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ANDERS: Harvick's claims on Earnhardt don't hold up

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Kevin Harvick talks with a crew member prior to qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series auto race in Brooklyn, Mich., Friday, Aug. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

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By JORDAN ANDERS
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Kevin Harvick always will have a fascinating connection to the Earnhardt family.

It was Dale Earnhardt’s death in February 2001 that suddenly propelled Harvick into a ride in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Many of Earnhardt’s fans immediately tabbed his son Dale Earnhardt Jr., as their new favorite driver, but no shade of white on Harvick’s No. 29 car could erase the fact it used to be the black No. 3, and that’s a burden Harvick was saddled with from the moment he entered the Cup Series.

The 2014 Cup champion has never been shy about speaking his mind. Even so, his claims last week on his radio show that Earnhardt Jr. had “stunted the growth” of NASCAR with his lack of performance as the sport’s most popular driver rankled Earnhardt and elicited reactions from across the garage.

I’ve written about my thoughts on Earnhardt Jr., ad nauseum in this column. Has he accomplished a legendary amount of success? Not necessarily. He has 26 career wins, good for 27th on the all-time list. The two Daytona 500s, two Xfinity Series championships, four straight wins at Talladega, etc., have all been well documented and make for a pretty impressive career for anyone who doesn’t share a last name with a Hall of Fame father.

I don’t dispute Harvick’s notion that a sport does better when its most popular team is consistently competitive. The NBA is always more interesting when the Los Angeles Lakers are good. Ditto for the NFL and the Dallas Cowboys.

Would NASCAR’s fan interest be higher right now if Earnhardt had, say, Kyle Busch’s accomplishments? Busch has 39 Cup wins and a championship and is one of the most recognizable drivers in the sport — though some could say that has as much to do with his attitude as his ability.

It’s impossible to say what the sport would look like right now if Earnhardt had those numbers or something better. Harvick lamented the fact that fans have been so hesitant to embrace Jimmie Johnson for all the success that he has had. I, for one, support that idea as well. Johnson is a once-in-a-generation talent and the fact more fans haven’t latched on to enjoy that ride is baffling to me.

I think the issue most people took with Harvick’s thoughts was the phrase “stunted the growth.” Is it fair to wonder whether NASCAR would be better off had its most popular driver for a decade and a half been a consistent championship threat? Sure. But to use that phrase implies that Earnhardt’s lack of success actively kept the sport from growing, and I just can’t see that.

In fact, just Earnhardt’s continued presence has helped keep the sport relevant to swaths of fans from the Southeast region of the country who have long felt the sport passed them by. Were it not for him, scores of those people would have tuned out years ago, putting NASCAR in an even worse spot than it is.

Harvick said this weekend he didn’t mean anything personal by the comments, and I believe that. But I also believe his opinion on this particular topic is a bit misguided.

PREDICTION

An interesting note: the polesitter has won five of the last eight races at Michigan, including Kyle Larson in June. Larson has won the last two races there, but even more consistent is the guy who has finished second in each of the last three races. He starts fifth today, and this pick has to pay off for me eventually so I’m just going to keep making it.

PICK: Chase Elliott.

Contact Jordan Anders at janders@reflector.com, 252-329-9594 or follow @ReflectorJordan on Twitter.

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