There is always a morning after — in life, sports and stock-car racing.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be long gone by the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season, getting on with his life as a happily married man wanting to build a family unencumbered by the smoky haze of concussion symptoms.
We all should wish him Godspeed, without the restrictor-plate baggage.
But there will be forlorn faces as NASCAR bestows parting gifts to Earnhardt in his last season of competition. The sport is losing its iconic hero, a guy with crossover appeal and an epic story etched in family tragedy and a complicated legacy involving father and son.
The narrative has driven NASCAR since February 2001 when Dale Earnhardt died on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Fate beckoned Dale Jr. to became the face of NASCAR that day, and he didn’t disappoint.
At times, he was introspective. At times, he didn’t seem to care. But he kept the engines humming and the turnstiles clicking. The tears and the heartbreak and the pressure and the triumphs would intertwine to become NASCAR’s most compelling narrative.
The pages will go dark in 2017, with a sobering reveal:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is irreplaceable.
The final score or outcome does not define everything in sports. From the NFL to the NBA to the PGA, NASCAR and beyond, everything is about star-power and stories.
Muhammad Ali was The Greatest. LeBron James is the Chosen One. Wayne Gretzky was The Great One. Roberto Duran was Hands of Stone (or Manos de Piedra). Eldrick Woods was simply Tiger. The elder Earnhardt was The Intimidator.
Earnhardt was a little bit of everything. Junior. Little E. Junebug. But just like the rest of those greats, he transcended the sport and carried it through the good times and the bad.
Generation Next looks nice on paper: Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez and Ryan Blaney.
All fine drivers. But chances are the average fan would whiff if you gave them headshots of these guys and asked for names.
Golf has gone through the same agonizing transition with Tiger. Boxing is on the ropes after the golden years in which Duran was part of the famous “Four Kings” of the middleweight division.
The sport went on another run when Mike Tyson popped up in all his violent, dysfunctional fury. And now what? Can you name three American heavyweights? One even?
Other sports are fortunate they have a greater pool of athletes to work within the transitional process. Look at the NBA: Magic, Bird, Jordan, LeBron, Curry.
NASCAR has a pool of 40 drivers at its highest level. You can cut that field in half in terms of competitive assets.
You could argue that the most recognizable face in the sport after Earnhardt retires will be Danica Patrick, who hasn’t won a race in 163 NASCAR starts.
Earnhardt has won 26 times in the Cup series. Although he has not won a Cup title, he has been competitive enough to keep fans engaged. He attracts eyeballs everywhere he goes, a force that has made Earnhardt the most popular driver in the sport 14 consecutive seasons.
”Sports Business Journal cited that he accounts for 25 percent of the driver merchandise sold in NASCAR,” said Mike Joy, Fox NASCAR play-by-play announcer. “This is Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan numbers. Saying that Dale Jr. has somewhat carried the popularity of the sport on his back for many years is not inaccurate.”
Earnhardt rose above everybody else because he has the best story, one easily accessible from the biggest NASCAR gearhead to a housewife in Daytona Beach.
He is Superman, and he is Everyman, a regular guy who likes his beer and the fit of blue jeans and the way his Chevy engines rev up along highways and super-speedways.
NASCAR will turn the page in 2018 and find that no one is worthy of the ride.
ABOUT THE WRITER
George Diaz is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.
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