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NASCAR needed Junior to break winless streak

By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press
CHARLOTTE ó Wow, does Dale Earnhardt Jr. have impeccable timing.
NASCARís golden boy crossed the finish line first just when the sport needed him most, ending a 76-race winless streak that pushed all of NASCARís problems to the backburner. Only problem is, Juniorís win Sunday in Michigan is a just brief respite from NASCARís troubling issues.
By the time his beer-soaked firesuit dries, NASCAR will be forced to deal with its whiny drivers, weakening economy and that ugly $225 million harassment and discrimination lawsuit.
NASCAR has already addressed the constantly complaining drivers, who seemingly gripe about everything under the sun these days.
From the difficulty in driving NASCARís new car, the heat inside the cockpit on a 90 degree day, long races, an even longer schedule and little to no time off, someone has found something to whine about every single week.
NASCAR finally said iEnough!î and pulled every driver in Michigan together Friday for a hastily called lecture in which president Mike Helton reminded the millionaires in the room just how lucky theyíve got it.
At first, the message seemed to have been clearly delivered based on the nonchalant attitude most drivers had about the meeting. But leave it to Tony Stewart to insinuate what everyone already knew: The real message Helton sent was one of ishut up and drive.î
iAsk Mike Helton. I donít know what weíre allowed to say and what weíre not,î Stewart said during his post-race radio interview on Motor Racing Network. iIím just thankful weíre allowed to be here. Itís just a privilege for us to be here, and according to Friday, weíve all got it a lot better than a lot of us think.
iWeíre not allowed to have opinions now. Weíve all got it made here. Weíve all got it great. At least that is what weíve all been told.î
Both NASCAR and Stewart are right on this issue.
NASCAR canít censor the drivers ó well, officials technically can, and many believe they do through questionable calls and thorough inspections ó but it defeats the season-opening message of allowing personalities to shine this year. In silencing the stars, NASCAR is dumbing down the passion and emotions that the fans yearn to see.
At the same time, though, the weekly whining by a bunch of rich men racing cars for a living might be a bit of a slap in the face to the many Americans currently feeling the economic pinch. Although television ratings are up this year, at-track attendance is down as families struggle to afford even one day at the races, let alone an entire weekend or multiple events this summer.
Bruton Smith, owner of Speedway Motorsports Inc., wants to work with other track operators on affordable attendance options that could possibly lure fans back to the track at a time when many Americans are cutting leisure travel from the budget.
The hard times arenít exclusive to the fans, either. Many teams are feeling the pinch as sponsorship opportunities dwindle and very little new money is coming into the sport. Multiple teams are jockeying for recycled business, while others are forced to fund cars out of their own pockets.
Itís created an air of nervousness around the garage, where teams such as Michael Waltrip Racing face weekly whispers of mounting financial problems.
If all that wasnít enough, NASCAR is battling claims from former technical inspector Mauricia Grant, who alleges sheís a victim of sexual harassment, gender and racial discrimination and retaliatory termination in a $225 million lawsuit filed last week.
The 40-page document paints a lurid picture of an alleged iall-boys networkî that has little tolerance for blacks or women and revives all the stereotypes that have long plagued a sport steeped in Southern traditions.
In a break from its usual silence on such issues, NASCAR has jumped to defend itself with chairman Brian France leading the charge. The sanctioning body is conducting an extensive internal investigation thatís already yielded indefinite suspensions for a pair of Grantís former co-workers, all the while maintaining Grant never once lodged a formal complaint about the way she was treated.
France is uncharacteristically visible on this issue, arguing that he would have immediately handled Grantís complaints if sheíd ever said something during her 34-month employment from January 2005 to last October. But in never speaking up in training sessions, diversity seminars, performance reviews or even her exit interview, France maintains NASCAR was blindsided by Grantís allegations.
Itís commendable to see France fighting so vigorously to defend guidelines established under his watch. But for it to be truly effective, France needs to decide if heís in or if heís out when it comes to the every day issues plaguing his sport.
Heís passionate about the Grant case, so heís out front defending the family business. But everyone knows his impromptu Saturday visit to Michigan International Speedway was lawsuit driven, and when the next problem arises, it will be hit or miss when it comes to France getting personally and publicly involved.
With all the issues surrounding NASCAR right now ó and at a time when the racing is pretty decent ó France needs to take a controlling hand and guide the organization through it. Allowing any of it to fester puts NASCAR at risk of undoing a decade of progress made toward moving into the mainstream.
If that happens, it wonít matter how many races Earnhardt wins.

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