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Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Over-hyped pabulum
I grew up in the heart of NASCAR country. Legendary driver Curtis Turner was a native of my home county and as a young boy I followed the careers of drivers like Fireball Roberts, Fred Lorenzen, Lee Petty and Leroy Yarborough.

NASCAR drivers, mostly moonshine runners in the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina, drove for glory, not money.

In recent years, however, NASCAR - like too many other sports - has turned into a commercialized money machine: more hype than substance, more glitz than sport and more manufactured drama than actual competition.

Some say the old NASCAR died with Dale Earnhardt, who lost his life at Daytona in 2001 but the sport was already on life support when Earnhardt crashed on the last lap of that race.

In a final twist of fate, it is Earnhardt's son, Dale Jr., who today symbolizes what is wrong with stock car racing.

For the past week, Earnhardt Jr. has been the center of a media feeding frenzy over his decision to leave the company his father founded and drive for another car owner next season. He's leaving because his stepmother, who helped her late husband build the company into a racing powerhouse, won't turn over 51 percent of the business to a youngster with no experience running anything but his mouth.

From all the hype, you'd think the Pope had renounced Catholicism and decided to become a Muslim. For 72 hours, news coverage about Earnhardt's decision surpassed coverage of Britney's shaved nether regions, David Hasselhoff's drunken eating habits, Alec Baldwin's angry voice mails and, oh yes, that little war in Iraq.

The story even knocked Roger Clemen's move back to the Yankees off the lead-in to ESPN's nightly newscasts.

And, sadly, like most celebrity stories, the furor over Earnhardt Jr. is about as important as who might or might not win American Idol.

If Dale Jr.'s name were anything but Earnhardt, we wouldn't give a damn who he is or what he drives. In reality, baby Dale is not that good of a driver. He's a journeyman wheel man with a so-so team whose career is possible by accident of birth and a lot of successful marketing.

NASCAR needs Dale Earnhardt Jr. because he is a last, desperate connection to a dead legend, a reminder of the days before stock car racing became television's replacement for "professional" wrestling.

And Earnhardt Jr. allowed his handlers to turn him into a marketing bonanza. Forget the fact that he hasn't won a race in over a year. Forget his erratic driving, frequent on-track mistakes and lackluster career behind the wheel. He's Dale Earnhardt's son, looks good on camera, and serves as a natural sacrificial lamb to the commercialism gods of NASCAR.

Earnhardt Jr. embodies the new image of NASCAR - prepackaged, over marketed and over-hyped. He's scripted pabulum and a perfect symbol for a celebrity-driven culture with little use for substance.

Americans may be dying in Iraq at alarming rates, the White House may be overrun with scandal and Congress may be robbing the country blind but none of this matters because American Idol is down to the final three, the final Survivor is about to be voted off the island and Dale Jr. is throwing a temper tantrum because mommy won't let him run his daddy's company into the ground. Capitol Hill Blue

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