by Julian Spivey
This week on his weekly Sirius XM NASCAR channel radio show 2014 NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick made waves when he accused 14-time Most Popular Driver winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. of stunting NASCAR’s growth by being the most popular driver, yet not its most successful.
Harvick said: “For me, I believe that Dale Jr. has had a big part in kind of stunting the growth of NASCAR because he’s got these legions of fans and this huge outreach of being able to reach different places that none of us have the possibility to reach, but he’s won nine races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports and hasn’t been able to reach outside of that. The growth in the sport has not reached the levels that it should have because our most popular driver has not been our most successful driver. He hasn’t been anywhere close to our most successful driver.”
Those comments have unsurprisingly irritated a lot of fans of the sport and were called “hurtful” by Earnhardt Jr.
Speaking to ESPN’s Bob Pockrass, Earnhardt said on Thursday (August 10): “I have an incredible amount of respect for him [Harvick]. I found some of those comments hurtful. I still respect him as a champion and ambassador for the sport. That’s just the way it is, I guess. I hate that’s how he feels.”
As for how his career has impacted the sport of NASCAR Earnhardt hoped he hadn’t negatively impacted it, while admitting that he hadn’t lived up to everyone’s expectations, but had his own.
“I put a lot into this sport, and I know that I might not have met everyone’s expectation, but I certainly exceeded my own and I’m super proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish. I hope that I brought something to the table and left a good impact,” Earnhardt Jr. told ESPN.
Earnhardt’s response to Harvick’s commentary was as gracious and professional as you would expect from the driver who may be the nicest guy in the NASCAR garage, in addition to being its most popular.
Harvick’s commentary was kind of unexpected because you wouldn’t expect anyone to take a shot at the sport’s most popular driver amidst his farewell tour, but then again that’s who Harvick is – a jerk. He speaks his mind and that can often be a good thing, but let’s face it, what he did in this instance is sheer asshole-ish. It’s also incredibly dumb.
NASCAR is in trouble as a sport. There’s really no denying that – though the sport and even some of those who cover it for a living try to or at least hide the fact. But, there is no reason to believe Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had anything to do with stunting the growth of the sport. The number one culprit for stunting the sport is the way NASCAR runs things and can’t go a year without seriously changing how the sport operates. That’s too big to get into here though.
Another culprit likely has more to do with drivers like Harvick than ones like Earnhardt. Frankly, there are more unlikable drivers in the sport of NASCAR now (and have been for a while) than there are likable ones. Drivers with prickly attitudes like Harvick, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch can make it hard to like the sport, despite their talent on the track. Many fans would probably rather root for a nice guy who doesn’t win than a winner who acts like a jerk. But, when you’re seeing the jerks win way more than the nice guys it’s hard to continue watching. Many of the up-and-coming young drivers in the sport, however, do seem to be likable with good personalities like Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney giving hope for this trend to come to an end sooner rather than later.
Harvick may just have sour grapes. He’s a champion who thinks he’s deserving of more attention and fans than Earnhardt, who has never won a title and has 10 fewer Cup Series wins in one more season.
As for Earnhardt’s career-long disappointment. It’s a shame that many do and have always viewed him this way. If Earnhardt’s last name was Smith or Jones he wouldn’t receive this distinction. He only does because he’s the son of Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt was Babe Ruth. It’s not fair to act like Dale Jr. should’ve been a champion and legend on the track just because his father was, but it’s a standard he has been held to since day one and was magnified the day his father died in the Daytona 500 in 2001. Due to his father’s death, his fan base almost certainly more than doubled. He’s always had to live under his father’s shadow and he’s not his father. He’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one helluva guy.
I’ve been watching this sport on a weekly basis since shortly after Dale Earnhardt died, during Dale Jr’s second full season. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a nicer presence in the sport and that includes my all-time favorite driver Jeff Gordon, who always seemed like a generally great guy. There’s just something incredibly approachable about Dale Jr. He’s the kind of guy you feel like you could honestly sit down, have a beer and play some Madden on the PS4 with and not feel out of place. On multiple occasions this season, which hasn’t been a fairytale farewell season for him, upon crashing out of the race I’ve seen him sign autographs for fans just after leaving the infield care center. This is something many drivers wouldn’t even consider doing (and I honestly don’t blame them). It feels like his fan base means as much to him as he has to them – which is something I don’t think you could say about Harvick and many others.
Anybody who has watched this sport over the years knows that Dale Jr.’s career hasn’t been what anybody other than himself probably envisioned. We’re all a part of that unfair comparison to his Hall of Fame father. That’s on us. It’s completely our fault. That has nothing to do with Dale Earnhardt Jr. All he can do is be who he is – and he’s been a damn good ambassador to the sport of NASCAR.