[media-credit name=”Brad Keppel” align=”alignright” width=”227″][/media-credit]One has to admire Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Even though medical test couldn’t show that he had a concussion, he knew something was wrong and the symptoms indicated that he shouldn’t drive a stock car. How many drivers would have come to the same conclusion? If the comments of Jeff Gordon are any indication, not very many would have. The old adage about a good athlete playing through pain does not equate to traveling at high speeds in a Sprint Cup car. I am reminded of a recent conversation with former All-American quarterback Pat White, who suffered a concussion while playing for the Miami Dolphins. When asked if he might suit up again, he commented, “Life’s too precious.” And it is.
The fear is now that Earnhardt will come back too early, and the pressure is on for him to return in two weeks. That shouldn’t even be a concern to Earnhardt. Despite reports that people were leaving the campgrounds upon learning of Earnhardt’s absence from Charlotte Motor Speedway (by the way, I saw no such exodus from the Hellmann’s campground on Thursday. The place was empty anyway), Junior’s health is more important and he is to be commended for visiting Dr. Petty and getting treatment.
The issue of attendance is in play because lately NASCAR’s top series has been playing to less than good crowds. This weekend, the “official” attendance figures were a joke. The Nationwide Series race on Friday night was poorly attended and the 100,000 estimate for Saturday night’s Sprint Cup race was laughable. The campground that I have parked in for several years was nearly empty before the Earnhardt announcement. Once upon a time, you had to squeeze into your camping space, but no more. There was a hundred yards between our camper and the next attendant. It was the same all over the speedway property campgrounds. Traffic was so sparse that for the first time, a quick trip to the grocery could be taken a couple of hours before the race without problems. The reasons are many and have little to do with the absence of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. So what is it?
The NASCAR line is it’s the economy, as we’ve mentioned before in these pages, but it’s a lot more than that. Take this weekend as an example. With temperatures in the low fifties by the time the Friday night race started, many people just decided to skip the event, which was a shame. It was action packed from start to finish. Saturday night was somewhat different. With tickets costing upwards of $100, more people attended. It’s obvious to everyone but those in charge that a night race in October is not the best idea. I doubt that will change anything, but it is a reason.
Secondly, unlike the Nationwide race on Friday, the Cup race was less than exciting. With Chase points so precious, as well as fuel mileage rearing its ugly head, drivers were cautious and not very racy. The race started with a wonderful side-by-side battle between Greg Biffle and Mark Martin and morphed into several runaway leads. The only excitement was who would run out of fuel and who wouldn’t coupled with a final push by Denny Hamlin that fell way short. The Chase has become so important that taking chances and actually winning races is secondary to how many points might be gained on any given night. Headlines from scribes much more talented than me were dominated on how many points Brad Keselowski lost to Jimmie Johnson and how far behind Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth were in the “big picture.” No matter that Kenseth had just won Talladega. He and Biffle are non-factors. Clint Bowyer’s win was only significant because he narrowed the gap in the almighty Chase. Madness.
Attendance at races, contrary to popular belief, has more to do with a championship or a single driver. Each event should stand on its own with every driver not seeking points, but victories. That’s the way it used to be. The winner each week was the champion and got the spoils of victory for the week. Maybe it’s the fact that so many don’t have a realistic chance at victory these days. It wasn’t whether you drove for a certain team or manufacturer. It was desire and ingenuity. And the race was the ultimate in any given week. Those days are gone with playoffs and wild cards, more suited to stick and ball sports than racing ruling the roost. I hope Junior uses his head and makes sure he is ready to race again and does not succumb to pressure. As Pat White would say, “life’s too precious,” and points are only points.