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Thursday, November 6, 2008
Is anyone good enough for NASCAR Nation? Apparently not

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

Remember that old rock song that keeps asking "Who do you love?"

It keeps thrumming in my head about you, the NASCAR fan.

Who do you love?

Anybody?

After Carl Edwards put at least a little suspense back into the Chase on Sunday night -- although he's still a long shot -- I thought maybe, in him, you'd have a more likable champion than Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a "robot," a "cheat" and "boring," according to your counterstrike of e-mails following my Saturday column on him, in which I said that if you really knew him you wouldn't boo him so much.

I even brought in Dale Earnhardt Jr. as chief witness for the defense of Johnson. But when I write about Earnhardt himself, I get the most vitriolic backlash of all. The equal but opposite reaction to Junior Nation can pretty well be summarized thusly: overrated crybaby handed everything by his old man and still can't cut it.

Now I read the nasty things you had to say about Edwards in the ESPN Conversation attached to our coverage of the Texas race.

They included, "I am disappointed … to have ever rooted for Carl Edwards," from a fan in Edwards' own hometown of Columbia, Mo. "Shame on you Carl Edwards …"

The offense? Winning by going too slow, gambling on fuel mileage. If Edwards hadn't used that tactic at the end, he'd have lost.

Had Edwards run faster and run out of gas, he'd have lost to Jeff Gordon, whom the masses have loved to hate for lo these 16 seasons now.

Had Edwards pitted for gas, he'd have lost to Jamie McMurray. OK, let's hear a thunderous cheer from all you Jamie McMurray fans out there …

Your silence is deafening.

Who do you love?

After Earnhardt, I sense more passionate support at the tracks for Tony Stewart than anyone else. But as with Earnhardt, there are armies of opposition.

A lot of you hate Stewart as much for saying and doing what is on his mind as you do Johnson for seeming to restrain himself in all his speech and actions.

Who do you love?

You've already rendered your verdict about Kyle Busch, who earlier this season was as hot as a NASCAR driver can get under current conditions.

You didn't like him, because …

Just because.

Jeff Burton says what he thinks about every situation, and he says it beautifully, elaborately. But there are no seas of Jeff Burton T-shirts in the stands.

In a way, you could crown Burton the most popular driver, because at least nobody hates him.

Oops! I better watch out saying that. A few months ago, I wrote that "nobody's ever going to hate Carl Edwards," and then heard plenty otherwise in the response.

Now I guess I'll arouse all that anti-Burton sentiment out there.

Who do you love?

Anybody?

Clint Bowyer is a nice enough guy but hasn't set your hearts aflutter and hasn't won enough -- maybe his sponsor, Jack Daniel's, could juice you up a bit by setting up sampling tents at the tracks.

I sensed a breakthrough for a new pop-culture hero in the opening race of the Chase. How cool was it for Greg Biffle to hide his hand till the waning laps and then blast past Johnson for the win?

Surely Bifflemania was at hand. The Biff! The Biff!

Then it fizzled instantaneously when he climbed out of his car in Victory Lane, live on national television, and rather than telling how he'd surprised and beaten Johnson, methodically counted off the corporations that had sponsored him that day.

Dale Earnhardt jr
We know you love Dale Earnhardt Jr. ... except for the sizeable number of fans who profess to despise him.

Snuff one fan groundswell for the Biff, even after he won Dover the next week.

A lot of the reason you have nobody to love is that you cannot know these guys fully. You cannot differentiate between the human being and the human platform for the corporate marketing campaign.

When you do find snippets of humanity -- Johnson's crew chief is caught in a technical violation; Edwards is caught in a scuffle with Kevin Harvick; Earnhardt rages on the radio to his crew -- then you take that and run with it, form opinions of the whole man, the whole team.

You are like the other birds watching the magpie build its nest in the fable. You see one straw, one dab of mud applied, think you've seen it all, then off you fly.

But you are given so little to go on.

On TV, even in the late stages of races, in the heat of winning and losing, crew chiefs first make sure they list the sponsors and the make of car, and then … just maybe … they'll tell the pit reporter what the crisis is.

For drivers, Victory Lane has become a virtually useless exercise insofar as the public gaining insight into what won the race, or almost lost it. It's a swirl of multiple commercials.

We in the written forms of media can portray fuller persons to you, catch them as they really are, but the TV impressions got there first.

And so when I tell you that Johnson said he's stopped worrying about what you think, that he's just "driving my ass off and taking it from there" … or when Terry Blount tells you that Johnson said his troubles in Sunday's race were "like getting kicked in the [groin] over and over; that sucked" … still your TV impression of him is as a robot, and that's that.

Who do you love?

Nobody?

Can there be no champion who can make you happy? Earnhardt, the only possibility, is out of the running.

Another old rock song thrums in my head: "You better find somebody to love."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.