Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Dear Junior: No TV Pressure But Win Now Please
Kevin Harvick knew it the moment he crossed the finish line in Martinsville as the winner of the race. He mentioned it in almost all the post-race interviews.
This time, his heroics came at a price for the sport. Certainly the headlines would document his victory, but what he and everyone else knew was that NASCAR had finally come very close to getting itself back on the right track.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. never raised his head when he spoke with Steve Byrnes on FOX after the race. Junior had come within just a couple of laps of lifting a burden that has been weighing heavily on him for a long time now.
He had also come within a couple of laps of turning back on the TV pilot light that has been out for several seasons. Even FOX director Artie Kempner finally relented from his bumper-cam festival long enough to zoom-out and show the fans screaming and waving in the stands as Junior took the lead of the race.
Make no mistake about it, as Junior goes so does the sport. Nothing has proven that more than the commanding performances of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus over the past couple of seasons. Normally, this kind of intelligent dominance and resiliency would be celebrated. Instead, Johnson continues to struggle with his public perception.
Television has been stalking Junior since the new NASCAR TV contract began back in 2007. The three Sprint Cup Series TV networks would like nothing more than for Junior to be competitive at each race and in contention for the Chase championship down the stretch.
Carrying a hybrid fan base of older fans who supported his father and younger fans who know him more as a brand than a driver, Junior is as iconic in America today as Reba, Beyonce or Gaga. Among the right group, it only takes one word.
Darrell Waltrip makes no secret of the fact that Junior is high on his list of favorites. His open rooting for Junior in a Daytona 500 ultimately won by Jamie McMurrary is still a classic cringe-worthy sports TV moment.
It might not be clapping in the pressbox, but Waltrip has said he is also a fan and finally seeing Junior in contention just kicked his emotions into high gear. It was the same way in Martinsville. Suddenly, it appeared that the clouds would part and the sport could spend the week beating the media drum about an Earnhardt.
Tuesday, a good percentage of the mainstream NASCAR media spent the day writing their versions of Jimmie Johnson's apology story. After spouting off about his speeding issues, NASCAR had presented him with the information confirming his violation. A conference call for the press corps served as the platform for his mea culpa.
Had Junior won in Martinsville, the press would have been putting together stories with a very different theme. Junior was finally back in the winner's circle. What would this mean in Texas? What would it mean for the season? Finally, what would it mean for the sport?
Television needs Junior loud and happy in Victory Lane proudly saying he has the crew and the car to go the distance and win the championship this season. On Tuesday's NASCAR Now, ESPN's Brad Daugherty said Junior would win one of the next three races.
Instead of the driver, it has been crew chief Steve Letarte making the television rounds early this week. While he is well-spoken and polite, it certainly would have given the entire sport a kick in the pants if Earnhardt had appeared on NASCAR Now and RaceHub.
Hendrick Motorsports is a marketing machine. The squeaky-clean drivers speak in polite TV soundbites surrounded by public relations managers who make sure nothing ever crosses the line. That is what we heard from Earnhardt with Byrnes, in the media center and on the highlight shows.
Needless to say, what many fans wanted was Earnhardt to stand his ground against the closing Harvick, fight him off in the spirit of his father and ultimately win the race with a battered car on sheer determination. That did not happen.
Instead, polite comments were the order of the day and apologies on pit road were shown by FOX as Junior made sure not to offend anyone. Those pictures made it very clear that this Earnhardt was different. Instead of fingers pointed in anger, there were back slaps and handshakes.
The Texas race this Saturday night is in primetime. The NCAA basketball tournament is over and Major League Baseball is still very early in its season. SPEED has a Barrett-Jackson auction and the broadcast networks have scripted cop shows. The stage is set for viewers to tune-in for a very different reason.
For the first time in a long time, the feeling is in the air that Earnhardt has a very realistic chance of winning a race and doing it on a big TV stage. With FOX continuing to crank-out the same style of telecast and the COT's continuing to provide the same kind of racing, something has to give.
So, no pressure on Mr. Earnhardt this weekend. Just a race to win, a championship to chase and a sport to save. I have a feeling this is going to be a TV weekend to remember.
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