When someone opens their mouth to make a point or to make a statement, people have to listen. Attention is drawn to them, whether wanted or unwanted, but people listen and respond to it. NASCAR has for years had discussions with drivers and teams to keep things open about what to do to make the sport better, and maybe less transparent to a certain extent.
Some drivers, owners, or crew chiefs are more vocal than others, but it also depends on who you are and how much "pull" you are considered to have.
In a way, that is what Dale Earnhardt Jr. has evolved to in many aspects of his career, and not just on the track, but also in some ways outside of it.
Going back to 2001, there was no question that it was the hardest season any driver could experience. Losing an icon like Dale Earnhardt hurt the sport in many aspects, but for Junior he not just lost his car owner, but also a father, friend, and confidant. It was hard to start the year out like he did, but then something outside the track made him get very vocal, and it was directed at the fans, rather than the sport.
Many fans were blaming Sterling Marlin for the wreck that took away his father, saying that if he didn't touch the car, he would still be with us today. It got to the point that the then-driver of the No. 40 Coors Light Dodge was receiving death threats from fans, people he never knew.
That did not stand well with the Earnhardt family, specifically Junior, and he made it a point to come out in public to say the threats were uncalled for, and would not be tolerated. It seemed in that instant, he got instant respect from his peers and fans, both whom rooted for him or for other competitors, and that validated his position in the sport. For someone to have just gone through a loss such as what he had in his life, he stood up to folks he didn't know, and in a way didn't want to know. Everyone at that moment listened, and heeded the warning.
Several years went by and saw some success, but then came yet another battle where he would have a big say in what would happen. It was the time to make a decision on his career, whether to stay at his dad's company, or go elsewhere. That time had come in 2007.
There was no transparency in what he was after: majority ownership. He wanted the biggest say in his dad's company, more than what his stepmother, Teresa. All he wanted was "51 percent" and he was likely to stay. Negotiations began, but it did not take long until he and his sister, Kelley, sat down with many media members awaiting what became a press conference never to be forgotten. It was that May when Junior decided that following that season, he was leaving his only home in the sport, and looking for a new company to work for.
Dale Earnhardt Inc. had lost it's namesake, but it was his actions that had the world of NASCAR buzzing once again. He spoke, and people listened. It was not long after that when he again stood before the media announcing he had made the decision to start driving in 2008 for Rick Hendrick.
It was becoming clear that Junior wanted to be the best in the sport, and wanted people to listen and take notice of what he was saying.
To an extent, he was becoming NASCAR's version of former WWE star CM Punk. It was no secret that a couple years ago Punk, who's real name is Phillip Brooks, had the wrestling world in the palm of his hand when he sat on the stage of WWE Raw, had a microphone in his hand, wore a Stone Cold tee shirt, and delivered his first "pipe bomb" speech on live television. He spoke the truth, and people listened. Even after he left for a little while, he came back and still was not afraid to speak his mind, and people still listened to what he said.
What he wanted was change, and in a way Junior was calling for it when he spoke out for Marlin in 2001 and again for himself in 2007.
These days, he is speaking extremely positive because everything has fallen into place after many years of struggle with his new team. He would see two different crew chiefs over the course of his first few seasons in the No. 88, and would only see two wins during that time. He would be blunt about the struggles, both on the radio and in interviews, and constantly hoped for change.
When he got to work with Steve Letarte, he was very outspoken about how much he enjoyed working with him, and even after Letarte decided to move to the announce booth beginning next year, he still spoke volumes of how he is glad he's moving to what he wants to do.
Junior had a say in who was going to take over the pit box beginning in 2015, and the hiring of Greg Ives was someone that Junior knew could do the job, and already had success in Nationwide with Chase Elliott.
Once again, Junior makes people listen, and listen we all have done.
To compare Junior to someone who considered "sports entertainment" his profession is a stretch, but when Punk spoke his mind, both on live television and away from the cameras, there were many people that took notice. Even in his final days before he walked away from the company, he was making it clear of what he wanted, to be the top guy in the business. In a way, that is still what Junior and many others are still striving to be, just some are more vocal than others. In Junior's case, it doesn't matter what is happening, good or bad, a change for his future or a change in the moment, people listen.
This year, he's vocal about how much fun he's having on the track, how happy his off the track, and the success he's having in life. Guess one can say that in NASCAR, or at the moment, he could be considered the "Best in the World."