NASCAR needs an Earnhardt Jr. victory

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:16 AM ET

When the NASCAR Sprint Cup Crown Royal 400 starts at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday the majority of those at the track and those watching on television will have a vested interest in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

This is no supposition. Earnhardt is the most popular driver in the sport by a country mile and it’s a guarantee that the grandstands at the Richmond track will be awash in a sea of green and white — the primary colours of his Amp Energy drink-sponsored car.

Cheering even harder for the 35-year-old Earnhardt to win will be the NASCAR bosses themselves.

No coincidence

You see it is no coincidence that in the 684 days since Earnhardt last visited victory lane on June 15, 2008 at Michigan International Speedway NASCAR has watched as its tickets sales slowed significantly and television ratings dropped precipitously.

NASCAR race officials may scoff at any such correlation but the bean counters down at its Daytona Beach headquarters have no such doubts.

Just look at the evidence. In its efforts to halt the drastic effects of these uncertain economic times, NASCAR has been as pro-active as any professional sport on the planet.

It has changed rules allowing for more aggressive on-track racing; it has dropped ticket prices and locked in television starting times to lure spectators and viewers back to the sport.

For heaven’s sake NASCAR even changed the car — removing the universally despised rear-wing — in the hope of appeasing its core fans.

Yet there has been no corresponding swing in either tickets sales or TV numbers.

A win at Richmond by the No. 88 Chevrolet, however, could very well be the panacea that NASCAR has been so desperately seeking.

For those who would suggest that such a theory is simplistic and that NASCAR’s problems will all go away once the mighty U.S. economy gets back to feeling its oats, check out tape from last week’s Aaron’s 499 from Talladega Superspeedway.

For extended periods in that race Earnhardt looked as if he could win and was near the front in all three of the green, white, checkered restarts. And through it all the stands were rocking and fans were standing, cheering.

On the TV side the ratings soared almost 5% from the same race a year earlier where Earnhardt was not a factor. The raw numbers — 7.99 million viewers in 2009 to 8.5 million last week — are indisputable.

Those numbers are sure to hold up at Richmond where Earnhardt generally does well.

It won’t hurt the numbers either that Earnhardt’s popularity had some added notoriety this past week when the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer linked him to the marriage breakup of University of Kentucky defensive line coach Tommy Cook and his wife Amy Reimann.

Reimann, an interior decorator who was hired to remodel Earnhardt’s home near Charlotte, N.C., has been a regular at races since she completed the job.

While it may be easy to pass this kind of gossip as merely tabloid fodder, remember these were the same people who were the first to report on Tiger Wood’s disgraced personal life.

And now Cook’s father as publicly backed the Enquirer version of events.

Not talking

“My son’s not talking about this. No one in the family is. All I can say is (the Enquirer) story’s true ... Amy and Dale have been involved for a while,” Tommy Cook Sr. told the paper.

It is also true that Earnhardt — unlike Woods — is single and if there’s cheating involved he isn’t the culprit.

It all sets up Saturday’s Crown Royal 400 as a race to watch and that is something that NASCAR — while denying to the hilt that it has any interest in salacious gossip — has to see as a good thing.

dean.mcnulty@sunmedia.ca


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