Clinton, S.C., Friday, February 28, 2014, 8:50 a.m.
It’s the last day of February, and in three out of every four years, I think about the unlucky souls born on Feb. 29, which, of course, only occurs during leap years.
I could use a leap year, which, of course, this isn’t. Undoubtedly, this is a big day for birthdays since all the 29ers – that should be a Rookie League team in Leap Year, Iowa, and, by gosh, there should be a Leap Year, Iowa, or perhaps Louisiana where they’d figure out a better way to celebrate it – get thrown into the pool of 28ers.
At this point, it’s appropriate for me to point out that I’m not a 29er. But I sympathize.
Having a Feb. 29 birthday must be a little like being the low man on a totem pole, though I feel it incumbent to confess that I’m hardly an expert on totem-pole etiquette. I’m just guessing that the high man is more important. The low man might be his barber.
The Tlingit word for “barber” is *oh hoy kai qoonqua.
So what do the 29th of February and totem poles have to do with Sunday’s The Profit on CNBC 500, which is actually 312 miles and will take place at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, Ariz.?
Well, the name is just as confounding as the phantom birthday.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., and by extension NASCAR, has momentum, which is sort of like knocking down every pin except one at the local lanes. Momentum only matters if he picks up the spare. It would be quite the accomplishment for Earnhardt to win again. Phoenix could scarcely be more different from Daytona. The good news is that Earnhardt has won there twice, but the bad news outweighs the good in that the track has been reconfigured since Earnhardt won and both victories occurred during George W. Bush’s first term.
Earnhardt’s former victory at the Desert Mile, on Nov. 2, 2003, was memorable, not for what happened in the race but in the media conference afterwards. At the side of the interview room was a window. While Earnhardt was answering questions, one of his fans walked up to the window and flashed him. Showed breasts. As you may have suspected, it was a woman.
Junior’s reaction? “Man, it gets crazier and crazier, don’t it? The demographic is changing. I hope it keeps changing.”
At the time, Earnhardt Jr. was 29. Between his Phoenix victories, he won his first Daytona 500. Some would suggest a correlation, but, actually, it was a coincidence, albeit one that could be duplicated on Sunday.
Now he’s 39, and the odds of being flashed during a media conference are probably a bit less. Let’s just say the nature of his appeal has changed. Junior once had the fan base of the early Beatles. Then it was an Elvis appeal. Now he’s picking up the Conway Twitty demographic.
It’s still huge, the fan base. It’s grown up with Earnhardt. Some of it grew up with his dad. It’s drinking a few less Budweisers and a few more Diet Mountain Dews. Ten years ago he won six races. He’s won four in all the years since.
Amid all the hurrahs, for the first time, it’s conceivable that one day there might be a last one.
There’s still time for a rebirth, a prime to go along with a golden age. This morning I read a story expressing the view that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a future NASCAR Hall of Famer right now, regardless of whether or not he ever wins another race. I don’t buy that. He needs more victories. He needs at least a championship. Besides, it’s impossible to measure until the final flag has fallen on a career.
He has plenty of time to establish the mantel of greatness, but this is the time to get started. If there is a grand destiny, it’s time to fulfill it.
For what it’s worth, I really hope he does.
*I made this up.