Dale Jr.’s star power is ir­re­place­able

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - GE­ORGE DIAZ

There is al­ways a morn­ing after — in life, sports and stock-car rac­ing.

Dale Earn­hardt Jr. will be long gone by the 2018 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 be­come 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.

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.

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 per cent 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.

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