|PHOTO: John Harrelson, LAT Images|
It’s easy to forget just how high expectations were for Junior before February 18, 2001. He won twice in his rookie season in Cup – once more than his father in 1979 – and took his first All-Star Race in dramatic fashion. “Junior Nation” was already well past its founding. But once that final lap happened, everything became so much bigger. From that point on, Junior was now carrying the hopes, dreams, and expectations of two equally-massive fan bases – his own and his father’s. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for him, on top of everything else.
From then on, there was was what I call the “Junior Singularity.” The Cup Series became “Junior and Friends,” a weekly show where everyone else in the field – even its newest seven-time champion – played a supporting role. I was told by a friend in the NASCAR merchandise business that Junior outsold every other driver in the field 10-to-1. I believed it, especially when FOX broadcasts were constantly interrupted with a “Nationwide Dale Jr. Performance Report.” Junior was always a story - even if that story involved a terrible final season with DEI, a four-year winless streak, and a worrying series of concussions.
It wasn’t like Big E in the 1990s, when he was presented as one of a number of quirky stars – Wallace, Martin, Jarrett, Irvan, Gordon, and Bodine, to name a few. He stood out, of course, but not in the James Dean kind of way he does today. Some of the best proof of this are those old skits ESPN put together to open their Cup broadcasts. Earnhardt wasn’t the star of all of them, and some didn’t mention him at all. If another driver was the story – such as Rusty Wallace and his short-track dominance in early 1993 – then he carried the narrative instead. Earnhardt’s hardly mentioned at all in the 1992 Hooters 500, widely regarded as NASCAR’s greatest race. For Earnhardt, it was known ’92 was a season to forget, a year where accidents and mechanical issues left him 12th in points.
This isn’t to say that any of this is Junior’s fault – far from it. A big part of his popularity has been the result of things completely out of his control, and he’s consistently steered that celebrity toward charity. From the very beginning, he’s remained humble, compassionate, and about as down-to-earth as one can get. I’ve always found it ironic that the sport’s most popular driver remains a fan of Jimmy Means, a driver who raced without any wins in 455 starts. He’s also a studied student of the sport, not only from spending his youth in the garage, but also his clear dedication to the sport’s history, such as his “Back In The Day” program. I also can’t fault the fans for supporting who they want, nor the media for filling the need for Junior news that they desire. Much larger forces steered both that direction.
But I can say I’m glad that it’s over.
I am thankful that Junior retired on his own terms – not just for himself, but for his sport. I believe that the “Junior Singularity” has distracted too much of us from the state of NASCAR as a whole. We need to look at the lingering effects of the Charter system, how it has continued to prevent start-up teams from forming while doing nothing to prevent a proven winner like Matt Kenseth from being squeezed out of the sport. We need to re-examine how broadcasts are handled in the internet age and create leaner, more efficient, more informative experiences for fans old and new. And, most of all, we need to start talking again about the rest of the field, the big names and the small, who will each play a role in shaping NASCAR’s future. Let’s celebrate that Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson are now the old guard, fending off a rising tide of Chase Elliott, Darrell Wallace, Jr., Ryan Blaney, William Byron, Erik Jones, and many others.
I don’t think anyone really knows Junior. Maybe his family. Maybe his wife. But that’s about it. I don’t know how he’s handled everything thrown at him with such grace. And I can only imagine the relief he now feels with that Axalta Chevrolet in his garage and a baby on the way. I’d like to imagine he’d complement his new career in broadcasting with another NASCAR history show. I can see him in the role of Neil Bonnett when he did “Winners” on TNN, though without that return to Daytona in 1994. But I can’t say what’s right for him, never mind tell him. Nobody can. For perhaps the first time in his life, Junior is free. It’s not a time for sadness. We should be happy for him.
To anyone out there in an 88 shirt, you need to realize that the sky isn’t falling just because one of its stars isn’t on the track. Like Ned Jarrett, Benny Parsons, and Buddy Baker before him, you’re gonna enjoy him even more in the booth. And the sport will be better for it.