Who Cares About Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

NASCAR fans love him. Everyone else barely knows who he is.

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic) discuss the NASCAR fan divide.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back. Back celebrating, that is. After four years of failure and not-quite-good-enough, NASCAR's most beloved driver lifted a trophy at Michigan International Speedway on last Sunday, snapping a 143-race losing streak that predated the Obama administration. Trackside reporting from ESPN.com's David Newton described grinning crew members, screaming fans, and driver Brad Keselowski quipping, "the nation can return to sanity." To paraphrase Joe Biden, it was a BFD.

So how come those of us outside NASCAR Nation were completely clueless?

Here's the thing: I like sports. A lot of what I do for a living involves writing about them. I've covered the Olympics, NBA halftime acts and professional foosball. Nevertheless, I'm stock-car illiterate. Don't follow, hardly watch, only know what the most casual, SportsCenter and/or PTI fan knows. And I knew absolutely nothing about Junior's losing streak. Zilch. Didn't know it began before the financial crisis. Didn't know it was the talk of auto racing. Didn't know how badly fans wanted him to win—or, as Newton put it, "in NASCAR this is as close to a national holiday as it gets. There will be Earnhardt fans so hung over on Monday that they probably won't get to work. Tuesday might be a day off, too."

I didn't know any of this because nobody told me. Until this week, I had never heard a single word, disparaging or otherwise, about Earnhardt Jr.' s earn-a-degree-in-less-time losing skid. Not even from other sportswriter friends. Which is strange. Strange because it's exactly the sort of too-crazy-to-be-true talking point that ought to escape sport-specific chatter and thrive in broader, more casual conversations.

To put things another way: I'm not much of a golf fan, either. But I know all about Tiger Woods' inability to win a major tournament since his personal life imploded, enough to hold my own in a barstool argument. It's impossible to be around sports—to be around televisions, really—and not have a passing familiarity with certain story lines, even if you don't actually care about them.

(If there's isn't a German word for this phenomenon, someone needs to coin one, and make "Kardashian" the root).

But Junior? To me and other NASCAR non-devotees, he's the genial guy splitting time in the Wrangler commercials with retired Brett Favre. His long slog of losing sped—but not too fast—right past our cultural radar traps. Hampton, you're a fan. What does Earnhardt Jr.'s victory mean to your tribe? And if stock car racing's biggest star could go 0-fer for the equivalent of two Congressional terms without the rest of us noticing, what does that mean for the sport?


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Sports Roundtable

Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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