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Monday, July 9
Skeptics question Junior's win
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Conspiracy theorists, start your
Actually, they've been ready since the celebration ended
Saturday night at Daytona and Dale Earnhardt Jr. left with his
victory in the Pepsi 400.
Earnhardt won the first race at the track since his father was
killed Feb. 18 in a last-lap wreck in the Daytona 500.
Junior was pushed across the finish line by Michael Waltrip, the
teammate who won the 500 with his help. In a late charge from
seventh to first, Earnhardt's car seemed to defy the laws of
physics on a track where carburetor restrictor plates limit
horsepower and almost always keep drivers close.
In virtually every aspect, the storybook triumph seemed too good
to be true. Many skeptics think maybe it really was.
No fewer than a half-dozen newspaper columnists wrote Monday
about the "wink-wink-nod-nod aspects of the result," in the words
of the Tampa Tribune's Martin Fennelly. All day, the talk show
hosts said it and the Internet users posted it.
"A guy asked me just earlier today, and that's the first I heard of it,
and I about knocked the hell out of him," Earnhardt Jr. said Monday on CNN/SI's Sports Tonight. "I don't know what to say to people
"Apparently they don't know what they're talking about because I race my ass off and I'm proud of the victory."
Is a fix a ridiculous notion? Of course it is, for any big-time sport.
But NASCAR has taken a very slow, increasingly awkward path into
the spotlight. It hasn't quite gained the level of respect it
yearns for, as all this second-guessing proves.
Once a sleepy Southern pastime filled with good ol' boys who
couldn't tell a ratings point from a restrictor plate, it has
become a riveting soap opera doubling as sport in the 4½ months
since The Intimidator's death.
Safety issues have cast a cloud. Fans and media -- all paying
more attention than ever before -- have put NASCAR on the spot,
wondering if it is leveling with the public and doing everything in
its power to protect the drivers.
Crucial doubts on that front have left NASCAR open to questions
about everything else, too ' including the sanctity of a result so
dramatic it almost seems corny.
"You don't go by yourself on the outside and make that kind of
time up," Johnny Benson said of Earnhardt's late-race push to the
front. "But it's OK. It was good that Junior won."
It's not the first time NASCAR has been accused of fashioning a
Nobody can forget Richard Petty's final victory in 1984. The
King of racing earned his 200th win on July 4th, with President
Reagan in the crowd. Fairy tale stuff, indeed.
But there's really no need to turn the clock back so far to find
examples of NASCAR's credibility gap.
NASCAR has brandished a reputation as being one of the very few
governing bodies in sports that tinkers with the rules on a
consistent basis, sometimes from month to month, or moment to
Tony Stewart lost 20 places in the final standings of Saturday's
race when he received the black flag for crossing the yellow line
at the bottom of the track.
NASCAR has always played it loose with that rule, but before the
race, drivers were warned that enforcement would be stringent. Of
course, the announcement came with the caveat that all rulings were
subject to "NASCAR's judgment" -- no black and white there.
You say Fords are running too well on restrictor-plate tracks?
No problem. NASCAR will tweak a spoiler or adjust a metal strip on
the car to let the Chevys catch up.
For one night, NASCAR could have done that just for Junior, the
biggest cynics might say. Naturally, NASCAR officials deny the fix
was in Saturday night, and there are facts to back them up.
A quick reality check:
Earnhardt and Waltrip also had the two best cars at the Daytona
500 - proof that the teams at Dale Earnhardt Inc. clearly have
found some edge in restrictor-plate racing.
On his final pit stop, Earnhardt changed four tires, something
none of the six drivers he overcame during his charge to the front
had done. It's much easier to pass the way Earnhardt did on four
fresh, well-handling tires than the worn ones the vanquished
drivers were using.
"I don't think it was fixed by any means," driver Jeremy
Mayfield said, being questioned on the Tony Kornheiser radio show.
"They were prepared and ready to win."
Still, this is a day for Doubting Thomases, and they have plenty
Remember what NBC did last week? Network producers admitted
giving drivers a little pep talk about post-race celebrations.
Don't forget to smile, they said.
No, the network executives bristled, they weren't trying to
stage celebrations in Victory Lane. But yes, a little post-race
excitement wouldn't hurt. It is, after all, a $2.8 billion TV
Spinning doughnuts in the infield after his victory, making a
mosh-pit dive into the arms of his crew, Earnhardt gave the fans
and TV cameras everything they could have hoped for Saturday night.
There was no way that kind of scene could have been staged. Or
so we'd like to believe. Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories
|Earnhardt Jr. hugs NASCAR president Mike Helton, right, after winning the Pepsi 400.|