NASCAR: Most Popular Driver's legendary career comes to a fitting endBy JONATHAN INGRAM
The Sports Xchange
November 20. 2017 8:42PM
It’s a rare racing event where two champions emerge. But NASCAR’s season finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway was hardly an oddity.
As expected, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final race in the premier Cup series brought down the house before the 400-mile race even began. When it was over, Martin Truex Jr.’s heroic stretch drive clinched the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, and the two longtime friends ended up in an extended hug shortly after the trophy presentation.
Truex persevered over the final stretch with not the fastest car, but one carrying the gutsiest driver. He found a way to hold off the faster Toyota of Kyle Busch while under extreme pressure, ginning up two-tenths of a second with some offbeat paths through the corners that had the additional benefit of creating enough air turbulence to keep Busch at bay.
Busch’s Toyota had been four-tenths of a second faster on worn tires, but the one-two punch of Truex was too much.
The championship winner relied on an old short-track trick of not looking back.
“Turn that mirror down,” Truex said to himself, “and hit your marks.” Initially that wasn’t quite enough. “You’ve gotta find something before they get to you,” he recalled. “I found two-tenths and that’s all it took.”
Earnhardt may not have won a title in 19 seasons, but he championed NASCAR racing throughout his career, creating fans in a much different way than his seven-time champion father.
His stats don’t measure up to those of another driver — Matt Kenseth — who began at the same time and who is retiring for at least a year. But Earnhardt was fast enough to win 26 races, including eight majors at Daytona and Talladega. He never banged fenders to do it — although he bent some sheet metal while congratulating Truex on the cool-down lap.
“I high-fived him with my race car,” Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt went on to declare his crew “top drawer” and friends for life with the sort of keen loyalty that his father was known for. He thanked team owner Rick Hendrick, himself no stranger to tragic family deaths.
“Rick has been like a father to me,” he said. “He’s helped me more than anybody I know, just like he’s done for others. I’ll miss trying to make him proud when I was behind the wheel.”
Throughout his career, nobody ever intimidated Earnhardt, but out of the car he declined to play the tough-guy role like “The Intimidator,” the father he loved but chose not to always emulate. Earnhardt’s thank-you speech to fans in the stands from his car before the race as well as to those watching on television summed up his dedication and was yet another reminder of why he’s been a people’s champion.
So, is this the new NASCAR, the touchy-feely version? Not really.
Before the night was over, championship contender Brad Keselowksi responded to a journalist’s question by saying the Toyotas of Truex and Busch had an unfair advantage. Busch initially had a difficult time coming to terms with the fact another Toyota driver had him covered. The kinder, gentler version of NASCAR will have to wait, although first there’s the championship celebration to consider.
Truex and his team were the sentimental favorites due to girlfriend Sherry Pollex’s battle with cancer, crew chief Cole Pearn’s loss of his best friend to an infection that suddenly claimed his life and the fatal heart attack of crewman Jim Watson during the playoffs. Then Furniture Row Racing team owner Barney Visser had a heart attack that required bypass surgery and missed the Homestead race while recuperating in Colorado.
But there was more to Truex’s eight-win campaign capped off by the victory Sunday. In an age of entitlement that has countless people complaining through social media, Truex counted his blessings win or lose over the course of a season where he might have won several more races.
In a manner far more transparent than most professional drivers care to allow, he recounted often enough why he could accept unwanted outcomes on the track due to life’s higher priorities. Then he flat refused to lose in Homestead. It’s difficult not to admire such stuff in champions.
For his part, Earnhardt counted it a victory to make it to the finish of his last Cup race, albeit three laps down due to a slow start and then a brief meeting with the wall that cut a tire. Nobody expected him to win — unlike, say, the Talladega race last month where he won the pole — and that was forgivable.
He has embraced the role of the sport’s Most Popular Driver ever since he took over the mantle of the Earnhardt legacy after the fatal crash of his father. At the close of this season, surely the popularity became a distraction.
In a similar mode to Truex’s equilibrium, the son of the seven-time champion never complained about his fate, which included the pertinent issue of not having Earnhardt Sr.’s other-worldly talent behind the wheel or his stamina.
If Earnhardt saw the sport of stock car racing as a test of manhood, it came down to what kind of man he wanted to be. His popularity is due to an honest effort to share his own experience and world view, one that is passionate about racing but never too far away from humor. He may not have the swagger, but he surely has the Earnhardt confidence.
It’s hardly the end for the host of Dirty Mo’s radio show. Earnhardt, who will work as a broadcaster for NBC Sports next year, repeated his plans to race in the Xfinity Series occasionally in cars fielded by his own team and will pursue another championship next year with Elliott Sadler as a follow-up to JR Motorsports driver William Byron’s title run on Saturday.