88 Reasons Christmas Came Early for NASCAR


Tiger Woods falling apart in a U.S. Open golf tournament that ended on Father’s Day is about as fitting an outcome as there can be, in my opinion, for a person that totally failed as a father, but it was still not the most noteworthy development in the sports TV world over a busy weekend that also included some epic Euro 2012 action (how good has this tournament been, seriously?) and the Heat and Thunder battling away in the NBA Finals to strong ratings.

That honor falls to one Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won the NASCAR Sprint Cup race in Michigan, his first Cup win in more than four years after string of 143 races without a trip to Victory Lane for the driver that NASCAR desperately hopes can be its breakout star among stars. NASCAR chief Brian France was very upfront about Earnhardt’s struggles to me before the season, when he told me, “It hurts. It hurts…He’s the most popular driver in NASCAR, so it would help us if he would win.”

So as NASCAR heads to wine country for its race this coming weekend, I’d imagine a couple toasts were made by NASCAR execs after Earnhardt’s win.

NASCAR has plenty of big names, from Jimmie Johnson to Tony Stewart to Jeff Gordon, but right now they don’t have that Wayne Gretzky — or, yes, Tiger Woods — that has elevated a sport by grabbing the mainstream world by the throat with both wins and personality. Johnson won the Sprint Cup for five straight years through 2010, but despite being perhaps the classiest athlete I have ever dealt with personally, doesn’t have the big, bold personality that breaks through.

Earnhardt does have that edgier persona — and huge name recognition thanks to his legendary father –but he just couldn’t, you know, win any races.  But this season, he looked much improved and like he was finally on the way, before breaking through Sunday.

NASCAR’s dream right now would be for the 88 car of Earnhardt Jr. to start piling up some wins.  And the timing couldn’t be any better if he did, as its TV deals are up in 2014. And according to the Sports Business Daily’s John Ourand and Tripp Mickle, talks are already heating up, so an Earnhardt ascension couldn’t come at a better time for NASCAR.

The always outspoken (to put it nicely) Tony Stewart quickly pointed out after Sunday’s race that Earnhardt winning did not constitute a national holiday. But for NASCAR, if the 88 car heats up, it will definitely be Christmas come early.