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Dale Earnhardt Jr., Stupid Tandem Racing, & Jimmie Johnson’s Frustration

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Three strikes and out it should go! This new two-car style plate racing is ridiculous. Having to rely on a teammate has sucked the fun out of plate racing. Gone are the days of maverick-like maneuvers and exciting finishes. In fact, this new style is like the dementor of NASCAR racing. Or maybe NASCAR is the dementor of plate racing—I haven’t quite worked that one out yet.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been my driver from the day he started racing. To watch him plate race has been nothing short of thrilling—the man can work those tracks and make insane moves like no other. I used to look forward to Daytona and Talladega. Sadly, that anticipation has waned.

What’s to watch? Two cars push each other around the track lap after lap after lap. And you better hope your driver’s car is superior up front! Blah! Imagine watching the Super Bowl where players can only tackle with pillows. Yeah, this style of plate racing is that nonsensical.

Relying on a teammate can turn out wonderfully (i.e. when Earnhardt pushed Jimmie Johnson to a win at Talladega). Or, it could turn into a storm of words, as was the case last Saturday night when Johnson decided to pit, leaving Earnhardt without a partner in the closing laps of the race. Many proud members of Earnhardt Nation came unglued, and Jimmie Johnson took to Twitter to defend himself.

Jimmie Johnson: “I didn’t leave Jr. hanging, you people are crazy. When my crew tells me to pit, I pit. Steve and Chad sort out the details. And if you think either of us could have won from 25th, which is where we were at the caution, you’re even more crazy. Many thanks to the sane Jr. nation and to all of my loyal 48 fans. #yourock.”

As a member of Earnhardt Nation, I did not rant and rave over Johnson’s untimely pit stop, nor did I ever think Chad’s call was due to some big anti-Dale conspiracy. Did I raise an eyebrow? Absolutely. I thought the 48 may have had a tire issue or fuel concern. To date, the reason for pitting remains unclear. Dale Earnhardt and his crew chief, Steve Letarte, seemed caught off-guard by the move. Many have said this was a simple case of miscommunication—or lack of communication. It’s a shame, especially considering how well the 48 and 88 communicated up until the very end of the race.

As for having a chance to win from 25th…well, plate racing is a unique creature. If you can avoid the wrecks and drive with guts, there is no question you have a chance to win or finish top five, even when coming from the back. Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch came from the back of the pack at the end of the race to finish 5th and 6th.

Perhaps timing was the biggest issue for the 88 and 48. Over the scanner, Jr. wanted to move forward on several occasions, but Johnson felt it more prudent to hold back a bit.

Jimmie Johnson is a five-time champion, so I don’t question his strategy. It works for him, and there are those who would go with what he recommends. For me, if I were him and had the Yoda of plate racing as my partner, I’d push him like a Jedi to the front as soon as he said “Go!” In fact, for a time, Yoda Dale got up there on his own, without a partner. This illustrates yet another problem with tandem, tango racing: two drivers have to be on the same page, despite their different racing styles.

I do feel bad that Jimmie Johnson had to field accusatory tweets from Earnhardt Nation, but I do wish he hadn’t used the word crazy. Fans, true fans, are loyal. If I were a betting gal, I’d say even he has let a few colorful metaphors fly at a referee after missing a call that cost his favorite team the win.

Athletes and fans aren’t so different, really. Emotions run high when you love your team, no matter the sport. Much like athletes, sometimes fans just need to cool down and look at the aftermath with a clear head. Maybe fans shouldn’t have bashed him…and maybe he didn’t need to call them crazy. Sometimes, emotions can get the best of everyone.

It seems like tandem racing creates more problems than not. Boredom aside, this style of racing forces drivers with very different driving styles to rely on each other for a win, eliminates any chance of making memorable moves, and, in the end, can even compel frustrated champions to take aim at equally frustrated fans.

Until NASCAR goes back to the good old days, Daytona just isn’t Daytona, Talladega isn’t Talladega, and Dale Earnhardt can’t be Yoda. What a shame.

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