Now more than ever, NASCAR needs new heroes

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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

NASCAR desperately needs a hero. There are drivers. There are winners. There are champions. But where are the racers that incite fans to tune in, to buy tickets and t-shirts, or make the ultimate sacrifice and travel to a racetrack for the weekend? And for diehard fans, what has your driver done for you lately? Remember the fall Martinsville race in 1998 when winner Ricky Rudd had to be pulled from his car? Rudd, who was an owner/driver at the time, was hoping to set a series record by winning at least one race for the 16th consecutive season. Unfortunately, his cooling system malfunctioned during the race. Cars weren't nearly as well insulated back then and the heat inside the car was so intense it melted the lead weights inside. The team threw water on the driver to cool Rudd off, but it heated to the point it blistered his back. "Any driver that has a shot at winning — that's the biggest adrenaline rush of all," Rudd said. "Winning is the best painkiller in the world." Certainly, that's what the late Dale Earnhardt was thinking after he flipped in the 1997 Daytona 500 following contact with Jeff Gordon. Although Earnhardt had gotten out of the car and climbed into the ambulance, when he saw the car had four tires and the damage was minimal he returned to the cockpit, fired up the engine and returned to battle. How many drivers today wouldn't be on a golf cart headed for the helicopter pad after an incident such as that? Robby Loomis, who runs Richard Petty Motorsports and was also crew chief for Gordon when he won his last title in 2001, witnessed the evolution from when drivers where more approachable to the pedestals many find themselves on today. "When Richard (Petty) came along, they drove to the racetrack, they didn't have motorhomes," Loomis said. "They walked through the crowd — they were part of that crowd. "If you watched the sport over the years with the helicopters and the motorhomes, the business of the schedule and the demands of the drivers there has been a disconnect that has grown out of everyday life." The very element that first attracted fans to NASCAR was the racing. Fans pulled for drivers and car brands alike. As media interest grew, the public experienced the drivers' personalities. Racers such as Petty, Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip maximized their exposure on the track and off. The King is still an autograph machine. But Loomis remembers Earnhardt's contribution, too. "You see certain drivers that work pretty hard when they're in the garage with the fans," Loomis added. "I can remember watching Earnhardt and felt when he was running bad, he worked a lot harder with the fan to win them over and keep the fans. When he was running good, it was more to the truck to the car and back. "In the late '90's when he was going through a tough time, he would work the fence harder than any of the drivers. I always admired him for that. That's the hardest time to face people." Just when the sport was losing the King from the racetrack in 1992, along came Gordon — a made for TV NASCAR driver that was quickly polished, processed and attracted throngs of female and younger fans. Gordon was the anti-Earnhardt. The California Kid first chased the seven-time champion, who represented most of the sport's blue-collar fan base, then topped him in 1995 with a title of his own. And the rivalry of the '90s was born. After Earnhardt died on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, along came Jimmie Johnson 28 races later. For the first few seasons, Johnson was Gordon lite. He had never raced against Earnhardt. He had never known what it was like to pay his dues in trainer equipment at the Cup level. And those responsible for molding Johnson's image suffocated his public persona. Despite Johnson's immense talent — and every sage in the garage admires the three-time champ's tenacity and flair — the fans have yet to embrace him. Todd Berrier, a veteran crew chief who started at Richard Childress Racing in the mid-90s when Earnhardt was at his prime, is adamant that no one can replace the Intimidator. But he sees tremendous determination in Johnson. "Jimmie Johnson will do whatever it takes," Berrier said. "He's going to be there at the end. You will always find him at the front. He won't roll over and play dead. "I question why the fans haven't gotten behind him. Maybe the sport has changed so much that there's not the time to get to the front and be controversial." On Sunday at Martinsville, the oldest track on the Cup tour, the fans were cheering for any driver that could pass Johnson. The crowd — representative of NASCAR'S most devout demographic — erupted when Juan Pablo Montoya blew by the No. 48 on Lap 140. They acknowledged the effort. And Montoya was inevitably rewarded with a third-place result. At Martinsville in April, Montoya's performance was perhaps more valiant. Montoya qualified 15th, climbed to ninth but went a lap down and fell outside of the top 25. However, he never gave up. Montoya was like a prize fighter getting off the mat and belting his way to the front. He got the lucky dog, pitted for new tires and finished 12th. But Montoya learned from his lessons and it's paid off with five finishes of fourth or better in the Chase. "Juan definitely has the killer instinct," said his former crew chief Donnie Wingo. "He's going to drive 110 percent every lap and that's whats the difference is between one team to the next. "He knows the limit. That's one thing that's helped him now over what he was. He found that limit and can keep it going for over 500 miles." Still, how aggressive a driver is allowed to be is dependent on the sanctioning body. NASCAR can penalize a driver that they believe has overstepped his boundaries. Certainly, Brad Keseslowski has the potential to be a game changer. He displays grit behind the wheel and has shown in the Nationwide Series that no one will push him around. Keselowski won the spring Sprint Cup race at Talladega but was reprimanded at Kansas Speedway by NASCAR for being too racy among the Chase contenders. Hell, isn't that the reason fans buy tickets? Yes, Keselowski exhibits moments when his yellow rookie stripe comes in handy. But the long-range promise for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s protege is bright. His current owner has been pleasantly surprised with Keselowski's progress. "Brad does drive hard," Earnhardt said. "There's all kinds of guys that don't let you go by. They won't let you pass. There's nothing wrong with that, that's how they race. You know when you're around them it will be more difficult than the next guy. People can drive however they want. As long as they're in control of their car and not bouncing off the walls or taking people out for fun, I don't have a problem with it. "Brad ain't wrecking people for the fun of it. He's trying to win races. At California, he climbed into a couple of people's head if you want to know the truth. I think a lot of people underestimate Brad. I certainly did. I underestimated how mentally tough he is." Next year, Keselowski moves into the No. 12 Dodge at Penske Racing — one of the most respected teams in motorsports. Throughout Roger Penske's storied past, he's won 13 open wheel titles and 15 Indy 500s with Rick Mears, Mark Donohue, Al and Bobby Unser, Danny Sullivan and Emerson Fittipaldi — to name a few. As Penske expands his current NASCAR operation, Keselowski will join Kurt Busch and Sam Hornish Jr. at the Cup level. Penske believes that Keselowski has long-term potential. "I've been impressed with Brad's interest in the team and his commitment," Penske said. "Watching him drive — obviously he's gotten into a couple of situations that people question but the best drivers in the world have bumped into somebody from time to time. "He's got the passion. He's got a good fan base. Certainly his association with Junior has been very helpful to him because it's been a high visibility operation. We just hope we can give him cars that he can deliver what he wants to and he'll be a longtime player with us. I think he can be a superstar." Having witnessed his share of stars, Penske believes the key to rising to a legendary level is an athlete's ability to rise to the challenge on the track and continue a sincere rapport with the fan base. Loomis has seen his share of drivers make a name for themselves on the racetrack, but their off-track actions have completely changed the athletes' perception. "I've seen Jeff or Richard be in deep discussion with us about something we think is important and leave to sign an autograph for a child or someone in a wheelchair, they'll leave us for a couple of minutes and then come back," Loomis said. "Getting back to more of that will help us reconnect with the fans for sure. "These drivers can do all the good in the world on the racetrack, but when they don't look one fan in the eye they discredit all they've done. It's hard to build those relationships. Some get it. Some don't." Dale Jr. certainly learned about fan preservation from his father. During qualifying at Michigan, he posted a decent lap, performed his media duties and then turned to the spectators waiting on the other side of the wall. As Earnhardt signed for 15 minutes, two other drivers currently in the Chase climbed from their cars, waved and walked back to the garage. No, Junior didn't make the Chase. He's having the worst year of his Cup career. But after he hit the wall for a second time on Lap 129 on Sunday and lost four laps in the process, a sizeable number of fans headed for the exits. Yes, NASCAR desperately needs a hero. Let's hope it's before the last 88 fan turns out the lights.
Tagged: Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Ricky Rudd, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr.

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