Guess you heard the big buzz from Music Row. Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver, is coming to town to be a presenter at this week’s Country Music Awards.
Junior will join a ritzy rhinestones crowd that includes Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, LeAnn Rimes, Julianne Hough, Kellie Picker and other high-steppers.
The announcement came the day after Junior wobbled home near the back of the pack at Martinsville, Va., and sank two more spots in the standings, to 24th. Timing, they say, is everything, and some might question Junior’s CMA appearance amid the shambles of his season. (“We interrupt this train wreck to bring you, live from Music City …!”)
Might Junior be better served to be home working on his team’s problems instead of cavorting onstage with country music stars?
Let’s be honest: Junior going into a shell won’t fix his mess. He won’t race better by dressing in sackcloth and ashes, entering a monastery and becoming a social hermit. But while it won’t help, there’s the problem of perception.
Case in point: Last month Jeff Fisher, coach of the then 0-6 Titans, appeared at a charity event honoring former Colts coach Tony Dungy. Fisher wore a Peyton Manning jersey. It was all in fun — Manning being Dungy’s favorite player and all. But a lot of Titans fans weren’t amused to see their coach wearing the jersey of an archrival, especially amid the ruins of a nightmare season.
If the Titans had been 6-0 instead of 0-6 (including a thumping by Manning and the Colts) they might have better seen the humor. For Fisher it was simply bad timing for a good intention. Ditto for Dale Jr. If Junior were winning races, perched high in the standings and in contention for a championship, it would be fine and dandy for him to be on TV schmoozing with the stars. But considering his down-the-toilet season…
Junior’s acceptance of the CMA invitation brought to mind the pronouncement of his stepmom, Teresa Earnhardt, during his struggles at Dale Earnhardt Inc.: “He needs to decide if he wants to be a rock star or a race driver.”
Critics said Teresa was just being snippy, but now some wonder if maybe she was right. As fond as so many of us are of Dale Jr., we’re not sure that now is the time to be hamming it up at a country music awards show. There’s nothing wrong with partying — but not on the listing deck of the Titanic.
Woody is a Nashville sports writer who has covered racing since the early 1970s.