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Kevin Harvick's blunt remarks on Dale Earnhardt Jr. miss the point

Posted On Friday, 11 August 2017 13:26 Written by
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BROOKLYN, Mich. -- As the drivers take to the track at Michigan International Speedway this weekend, there's a bit of drama behind that scenes on the minds of many in the sport.
As is often the case, it involves Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- the biggest name in the sport.

What's unique this time is that it involves a fellow driver being particularly critical of the perennial Most Popular Driver, who is retiring after this season.

It all starts with Kevin Harvick, who said on his radio show this week that since Dale Jr. is most popular driver but not running up front each week or winning regularly, it has limited the growth of the sport:

"I believe that Dale Jr. has had a big part in kind of stunting the growth of NASCAR because he's got these legions of fans and this huge outreach of being able to reach different places that none of us have the possibility to reach, but he's won nine races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports and hasn't been able to reach outside of that," Harvick said.

As you can imagine, that didn't go over well among Jr. Nation, who were quick to call Harvick disrepectful (among other colorful terms) and also remind Harvick that he got his start in Cup after the tragedy that befell Earnhardt Sr. at Daytona in 2001.

Earnhardt has responded to the comments, expressing that he was hurt by them, also but staying positive and saying that he still respects Harvick:

"I found some of those comments hurtful," Earnhardt said. "I still respect him as a champion and ambassador for the sport. That's just the way it is, I guess. I hate that's how he feels."

So what's the deal?
Let me take a minute to unpack this situation.

While Harvick makes an accurate overall point (sure, NASCAR would likely have more devoted fans if Jr. had won 7 titles instead of Jimmie Johnson), in the end it's a pointless argument, because despite not winning titles and countless races, he has still done a ton to grow the sport -- just by being so omnipresent and bringing in fans other drivers can't.

First, let's look at the numbers. Harvick is correct that Dale Jr. only won 9 Cup races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports. There's no denying that.

But Jr. also won 17 Cup races in the 8 years prior to that time period, and has won the Daytona 500 twice (in 2004 and 2014). No he's not a champion in the Cup series, but he joins a lot of others in that category. Mark Martin is one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history but he never won a title. That doesn't mean anything in regard to his abilities as a racer.

Not about one guy
Harvick's biggest fallacy here is pinning the hopes of the sport's future on one guy -- that's just not right and shouldn't be the approach fans or the sport as a whole take.

At MIS on Friday, Clint Bowyer (a teammate of Harvick) echoed this sentiment, saying:

"He carried that flag for that legacy a long time -- kept that fan base alive. That's not on his shoulders to be able to do that. I felt it's always been a little bit unfair for him to have that workload on him, but he's done a good job with that and it's time for us to hold up on our end of the deal and to capitalize on that. But that doesn't just mean a driver or anything else, that's the program that you see week-in and week-out"

This is spot-on, and something people like Harvick who are quick to focus on Jr. should recognize.

Point blank: NASCAR has to put on a good show -- Drivers have to be competitive, on and off the track, the racing has to be enjoyable to watch, and if that's the case you will see fans at the racetrack and tuning in on the TV and radio.
The NFL didn't go under because Peyton Manning retired, and it won't when Tom Brady or anyone else retires. Because it's not about one guy. NASCAR was OK before Dale Jr. started racing, and it will be OK after he stops racing.

As for his own take on his legacy, Jr. put out perhaps his most candid response to this point in the wake of Harvick's comments, saying: "I put a lot into this sport, and I know that I might not have met everyone's expectations, but I certainly exceeded my own and I'm super proud of what I've been able to accomplish. I hope that I brought something to the table and left a good impact."

Well said Jr., and I couldn't agree more. And that kind of positivity is part of the reason so many people like him.

Perhaps because of his name and what his father did, many people view a career with 617 starts, 26 wins, 149 top-5s, 256 top-10s, 14 poles, 8211 laps led and career earnings of $95,680,982 a failure.

But they would be wrong. The sport is better off for Dale Jr. having raced the past two decades, and far from stunting it -- NASCAR wouldn't be nearly as popular as it is now if Jr. hadn't been a part of it.

While I respect Harvick's ability to speak his mind, he missed the point on this one.

The sky is not falling, and even if it were it wouldn't be Dale Jr's fault.

Matt Myftiu can be reached on Twitter at @MattMyftiu. AutoTechReviews is on Twitter @AutoTechreview.

Matt M. Myftiu

Matt Myftiu has been a journalist for two decades with a focus on technology, NASCAR and autos.

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