As Dale Earnhardt Jr. streaked toward his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory in four years, the foremost star of another sport was walking a path of abject failure.
When Earnhardt took the checkered flag in Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway, Tiger Woods was putting the finishing touches on a prolonged collapse in the U.S. Open Golf Championship at San Francisco’s Olympic Club.
From a NASCAR perspective, it’s a good thing Woods didn’t win the Open and siphon attention away from the victory that broke Earnhardt’s 143-race drought. It’s worth noting, however, that, exclusive of results, Earnhardt and Woods remain the most influential figures in their respective sports — but for vastly different reasons.
Woods built his career on relentless excellence. As Woods won tournament after tournament with a Zen-like focus, fellow competitors began conceding to him a psychological edge, much as Cup drivers did to Earnhardt’s father, who truly earned his nickname, “The Intimidator.”
Woods’ ability to move the needle in golf has survived a cheating scandal, a messy divorce, a rash of injuries, prolonged bouts of poor play and loss of the intimidation factor, which seemed to disappear when his aura of moral superiority was shattered.
Earnhardt’s reign as NASCAR’s most popular and influential driver has survived four years of famine, two crew chief changes since arriving at Hendrick Motorsports and failure to crack the top 20 in the standings in 2009 and 2010.
Clearly, performance has had little to do with Earnhardt’s magnetism. He is loved for an entirely different reason — his relentless, unfiltered honesty.
The quintessential distillation of Earnhardt’s ingenuous genuineness was a precious moment in his post-race press conference. Earnhardt was asked to respond to snarky comments from race runner-up Tony Stewart who prefaced his remarks with “It’s not a national holiday, guys.”
Earnhardt cocked his head, smiled his disarming smile, and said softly, “For me it is.”
And it was a holiday, of course, for Junior Nation, which — collectively and impatiently but without losing hope — had waited for this moment since the George W. Bush administration.
Stewart notwithstanding, the bandwagon creaked under the weight of those who jumped on for the ride. NASCAR President Mike Helton anointed Earnhardt as the favorite to win the Cup title. Longtime friend Matt Kenseth described him as one of the top contenders for the championship Junior has never won.
Paradoxically, Earnhardt doesn’t have to win races and contend for championships to sustain his own following — he’s been voted the Cup series’ most popular driver for the last nine years — but his success on the racetrack certainly has an impact on the popularity of the sport as a whole.
Just how much we’ll discover over the next few months, as we count TV viewers and bodies through the turnstiles.
Earnhardt’s victory also masked a number of issues that doubtless would have been singled out had someone else won the race. Tires continued to blister, despite Goodyear’s 11th-hour change to harder left-side rubber.
A narrow groove that was a lane-and-a-half wide on a repaved track made sustained side-by-side racing all but impossible. The race ended with a 60-lap green-flag run and the winner out front by 5.393 seconds.
But none of that mattered, because Earnhardt won the race and afterwards declared a holiday.
So we can leave the grousing to Tony Stewart and start celebrating — and hope the run continues.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author