2014 NASCAR Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick, nicknamed “Happy,” didn’t sound the least bit jolly when recently addressing the subject of NASCAR’s deteriorating popularity, not to mention its dwindling fan base.
Harvick apparently knows exactly who is hurting NASCAR, and it’s a friend of his … or perhaps a former friend, at this point. He isn’t a green-eyed monster, but he did a pretty good impression of one while making the following comments on his Sirius/XM radio show, Happy Hours:
“… I believe Dale Jr. has had a big part in 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 … and hasn’t been able to reach outside of that.
“I know those aren’t the most popular comments, but those are real life facts that you look up and see on the stat sheet. Imagine how popular he’d be if he had won two or three championships.”
Does Kevin Harvick, a terrific driver and an intelligent fellow by all accounts, really believe that one man can single-handedly stunt the growth of an entire professional sport? That’s just silly.
Harvick later backtracked a bit, claiming the comment was taken out of context, and that people were reacting to it without taking the time to go back and listen to the actual show (Happy Hours airs Tuesdays from 7 to 9 p.m. ET on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, Ch. 90).
“The one thing I wish people would have done is really listen to the whole segment, because it actually started with a fan question as to what I thought Dale Jr. needed to do to become more competitive in his final year,” he said. “That conversation led into the difference between Jeff Gordon’s last year and Dale’s last year. And my opinion was just that it was strictly performance and that was why it seemed like there were so many more Gordon fans – and racing fans in general – that turned out because Jeff was having a good year performance-wise.
“It was by no means a personal knock on Dale. It was just an opinion of what the difference was between those two scenarios and the difference in what I thought needed to change in the last part of his year for it to be more notable, I guess, and to have more fan turnout.”
By that point, however, the damage was done. In many ways, Earnhardt has carried NASCAR on his back for more than a decade now. This is a man who watched his father die at Daytona in February 2001, then raced at Rockingham the very next week. He proudly carried the Earnhardt name, which is both an honor and a burden, winning 26 NASCAR Cup Series races, including a pair of Daytona 500s. And don’t count him out yet. Talladega is just around the corner.
He has been a warrior in stock car racing’s ongoing struggle to recruit new fans without alienating older ones, somehow managing to excel in contemporary, corporate NASCAR while remaining probably the closest thing we have to a “throwback” driver today.
And if you’ve ever seen Dale Jr. walk into any sort of sponsor or hospitality area filled with fans waiting to get a look at him, you might have some idea of what Elvis and The Beatles went through back in the day. It’s pandemonium.
Yet still, somehow, some way, Junior has remained grounded. Talking to him is like talking to your neighbor; it’s a real conversation. And when he talks about himself, he isn’t afraid to tell the truth.
“I knew the odds of me having any talent at all were thin — they are for anyone,” he said during when he made his retirement announcement. “I just wanted to do it. I just wanted to be able to do it. I was afraid of not being able to do it.”
Earnhardt Jr., while self-effacing, is also brave. While Tom Brady continues to avoid directly answering the now-infamous concussion question, Junior has been very open and honest about his experiences with brain trauma. Instead of being stigmatized, he has been applauded, and rightfully so. When an athlete of his stature speaks out about difficult issues, they get attention. They help people.
So what if Dale Jr. hasn’t won 83 races and seven Cup Series championships, like his teammate Jimmie Johnson? We all want our teams to win, but we don’t turn our backs on them if they fail to do so. Am I right, Cubs fans?
There is much to be said for being good at what you do, and for doing what is good. Longtime NASCAR fans have resisted change, but haven’t we all been guilty of that? I’ll bet money you know someone who still has a flip phone, or who thinks Hulu is a Hawaiian dance. Earnhardt Jr. captured the hearts of traditional fans while remaining solidly and successfully in the present, and by keeping it real, even admitting that Harvick’s comments hurt his feelings a little bit.
“I still respect him as a champion and ambassador of the sport,” he said. “That’s just the way it is, I guess. I hate that’s how he feels.
“I put a lot into this sport and I know that I might not have met everyone’s expectations, but I certainly exceeded my own, and I’m super proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish and I hope that I brought something to the table and left a good impact.”
Earnhardt fans or not, what he brought to the table has left millions of people feeling mighty satisfied. Harvick’s dish, on the other hand, may be tasting a lot like sour grapes.
Cathy Elliott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.