BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - The following is a commentary blog from FOX6 Sports Director Rick Karle:
The caution flag came out with only fourteen laps remaining in Sunday's Aaron's 499 Sprint Cup race at Talladega. Our FOX6 sports photographer, an unabashed fan of Dale Earnhardt, Jr, ran to me and said, "Junior stands in 37th place, but he still has time to make his way through the field and win this race." A half later, Junior climbed from his race car looking fatigued (wouldn't you be after a Dega race?), but still willing to talk with a few TV reporters after finishing 26th. You see, the son of "The Intimidator" looked nothing of the sort on Sunday, and I'm wondering if the new Chase format is much to blame.
"Why wouldn't Junior fight the fight? Why wouldn't he do all of his fans proud (which numbered in the thousands at Dega) and once again show the world by he's so loved?", you ask. I cornered Earnhardt, Jr outside his rig alongside the Fox network folks and heard, to my dismay, NASCAR's most popular driver say this: "You know they're going to crash and I can't afford to wreck anymore" (actually, Junior, Hendrick Motorsports CAN afford to wreck, but I get your point). Junior went onto say, "You've just got to pick your battles, and I felt like we were better off not getting in a wreck and trying to stay back there." My first thought was, "What? An Earnhardt laying back, refusing to give his fans what they spend their hard-earned money to see?" I walked back to the Talladega media room where Earnhardt's logic became more clear.
The Sprint Cup series has implemented a new Chase formula in 2014- bottom line: If a driver wins a regular-season race, he's all but assured himself a spot in The Chase. There you have Junior's reasoning. Why fight through a field that would likely wreck (in fact the field did wreck with a few laps remaining), put your health in jeopardy (Junior suffered a concussion in a multi-car crash in 2012), and waste sheet metal on another race car? He's already assured of making The Chase!
I believe the NASCAR big-wigs need to address this new Chase formula. When the race world's biggest star decides to throw in the towel at Talladega, fans are cheated the sport is cheapened. When I go to Talladega Superspeedway, I want to see the sport's greatest stars duke it out to the checkered flag. The new Chase formula is taking that competitiveness away from fans that mean so much to the sport.
Mike Helton, Brian France, are you listening? Address this problem in a hurry, or you will have more fans leaving the sport, less commitment from those fans, and a further decline in television ratings. As a race fan, I want Dale Earnhardt, Jr at his best- don't you?