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Archive for Thursday, February 8, 2007

Is Earnhardt Jr. the next Peyton?

February 8, 2007

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Now that the Indianapolis Colts have won the Super Bowl, does Dale Earnhardt Jr. assume Peyton's place in the professional sports world?

It has never been fair to hold an athlete personally accountable for the fact his team has never won a championship, but that doesn't mean it does not happen.

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning crossed his name off that list with his team's 29-17 victory over the Chicago Bears in Sunday's Super Bowl XLI in Miami, meaning the naysayers now must find somewhere else to deposit their contempt.

Manning, of course, has played far better at other times in his career than he did during this year's playoffs. Finally, however, everything around him came together in a way that allowed the former University of Tennessee star to fulfill what seems like his rightful destiny.

It never happens for some. Dan Marino, one of Sunday's "honorary captains," must have watched Manning's coronation with mixed emotions. The fact that Marino's Miami Dolphins never won a title when Marino was the quarterback was never, specifically, Marino's fault. One man can only do so much. Still, though, the world has a way of singling out those who excel but don't quite make it all the way to their sport's pinnacle.

Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees is probably next in the critics' sights, primarily because he's in New York and a lot of people who spew this garbage live and work there and seldom bother themselves with anything that happens anywhere else.

But in NASCAR circles, there is an Earnhardt Jr. backlash. While the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolets doesn't draw the same love-him-or-hate-him polarity his late father did, there is a vocal cadre who believe Earnhardt Jr. is overcovered and overhyped.

The central point of their argument is that the 32-year-old Earnhardt Jr. has underachieved in NASCAR's top series because he still has not won a championship.

It does no good to point out that since 2000, when Earnhardt Jr. joined the Cup series full time, his 17 race victories trail only Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson.

Earnhardt Jr. has won the Daytona 500. He's won at nine different tracks, from superspeedways to short tracks, having failed to win only on a road course among the major types of venues on which he has competed.

Seven full seasons into his career, Dale Earnhardt had run in 216 Cup events and had 15 victories and 78 top fives. Earnhardt Jr. has 17 victories and 69 top fives in 255 races.

After seven seasons, Gordon had three championships and 49 victories, but then again most drivers' stats don't look good compared with the start of Gordon's career. Johnson has already won 23 times in five years, and his championship in 2006 refocused the spotlight that Earnhardt Jr. hasn't reached the pinnacle of his sport yet.

For Earnhardt Jr. to get out of the critics' crossfire this year, he and his team will have to rise above not only their competition in a season that begins later this week at Daytona. They must first deal with the driver's contract issue with Dale Earnhardt Inc. that can only become more of a distraction if it lingers significantly into the 2007 season.

Even if that tangle were to unravel today, however, winning a championship in NASCAR's top series is not merely a matter of deciding to do it.

Peyton Manning is not a markedly better football player this morning than he was a week ago. He's just got one less question he'll have to answer about 100,000 times next season. And that might be the best perk there is to finally winning it all.

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