure, when he said this summer that veteran drivers would continue to get squeezed out of rides for younger, cheaper drivers if they didn't accept pay cuts, he got a rare rebuke from former Cup champions Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth.
Otherwise, Earnhardt rolls on, perhaps hopeful he can exert some influence to change policy or even the way people think about issues that matter.
“I have just always been pretty transparent,” he said.
Of late, Earnhardt has spoken out on:
• The national anthem: “No surprise to me everyone at the track stood and addressed the flag during the anthem, which I think will continue. But I also understand that the man next to me, if he wants to do something different, that's his right. I might not agree with everything somebody does, but it's their right to have that opportunity to do that. I can't take that away from them, and I don't want them taking it away from me.”
• Blown tires: “I have been kind of waiting all this time for NASCAR to eventually say, ‘Look, you know we would just rather you guys not blow the tires out.' They talk about not wanting to be the ‘fun police;' being the ‘fun police' is not on the radar of their damn problems.”
•Parked drivers: “Missing practice is plenty of punishment. No need to bust out the dunce hat.”
• Driver salaries: “Drivers are having to sort of understand that change is coming down the pike. If it hasn't happened to them yet, it's going to happen to them. And the young guys, they don't know any better. They want to race and they're taking whatever they can get. That's a good change for the owners. That's a shift that's going to be better for the sport and get those salaries into a realistic range for how much money we have from corporate America.”
Earnhardt has a larger vehicle to express his views next season at NBC, where he will be reunited with former crew chief and current analyst Steve Letarte. NBC declined to comment Saturday and referenced a July announcement in which executive Sam Flood said he had conversations with Earnhardt “about how to grow NASCAR, how to expose new fans and how to make his passion for the sport come through to the fans.”
It's one thing for Junior to sound off as a lame-duck driver. But does NBC really want him to wade through murky political waters once he's employed by the network?
Most drivers bristled this weekend when asked about protests and anthem etiquette. Earnhardt addressed the topic on Twitter, his podcast and inside the Dover media center because that's what he does — comfortable in his role as locker room leader and conscience of the sport.