When a favored athlete plays his (or her) last game, we feel good for him. He knows when to leave.
But we feel sad for us. We’re accustomed to watching him compete. The field, court or track might be full of athletes. Yet he’s the one we see.
I don’t want to embellish this. I don’t follow NASCAR the way I do the NFL, NBA, college basketball or boxing. But I will very much miss Dale Earnhardt Jr. I’ll miss watching him on the track and talking to him off of it. Earnhardt, 43, has six more races, with no break between them. His NASCAR Cup career will end in south Florida Nov. 19.
Although the decline of NASCAR’s popularity has been well documented, nobody has attempted to document the decline of Earnhardt’s. He is the sport’s name, face and personality, and he might lead greater Charlotte in the coveted Pictures of an Athlete Taken with a Cell Phone category. His image and his time are craved.
Earnhardt has never won the sport’s major league Cup championship but he dominates its annual popularity contest. He has won the Most Popular Driver Award 14 consecutive years. He’ll this year stretch the streak to 15.
And if he is spotted driving past a track next season, he’ll probably win his 16th.
Yes, he had a famous and enormously talented and driven dad, the late Dale Earnhardt, and that staked him to a head start.
But he brought new fans in. He was young when fans weren’t. He wore a cap backward, attracted counter-culture types and more than anybody provided a link between old-time fans and their children. If you wore a cap backward you were hip in NASCAR at the time.
That link has expired, but it’s not his fault. As he has grown older, his popularity has more to do not with what he represents but with who he is. A lot of people who attract attention – and I’m certainly not talking exclusively about athletes – are changed by the experience. Do you know who I am?
I’d bet a sizeable sum that if Earnhardt has ever said, “Do you know who I am?” he was being sarcastic. His humility is disarming.
I need to stop before I turn Earnhardt into the Dali Lama in a fire suit.
I talked to Dali Earnhardt Jr. twice in his hauler at Charlotte Motor Speedway, just the two of us. I’d throw out a question and he’d react. I asked him about an unpopular driver at the time, and Earnhardt answered immediately: “He drives the X car,” Earnhardt said, X being the number of the guy’s car.
The answer was funny and quick and he was going to say no more about him. In the course of the conversations, Earnhardt talked about respecting others and about not making a big deal out of what he is.
Before I left I asked Earnhardt what his legacy would be.
He thought for a moment and said it might be respecting others and not making a big deal out of what he is.