Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Don't click here to read about the Earnhardt-Gordon feud

Two sports links diverged on a pixel-packed computer screen. One promised the meat, the fiber, the protein. The other promised a sugar rush.

As usual, it was an easy choice.

I had come to the site Sunday night after a day away from the TV. "Better find out what happened in that NASCAR race," I thought. "I'll need some of the nuts and bolts for Monday's blog."

So I pulled up one of my favorite all-sports sites, CBSSports.com, and scrolled down. There were the two racing links, side by side:

1. "Biffle wins Michigan 400."

2. "Gordon angry at Jr.?"

Pavlov's dog couldn't help himself. Forget the race! Let's get to the controversy!

Psychologically, it shouldn't have been this easy for me to dash straight to link No. 2. After all, I had just met Greg Biffle in Wytheville a few weeks ago. It was my first interaction with him in a small group setting rather than in the antiseptic news conferences arranged on race weekends.

I really liked Biffle in this environment. He seemed like a good dude - relaxed, confident, comfortable in his own skin. And with him lurking near the points lead heading into the weekend, I knew this was a significant win for him. I was happy for the guy.

But Junior! Gordon! Controversy!

Who can resist?

Clicking the link, however, revealed one of NASCAR's problems: There really was no controversy. Jeff Gordon was unhappy that Dale Earnhardt Jr. had crowded him on the track. He expressed some frustration.

"I had to check up or wreck all of us," Gordon said. "I just didn't think it was the smartest thing to do, especially to a teammate. But he chose to do it, and that's fine. That one was pretty close. No big deal."

Wait ... That's what link No.2 calls "angry?"

No talk of payback. No vows to wring anybody's neck. Not even a little casual swearing.

Nah, that's not angry.

(The Sporting News was even more brazen with its headline: "Jeff Gordon rips teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. after close call at Michigan.")

Gordon's comments were deemed so insignificant by The Associated Press that they weren't even included in the race story or the notebook we ran in Monday's paper. It's a nonstory moving forward. But the fact that something this insignificant could prompt these kinds of headlines on reputable sports sites tells you something about the media's opinion of what you're likely to read.

And it does make you wonder: What if?

What if Gordon were to get into a prolonged feud with Earnhardt? Shoot, what if anyone were to get into a prolonged feud with Earnhardt?

Tony Stewart vs. Earnhardt would be gold. Kyle Busch vs. Earnhardt would be must-see TV. Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, even Biffle vs. Earnhardt would add intrigue.

Alas, Earnhardt's a little too nice to be hated. A little too respected in the garage to become a target. Besides, what could be good for the audience isn't necessarily good for the thespian here. In a sponsor-driven endeavor, is anybody eager to be the Bane to Junior's Batman?

For years, NASCAR analysts have postulated that the one thing the Sprint Cup Series needed was for Earnhardt to become a weekly threat. A title contender. A major part of the show.

I'd agree with that -- and they have that now -- but I'd take it a step further: NASCAR needs somebody in that garage to mix it up with the golden child.

Until then, the link more traveled by, the one that speaks most urgently to our subconscious mind, will continue to be a letdown.

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