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It's not easy being Mr. Popular

7/17/2009 - NASCAR

Jimmie Johnson has three Cups, a model wife and a few dollar bills. I always knew he had it pretty good. But that dude has it better than I ever dreamed.

He played golf a couple of weeks back with Arnold Palmer, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.

Really? One of the three greatest golfers ever. A president. The richest guy on earth not named Gates. And Johnson.

Charmed.

Hey Marty!

It's great to see Tony [Eury] Jr. is back at the track! I saw where he said the media really beat Junior down. Is that why the team [struggled] so bad this year when he was crew chief? Go find Junior. See what he says.

-- Randy Farmer, Asheville, N.C.

The thing about Dale Earnhardt Jr., Randy, is he's drama. Seriously. Walking, breathing drama. It's not necessarily his fault, mind you. It's more a part of being Mr. Popular. Whether or not it's fair is debatable. What isn't debatable is how ridiculous it can get. If the guy takes a leak it's news.

Some media folks -- me, certainly -- take a bunch of flack from readers about how much we cover Junior. Some of that is fair. It's overkill. But man, people love the guy. They want anything and everything they can get.

That can be good and bad for him. It means he's infinitely marketable. But it also means he can't often go out without being bothered. And you know what? Scrutiny and criticism are different things. He's used to people pulling at him every minute. He's not used to people so harshly criticizing his ability and focus and talent.

Rarely in his career has Earnhardt faced biting criticism from media and fans, and certainly not like he faced early in 2009 in the wake of poor performance and several mental mistakes. The further it went, the worse it got.

Finally Rick Hendrick had no recourse but to make a change. He separated Earnhardt and Eury. At the track for the first time since, Eury on Thursday said the media scrutiny on Junior was too much handle.

I found Junior after qualifying Thursday to get his take.

"I got a lot of flack," he said, grinning. "Anytime I mess up on pit road everybody beats that drum and beats that drum, and everybody else was missing stalls and messing up at Vegas and California, and nobody beats those drums. But that's just the way it is. That's part of being the most popular driver in the sport."

He was asked that if he weren't so popular, if there were no microscope, if he and Eury would have been able to improve performance.

"I'm not sure, hard to say," he said. "But I doubt it. To put the responsibility on our shoulders or my shoulders, I don't think that anything that happens outside the car directly affects performance, so how we ran is really how good we were as a team -- not very good."

At least he's honest. They weren't very good. They're getting better.

But the drama is still there. He's never had a year that didn't include some kind of drama.

That assessment is "somewhat fair," he said. "But some things you bring on yourself. Ain't nobody to blame for any of that stuff. We caused some of the problems, some of the drama. I caused some of it. Maybe some of it was unwarranted; some of it certainly had to be warranted.

"What we need to do is try to mind ourselves and see if we can't have a year without drama, see if we can't have a year without starting something. I'll always try to take the high road on everything to try to keep the amount of situations going on around us to a minimum, but it's a challenge sometimes."

Earnhardt said other teams face similar situations, but with less popular drivers it's not nearly as magnified. He's right.

"I don't think anyone's void of that, anybody escapes it," he said.

And it's only going to get worse.

"In the ever-increasing world of 'get me my information now, what's happening right this moment,' that's just going to become more and more evident," he said. "More of a part of the challenge. It doesn't really bother me. I would probably have a lot more luck if I could get through a year without any problems. Hell, wouldn't everybody?"

Yep. But you're not everybody, man.

Marty,

With the way Daytona and Talladega finished, do you think these drivers are too fearless now?

-- Sol Garner, Newport Beach, Calif.

Great, great question, Sol. Several folks wondered the same. I found a guy who has some insight. Darrell Waltrip was on hand at his brother's press conference earlier this week and I asked him that very question. He's been around a while. He's seen some plate races in his day.

"That's something I've been worried to death about," Waltrip said. "These guys have been driving more reckless than they ever have before because they can't get hurt. That's where we are now with these cars.

"Sure, I'm going to block and I'll run all over you, because if I hit the wall, so what? It's soft. If I hit the wall, so what? I got a HANS device. If I hit the wall, so what? I got a big seat. I isn't gonna get hurt.

"We got comfortable like this once before with safety and we got some people hurt. So I know we're in better shape than we've ever been before, and God knows we don't want to get anybody hurt. But there is an awfully eerie feeling for me that these guys have a comfort zone with this safety thing that makes me nervous."

Thing is, Waltrip said the big wreck trend hasn't changed in decades.

"As far as I remember, that's 1972, so it's 30-some odd years ago, we've had multicar crashes at Daytona and Talladega for all those years," Waltrip said. "Every year, at the end of the year, everybody says they need to do something, they need to change something. I don't know what you could change."

Waltrip said he feels technology has outgrown the racetracks.

"Those racetracks were built in 1960 to make cars go 200 mph. Now we have cars that are a lot better than the track, so with that much banking at those big tracks, there's nothing else you can do," Waltrip said.

"You can't take a plug wire off. All you can do is restrict the engine. That's just the fact of life. It's not like it just happened. It happens every time. I wish somebody would take the time, just in the last 10 years, to figure out how many cars have been crashed at Daytona and Talladega."

Hey Marty,

Glad to see you enjoyed "The Hangover." "It's a satchel ... Indiana Jones has one." Great movie. I was browsing the Web and I saw that the fall race at Atlanta Motor Speedway is now called the "Labor Day Classic 500." I could have sworn that the race was going to be sponsored by Pep Boys not two months ago.

I remember hearing some kind of issue with the sponsor, but did Manny, Moe and Jack really bail on AMS? If so, that's too much trouble for the folks in Hampton, Ga., as of late. They need a break. Tornadoes, tires, snow, attendance, idiots chasing a tire causing the entire field to be put a lap down, and now sponsor woes? NASCAR should put up the money to repave the track and buy Ed Clark a boat. What do you think?

-- Justin L, Clearwater, Fla.

Interesting observation, Justin. I checked with AMS track president Ed Clark for you, and he said he's proud to say that things have been resolved with Pep Boys and the race will be the Pep Boys Auto 500.

"I appreciate the fan's sentiments, but our hard-working staff members are the ones who deserve a break," Clark said. "I get paid to deal with it, but they and our fans are the ones who deserve better. I wouldn't have time to use a boat anyway."

Ed's a Hokie. Love that guy.

As for "The Hangover." See it. I love movies like that, when the cast is largely obscure and make your gut hurt from laughter.

Marty,

How the [heck] does ESPN let you get away with that hair? You look like a cartoon.

-- Rick in St. Louis

Rick, I've been called Jimmy Neutron and Woody from "Toy Story" on multiple occasions. Between Mel Kiper, Brian Kenny, Barry Melrose and me, ESPN keeps Paul Mitchell in business.

That's my time. Thanks for yours. Between the Citrus Mint bath soap and the Coconut Delight shampoo at the Holiday Inn, I smell like a South Beach hotel lobby. Everyone at ESPN NASCAR will laugh when they read that.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.