Earn­hardt rises as NASCAR’s con­science in farewell season

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - SPORTS - By Dan Gel­ston

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’ll 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, blown tires, parked driv­ers and driver salaries.

“Driv­ers are hav­ing to sort of un­der­stand that change is com­ing down the pike,’’ he said. “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.”

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