Blog Entry

Like Tiger, Junior propels his sport

Posted on: April 6, 2011 2:40 pm
Edited on: April 6, 2011 2:41 pm
By Pete Pistone

A pair of athletes will significantly influence the sports viewing landscape this weekend - Tiger Woods and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Although neither have been particularly competitive in recent times, both names are still incredibly huge in their respective sports and each transcends their arena to mainstream fans and media.

So just as if golf will prosper if Woods becomes a factor in the sport’s most prestigious event at The Masters, Earnhardt’s performance in Saturday night’s stop at Texas Motor Speedway will surely impact NASCAR’s exposure.

You need to look no further than last week’s race in Martinsville to gauge whether or not Earnhardt is still popular or relevant. Despite not winning a race in nearly three years over the span of 98 races, when Earnhardt took the lead late in the race the packed grandstands erupted in a roar that thundered through the nearby Virginia mountains.

While ten other drivers also were in front at some point in Sunday’s 500-lap race, none elicited the kind of response Earnhardt did when he went to the lead.

FOX reports an overall television rating of 3.9/9 share for the race, down a bit from a comparable Martinsville event two years ago. But that number jumped to an eleven share of households watching the race when Earnhardt muscled around Kyle Busch and appeared on his way to victory lane.

Whether you like it or not the sport’s perennial Most Popular Driver is still the name that creates the most interest and can help bring the sport back from a couple years of mediocrity in the popularity department.

At least early on the science experiment by team owner Rick Hendrick to mix and match the driver and crew chief lineup sans Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus is paying dividends.

Jeff Gordon ended his long winless drought with a victory at Phoenix with new chief Alan Gustafson calling the shots. Mark Martin has regained the consistency that eluded him last year in his new pairing with Lance McGrew.

But maybe the most dramatic results have been the marriage between Earnhardt and Steve Letarte.

The cheering and motivating style of Letarte at first seemed a glaring contrast to be paired with the sometimes quiet and pensive Earnhardt.

“He’s a bit of a motor boat,” Earnhardt said when asked early on about his new relationship with Letarte.

However now with an off-season of planning, pre-season testing and six races under their belts, the Letarte-Earnhardt combo has been nothing short of impressive.

He was in the mix to win the Daytona 500 until a cut tire ended that quest and relegated Earnhardt to a 24th place finish. But since then it’s been a strong of solid runs that came to a crescendo at Martinsville when the No. 88 team’s effort ended in a runner-up finish to Kevin Harvick, Earnhardt’s best effort since New Hampshire back last September.

"My biggest problem is my confidence," said Earnhardt, who frankly didn’t convey any over his first three years as a member of Hendrick Motorsports. "I know that I've outran and beat these guys that I compete with each week before, and I just have to remember that the potential is there. I believe in myself, but there's a swagger that you have to have."

That’s where Letarte comes in.

Almost immediately Letarte worked to build his driver’s confidence level and mental state before the two ever got to the racetrack.

“I felt it was important to build a relationship together on and off the track,” Letarte said. “We’ve known each other for a while but it’s a lot different when you work together as closely as we are now as crew chief and driver. The gain that trust, to help that psyche to me those first steps were important for us to become friends and we have. I think you’re seeing some of that translate to how we’re running on the race track.”

That same philosophy was evident in Letarte’s previous relationship with Gordon and although they weren’t able to get to victory lane together the bond between the two was credited for the several solid runs they enjoyed.

"It helps me so much to have him pushing me," Earnhardt said. "This is one race out of a long, long season, but this is the first time in a long time that I didn't feel like I was out on an island, you know, out there by myself.

"It's almost like he's riding in the car with you, punching you in the shoulder …. 'Come on, don't overdrive it. Dig! Dig!' I appreciate that. It makes me want to work."

Communication is a two way street and Letarte thinks Earnhardt has gotten much better at providing him with the information necessary to make the car better, an element that seemed to be lacking in previous crew chief relationships.

"When it comes to driver-crew chief feedback, my theories are it's my responsibility to lead him down the right path and ask the right questions because he's distracted, he's driving, he's busy," Letarte said. "It's his responsibility to answer the questions the best to his ability and if that's an 'I don't know' that's what I need, and he does a very good job of that."

So in a relatively short period of time Earnhardt has gone from also-ran to a driver that can legitimately contend for wins, and yes that’s plural.

In fact I see the winless drought ending in the next trio of April races beginning with Saturday night’s Texas visit with Talladega and Richmond left on the schedule this month. All are tracks where Earnhardt has enjoyed past success and all are places where there’s no reason to believe he doesn’t have a solid chance at taking the checkered flag.

NASCAR is a better place when Earnhardt is a factor. While I won’t go so far as to say the sport needs him to win, it sure would be a shot in the arm if and when he does.


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Since: Dec 4, 2007
Posted on: April 9, 2011 9:01 am

Like Tiger, Junior propels his sport

Wear other colors sure...but i don't know about root against him

Since: Aug 15, 2006
Posted on: April 8, 2011 8:59 am

Like Tiger, Junior propels his sport

The reason Junior is so popular is because of the Press Pete,  People like you, who hugged and kissed this man's rear because he is the son of a legend who died in 2001. 

I have nothing against Junior, I just hate those who keep talking about him like he is the best driver on the track.  The press and the fans. 

He came in second and that is great for Junior but who came in second the week before and why aren't you talking about that too?  Who came in second at Daytona?  why aren't we talking about that?  Because the Press is afraid if they don't talk about Junior on a weekly basis we may forget about Dale Earnhardt. 


I'm not a Tiger Woods fan and we all know why he got all the press when he came into the sport.  But guess what he has backed up those Accolades by winning tournament after tournament, major after major.

Junior hasn't really come close to sniffing a championship let alone win one. 

I understand he is the most popular driver and it is always good for the sport when the most popular driver wins.  But remember there are more fans who root against him and wear the other drivers colors than there are those that wear the green and white.

Since: Aug 27, 2009
Posted on: April 7, 2011 9:30 pm

Like Tiger, Junior propels his sport

@shieltkle ( spellcheck ) previous post below this one.

Why do you have to ask as to why Tony Stewart is not as popular as JR? Earnhardt's father was what made Nascar is what it is today when it comes to entertainment and marketing. He carries the name and the sport on his back. If he did have the personality that he does he wouldn't be so popular. Plus the fact that he came into the sport at the perfect time in his fathers career. Then the death of the Legend it only helped JR's popularity even more.

Since: Sep 22, 2006
Posted on: April 7, 2011 5:03 pm

Like Tiger, Junior propels his sport

First, whatever you might think, I don't hate Junior.  He's an up-standing, honest guy and pretty likeable, overall.  He has a tough role, as the son of a legend, and he's managed it pretty well, thus far.  He also had a good measure of success early on, and is still a good driver--though, as he admits (and more credit to him for it), he hasn't had the "swagger" to get over the top of late. 

Nevertheless, I too am baffled by his immense popularity.  Tony Stewart is a pretty likeable guy too, and there is no one more honest and up-front than Smoke.  Why isn't HE the favorite? 

I don't know, and it doesn't really matter.  Proper analogies or not, the fact is people pay money, tune in, whatever, to watch Dale Junior, and that IS good for the sport.  He's not MY favorite driver, and while it would be nice to see him get the monkey off his back, I will NOT cheer any louder when he takes the lead, but if that's what puts butts in seats, more power to him.  As I said, he's a patient, gracious, honest spokesman for his sport, and NASCAR is better for having him.

Since: Aug 27, 2009
Posted on: April 7, 2011 4:15 pm

Like Tiger, Junior propels his sport

@ giveit2god

    As a Tiger fan and JR fan. I completely understand what the writer is saying. He is talking about hte popularity not their careers. Read it again. Maybe this time try reading it slower so you can understand it better.

Since: Sep 7, 2007
Posted on: April 7, 2011 9:39 am

Like Tiger, Junior propels his sport

I agreed with the point of the article until they started branching out into how LeTarde is a such a great crew chief for Earnhardt. Its obvious that he is good for the sport, but should Jr. really be applauded for communicating with the crew chief during the race.. the same thing that the other 42 drivers do while behind the wheel. If there was a way of putting a salary cap on how much teams can spend on race cars.. wind tunnel, practicing on identical tracks, etc., then we could find out what kind of racer he really is.

Since: Sep 20, 2006
Posted on: April 7, 2011 9:23 am

Like Tiger, Junior propels his sport

I don't get it. Tiger stands on his own laurels by his past success. JR has never had that type of success. I just don't get why everyone loves him? Because he's the son of a legend? There are lots of sons of legends that are not popular 'just because'. Why is it that he is so revered? I grew up watching Yarbrough, Petty, Bonnett, etc. and I still don't get it. As far as I see it, he's nothing more than an above average race car driver. That's it. I'm not trying to be mean, I'm just hoping someone can explain to me why. 

Since: Oct 17, 2006
Posted on: April 6, 2011 10:09 pm

Like Tiger, Junior propels his sport

I see the analogy. He is not comparing careers, he is comparing their popularity and the dedication of  their fans. He is plain and simple saying that Junior is to Nascar what Tiger is to golf and that they are good for the respective sports. When Tiger plays on Sunday, ratings go up. When Jr. takes the lead, ratings go up.  Thats it.

Since: Oct 8, 2010
Posted on: April 6, 2011 8:58 pm

Like Tiger, Junior propels his sport

As a Junior fan I hate this story.  In no way does it make good analogies.  This is why NASCAR writers should stick with strictly talking about NASCAR issues. 

Junior has won sure, but to say that Tiger and him are even on the same level just because Tiger has struggled with a new swing change? Says NOTHING.  I have played golf since I was 5, runner-up in the state finals, chances to play at the college level and a swing change is huge. It will mess you up for up to years.  The thing is no matter how bad Junior is Tiger still is not mediocre.  Tiger has won championship after championships..meaning majors, FEDEX, and etc.  I just don't see the correlation.  Good try, but try harder.  Horrible article. 

Since: Dec 4, 2007
Posted on: April 6, 2011 8:07 pm

Like Tiger, Junior propels his sport

i guess you can skew it to any context that fits your hate

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