Sunday, October 10, 2010

Raiders of the Lost Earnhardt

I was a NASCAR fan when I was young, but I have not followed auto racing regularly since I was a teenager. I only recently noticed that back in July, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Subway JalapeƱo 250 at Daytona International Speedway. This was Dale Jr.'s first win in a points-earning NASCAR race since 2008. The Chevrolet that Junior happened to be driving carried a Wrangle sponsorship and the number 3. That particular combination was made famous by his father.

The race won by Junior was part of the Nationwide Series. Relative to the top-level Sprint Cup Series, the Nationwide Series and the Camping World Truck Series are analogous to minor leagues in baseball. There is one important difference however between baseball and NASCAR in this regard. Baseball players from the major leagues occasionally make appearances in the minor leagues, primarily on rehab stints while recovering from an injury. A veteran player who no longer has a contract with a major-league team may also play in the minors in an effort to work his back to the majors. On the other hand, NASCAR drivers frequently participate in races at various different levels. It is not rare to see Sprint Cup drivers racing and winning Nationwide and truck races.

When I read about Junior's win, it occurred to me that Dale Jr. has sort of become NASCAR's version of the NFL's Oakland Raiders. Fans of both remember an earlier generation when the the objects of their adoration were known for being mean, nasty and overly aggressive. Both were also known for sporting black, but more importantly they were consistent winners. They would do whatever it took to achieve victory.

When Dale Earnhardt, Sr. was racing, the major-league NASCAR series was known as the Winston Cup Series. Senior won seven series championships which is tied for most with Richard Petty. Both he and Petty were inaugural inductees of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Dale, Sr. won 76 races out of the 677 Winston Cup races that he started in during his career. That means he won 11.2% of the time. On the other hand, Junior has won 18 out of 384 Sprint Cup races. Considering that NASCAR races generally have 43 drivers in the field, winning 4.7% of the time is not shabby. However, it pales in comparison to his father's achievements.

The history of the Raiders includes three Super Bowl victories and thirteen Hall of Fame players. Their last Super Bowl victory was Super Bowl XVIII in 1984. More recently, they lost Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In the seven seasons since that Super Bowl loss, the team has only won 29 games while losing 83 for a woeful winning percentage of 25.9. Both Oakland and Junior continue to carry the names Raiders and Dale Earnhardt, but both current versions are mere shadows of the previous incarnations.

While discussing the subject of this post with El, she suggested including Johnny Cash in the mix. He was also known for wearing black and could be a bit mean. He is also dead which does not allow him to match up with his previous greatness. His first daughter Rosanne Cash has been somewhat successful in the music business. His only son, John Carter Cash, has been less successful. I suppose the analogy could fit Johnny Cash, however, I think it would be a bit of a stretch.

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