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Madden: Earnhardt win a quick-fix

Saturday, July 14, 2001

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Given that, it's easy to question the legitimacy of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Pepsi 400 win at Daytona last Saturday. Many are, in fact. Earnhardt Jr. hadn't won a race all year, he started 13th at the Pepsi 400, then put together an improbable charge from seventh to first in the very late going.

Cars at Daytona use restrictor plates that limit horsepower, and mad dashes like that just aren't supposed to happen.

Daytona, of course, is the track where NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in a final-lap crash during the Daytona 500 Feb. 18. Earnhardt Jr.'s victory in the first race at Daytona since that tragedy symbolically avenged the death of his father while adding to the five-month passion play that has pumped up NASCAR's profile since Dale Sr. headed for that big pit stop in the sky.

There's no denying one thing: The death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. is the best thing that's happened to NASCAR.

That's not meant to trivialize the life or legend of "The Intimidator." But consider the facts:

NASCAR's television audience this year is more than double what it was at the same point last year. The first 14 NASCAR Winston Cup races on Fox TV drew 278 million viewers compared to 133 million in 2000.

The Daytona 500, of course, kicks off the NASCAR campaign. Twenty-five million tuned in the Pepsi 400 on NBC, making it the most-watched race in prime time.

Dale Sr. is attracting more viewers dead than he did alive. His passing added drama to NASCAR. It gave the sport a martyr. It emphasized the element of danger. It kicked up a controversy over safety measures.

Most important, Dale Sr.'s death gave the sport a story that made people who had never watched racing pay attention for a bit. It turned nonfans into casual observers.

People in any incarnation of the entertainment business will tell you that casual fans are where the real money is.

Hardcore fans don't go away. It's pretty tough to chase them away, in fact. But casual fans up the ante. They up ratings, they up ticket sales, they up revenues.

OK, maybe they only do it for a while. But some become hardcore fans, and then you've increased your audience permanently.

So, NASCAR benefited from Earnhardt Sr.'s death.

It benefited from Earnhardt Jr.'s victory last Saturday, too. You couldn't script that kind of headline-grabber.

Or maybe you could.

So, was the Pepsi 400 fixed?

Probably not.

It would be extremely tough to fix any big-time sporting event this side of WrestleMania. Mass media equals mass investigation. That generally leads to discovery. The sports media back in 1919 were a bunch of bumbling stooges who kissed more butt than they kicked, yet they still managed to uncover the Chicago Black Sox throwing the World Series.

Today's sports media specializes in dredging up scandal. I have no doubt a fix would be revealed.

One possibility intrigues me, however: What if Dale Jr.'s car had a less restrictive restrictor plate? Or a better engine? What if NASCAR officials winked and let something like that slide by? That would be a fix that very few people would be in on. That kind of fix would have a chance to work.

NASCAR is a shady business in the first place. The roots of auto racing can be traced to Prohibition, where drivers were needed to cart around moonshine. Fast drivers, that is. Sometimes, they had to speed away from the law. Some of those drivers became the first competitive racers.

It's supposed to be an individual sport. Yet racing teams such as Dale Earnhardt Inc. exist, and team members run interference for each other on the track. Dale Sr. was blocking for a teammate when he died. Drivers gain an advantage by drafting in a teammate's wake. Sometimes, one car will get behind another and push. Michael Waltrip pushed Dale Jr. across the finish line at the Pepsi 400.

I call it sleazy.

They call it strategy.

Anyway, I don't think the Pepsi 400 was rigged. Here's a more plausible scenario: The race was close the whole way -- which restrictor-plate racing almost always is -- then Dale Jr. jumped in front late. Everyone likes a storybook ending, even NASCAR's very competitive drivers. So they probably all said, more or less simultaneously, "Ah, what the hell. His dad died here. Let the kid have it." With that attitude prevailing and the rest of Team Earnhardt setting a few picks, victory was assured.

The soap opera rolls on. The ratings go up. The money rolls in.

Of bigger concern to me is this: Did Chan Ho Park intentionally groove that home-run pitch to Cal Ripken Jr. in the All-Star Game Tuesday?

It wouldn't surprise me. That was another storybook ending that was too good to be true.

Mark Madden's talk show is heard 4-8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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