Checkers or wreckers: we’re all-in with Junior

Published 11:28 am Monday, February 20, 2017

It’s SpeedWeeks, racing fans.  The Clash will be run tonight (Saturday), the annual 75-lap/187.5-mile race split in two segments, separated by a mandatory caution period at Lap 25. The race features: 2016 pole winners, former Clash champions, former Daytona 500 pole winners who competed full-time in 2016 and drivers from the 2016 playoffs. 

This year it celebrates 38 years since it was inaugurated as the Busch Clash in ‘79.

Tomorrow (Sunday) comes qualifying for ‘The Great American Race’: the Daytona 500.  Only the two front-row spots will be decided Sunday because Thursday will feature the Twin-125 Duals to set the starting grid for the rest of the 500 field.

And we all know what comes next Sunday.

Last year I went with Jimmie Johnson as your 2016 Cup champion and that’s who was standing – or rather, sitting – at the dais in Las Vegas in December picking up the check and the trophy.

This year’s pick for me is Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Despite missing the last 18 Cup races from last season, Junior may be poised to finally move out of his Dad’s shadow.  He’ll be 42 this year, and in the off-season he came off the bachelor market by marrying longtime sweetheart, Amy Reimann.  NASCAR’s most popular driver the last 14 years in a row will climb back into a Cup car in competition for the first time since July, when the effects of concussions knocked him out for the rest of the season. 

Face it; the Cup series badly needs Earnhardt.  It needs his name, his talent and his fan base. When he runs up front, there generally is more fan engagement and interest around the son of the sport’s heyday black-hat, old-school superstar: the late seven-time Cup champ and Hall of Famer, Dale, Sr.  That translates to more interest in top-shelf stock car racing. Much like seeing Jeff Gordon do wheelies off into the sunset after the 2015 season, another longtime fan favorite and ex-champion Tony Stewart retired after last year, along with a near-champ in Carl Edwards. Now, with all due respect to the young guns, there’s no proven replacement in sight. Earnhardt carries a lot of star power – and a fervent Junior Nation along with him.

We should also count on Junior to help us with NASCAR’s new points system, because while it sounds gimmicky and desperate, and may not be exactly the right solution, the bottom line is that racing had to change and we need drivers like Junior, and Jimmie, and Matt, and Brad help it stay relevant.

Earnhardt said he’s excited to return to the car and is feeling like himself after doctors cleared him in December to get behind the wheel.  He credits Amy, who he walked down the aisle on New Year’s Eve, as someone who influenced him positively while he was sidelined.  He says she helped him mature and also sort out some priorities for where he is in his life right now.

On the flip side, no less than Hall of Famer Richard Petty says he wishes Junior had retired, because with memories of the late Neil Bonnet, and even Ernie Irvan, ‘the King’ doesn’t want to see another top driver chance another concussion.

Only time will tell if Junior, crew chief Greg Ives, and the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports team remain in lockstep or need a few weeks, or even months, to get their act together.

Meanwhile, every little nudge and bump that Earnhardt absorbs in the No. 88 Chevrolet will have Junior’s fans – not to mention NASCAR – holding its collective breath.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7211.