Don't blame Junior for wanting to race

4/17/2007 - NASCAR

Let's be honest about this thing. Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn't risking serious injury when he jumped into Kyle Busch's car and drove the last nine laps for a rival Chevrolet team.

And he wasn't really risking missing out on the Nextel Cup's Chase for the Championship by adding three points to Busch's season total.

And while we are at it, he also wasn't gaining valuable knowledge about Hendrick Motorsports, the dominant team in Nextel Cup today. Driving nine laps in a car that had been badly damaged didn't enable Junior to uncover the magic of the Hendrick machines.

As he said when asked how the car drove: "Like it was wrecked."

The reality is that Dale Jr. jumping into another driver's car was only this:


Really cool.

There wasn't a lot of thought that went into it. It was a reminder to all of us that behind their carefully managed public personas in this don't-offend-the-sponsors era, these guys really just like to do one thing.

Get in cars and race.

There has been substantial criticism of Junior and there has been perhaps even more criticism of the sport.

"This was a dark day for racing. After Phil Mickelson misses the cut, does he go make birdie putts for Tiger Woods? Does Peyton Manning decide to throw a few touchdown passes for the Ravens on the Colts' bye week? You call this a sport?"

These questions, or something similar, were posed to me by my esteemed colleague, Woody Paige, before taping "Around the Horn" for ESPN.

I'm not sure of his exact wording because I generally try not to listen to him, but similar questions have been posed in newspapers, on Web sites and on talk shows. Can it really be a sport if one driver goes and scores points for another?

Let's not go crazy here. For those three points to matter, Busch will have to finish 12th in the Chase, three points or fewer ahead of another driver. Possibly Dale Jr.?

Do the math. These guys will have more than 3,000 points by then. Is there one chance in a thousand of this happening?

Probably not.

What you really have to admire about the whole goofy scene is that Dale Jr. could have been the driver who pitched a fit and left Texas Motor Speedway early, not Busch.

Junior had one of the best cars in the race. He's dying for a win and would have loved for it to come at Texas, where he won his first Cup race. He led 96 laps Sunday but then got knocked out of the race -- strangely enough by Busch -- in an accident that was no fault of his own.

Instead, Junior diplomatically praised his team, called it a simple case of bad luck and then stuck around long enough to be asked by a friend and member of the No. 5 car's pit crew to hop in and drive.

It was a throwback moment in a sport that is just about as far removed from its moonshine runnin' roots as the France family can possible steer it.

Meanwhile, Busch left the track, leaving his team in a lurch. And his brother, Kurt, whose hopes for victory were dashed by a green-flag pit stop just before a caution came out, had this to say when approached by an ESPN reporter:

"[Expletive] off."

The Busch boys need to lighten up. They need to take a lesson from Dale Jr., who showed that even on a bad day, the opportunity to drive a race car for a few laps -- even one that isn't his -- is a darned nice privilege, not a God-given right.

Tim Cowlishaw is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News and a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage.