NASCAR | Hard to fault Dale Earnhardt Jr. for series decline

TALLADEGA, AL - MAY 07: Dale Earnhardt Jr, Hendrick Motorsports, Nationwide Chevrolet SS looks on prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race on May 7, 2017 at Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, AL. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire)
Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire

The silly season has expanded to include a new controversy over whether Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s popularity has been beneficial for NASCAR. Kevin Harvick’s comments on his fellow driver’s success, or recent lack thereof, lit a predictable fire under the racing world this week. Between that and more driver moves, it’s easy to forget that there is an actual Monster Energy Cup series race on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the Pure Michigan 400 from Michigan International Speedway. In fact, we’ll still have five things but the focus will be on the Earnhardt-Harvick saga:

Junior nation losing population?

That Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the sport’s top draw is beyond dispute. Even setting aside the 14 consecutive times that Junior has won NASCAR’s official Most Popular Driver award, all a viewer has to do is listen to the roar from the fans when Earnhardt, the son of the late seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Sr., takes the lead in a race.

But that hasn’t happened much lately. Earnhardt is 23rd in points and has led 24 laps all season. Harvick, on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show, said this week that NASCAR has had “stunted” growth partly because its most popular driver was not among the best in the series.

Earnhardt said he found some of Harvick’s remarks to be “hurtful” but that he wanted to meet with Harvick to discuss the matter.

Harvick’s thoughts might have some merit, or at least a parallel in the sports world. Even the most rabidly followed teams in any sport are likely to suffer drops in attendance, TV ratings and social media impressions after a few lousy seasons. And make no mistake, Earnhardt Jr. has had a couple of lousy seasons, with no wins and just six top-5 finishes in 40 races in 2016-17. Even when one considers that injuries cost Earnhardt half of last season’s races, that’s not good enough for a driver in top-notch Hendrick Motorsports equipment.

But that only tells a small part of the story.

So NASCAR’s ratings are down? It’s rare to find a show, in sports or otherwise, where the ratings are up. In 1986-87, the No. 1 rated The Cosby Show drew a 34.9 rating. In 1996-97, top dog ER drew a 21.2. In 2006-07, American Idol was king at 17.3 and last year NCIS only needed a 12.8 to grab the top spot. It’s a simple byproduct of having hundreds of channels at America’s disposal, with more launched every year.

So attendance is not what it once used to be? Who told Bristol Motor Speedway that it had to have 160,000 seats? Is it also possible that, like a lot of sports, NASCAR might have expanded to the point of oversaturation?

There are a lot of people inside and outside of NASCAR frustrated that the sport’s 1990s boom seems to have gone bust, and Harvick is only the latest to express such frustration. But his aim was questionable and it’s hard to fault Earnhardt for the sport’s sagging numbers when Junior has more than held up his end of the bargain in terms of connecting with fans. Even his impending retirement won’t change that.

Quick zooms

  • The Penske Racing team swept the front row in Friday’s qualifying at Michigan, with pole-sitter and Michigan native Brad Keselowski (203.097 mph) edging teammate Joey Logano at team owner Roger Penske’s home track.
  • It came as little surprise to many that Kasey Kahne is on the way out at Hendrick Motorsports, as it seemed like the No. 5 car was due for a shakeup. Kahne said the news “took the wind out of my sails” but he handled it like a pro and seems pretty likely to land a Cup ride somewhere for 2018.
  • For every vacancy there’s an opportunity. Hendrick Motorsports announced that William Byron, 19, will drive the team’s No. 5 Chevrolet next season. Except for Jimmie Johnson, this will be a very young team next year with Alex Bowman, 24, taking over Earnhardt’s No. 88 ride and Chase Elliott, still only 21, back for his third season in the No. 24 car.
  • Cup star Kyle Larson will get his wish on Saturday, with team owner Chip Ganassi letting Larson get some dirt on his uniform the night before Sunday’s event at Michigan.

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