DAYTONA BEACH, Fla._ During Tuesday night’s edition of the ESPN commentary show “Pardon the Interruption” host Tony Kornheiser and stand-in co-host Dan LeBatard (of the Miami Herald) stepped out of character and discussed Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s pole run for the Daytona 500.
Instead of talking of the popular driver’s first pole at the famed speedway or the effectiveness of the off-season changes at Hendrick Motorsports, the pair opted to discuss whether or not NASCAR had rigged the session to put its most popular driver on the pole 10 years after the death of his father.
In the segment, Kornheiser led in with, “Well, it's a great America moment isn't it when Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona can have the pole position...a guy who has not won a race in his last 93 starts.
“There are people in and around the NASCAR world, not just drivers but people who cover the sport as well, who are winking at this one. Who are wondering if this wasn't a set-up because it's the pole position, it's not winning the race.”
LeBatard went on to compare NASCAR to professional wrestling, and Kornheiser claimed a female reporter - later revealed to be Liz Clarke of the Washington Post - told him she believed “there was a 60% chance that Junior qualified with a car not quite up to code and people looked the other way.”
Earnhardt Jr. kept his comments on the matter simple, saying, “Those two guys that do that show don’t know much about racing, so it doesn’t bother me.”
Talking with the media Wednesday afternoon in Daytona, the NASCAR on ESPN crew answered questions about the comments made on the show, and they did not hold back from blasting their ESPN colleagues.
“That’s a show of opinion,” ESPN’s vice president of motorsports, Rich Feinberg said. “It’s primarily based on [Tony’s] and Michael [Wilbon]’s opinion and they’re entitled to their opinion. Hopefully they present it with responsibility and in a dignified way, which from my take – it is an award-winning show – they do for the most part. They’re entitled to their opinion, you’re entitled to your opinion, I’m entitled to my opinion. I disagree with what I was told he said and I can tell you for sure ESPN doesn’t agree with his opinion yesterday. That’s the nature of commentary and not all the time are we going to get a rosy picture when people are offering their opinions.”
Feinberg admitted the comments presented a challenge to the group that is battling declining ratings and searching for viewership. With the majority of the Chase races down in ratings to previous years, ESPN extended its coverage after the race to SportCenter, but the leading sports network has continued to struggle with NASCAR on its traditional stick and ball recap/commentary shows. However, the latest jab at NASCAR is something that strikes a chord with many involved.
Three-time Daytona 500 winner, former series champion and ESPN booth commentator Dale Jarrett did not mix words when asked how he felt about the comments made.
“It wouldn’t matter who said it or what network it might have been on, but it pisses me off that somebody thinks that from being inside, and knowing how hard a lot of years that myself and a lot of others that I worked with and around, worked on our race cars to try and make them the best,” Jarrett said.
“Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in a very good race car down here," he added. "He’s always run well here given good equipment. He’s my pick to win this race. Was it because it’s the 10th anniversary of his father’s death? Well no, it doesn’t have anything to do with that. It aggravates you that that perception is out there. I can assure everyone that it can’t happen. To set something up, there’s too many people that would have to be involved. You couldn’t keep something like that quiet. It’s unfair to the competitors and to the people who work their tails off to put a quality product out there. We have a very good sport with a lot of integrity out there and to have it questioned is unfortunate.”
Andy Petree backed up his colleague’s comments, saying the close quarters of the garage would make something of this magnitude simply impossible.
“We’re hearing opinions from people that really have no idea. I have spent a career trying to get an advantage under the hood or anywhere I can on that car and I’ve been with numerous drivers – Dale Earnhardt Sr., Harry Gant – and I can tell you that I have never, ever in my life seen anybody get the call to allow something to their car. These guys are too smart in the garage area. You’re working next to every team in there. If I saw something on somebody else’s car that I didn’t think was right, I’m going to be the first one to make sure someone knows it. They’re going to do the same thing to me. That’s not possible in this garage area. The integrity of this sport, I can vouch for it, for 30 years I’ve been doing it, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Criticism of NASCAR and questions of the sport being fixed is nothing new, yet what makes this instance much different is the fact it is coming from a network that broadcasts both NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races. While searching for viewership and increased ratings, PTI is doing the network a disservice by questioning the integrity of NASCAR.
With Jimmie Johnson joining the show Wednesday from Daytona, Kornheiser admitted he was “getting crushed” for the “stupid comments” made on Tuesday’s show. Being the ambassador he is, the five-time defending champion handled the situation as best he could.
“Well, you’ve got to realize you have a powerful microphone, man, and people tune in to listen,” he said. “If you want to come to the track, let me host you, let me show you around so you can make educated comments in the future. I’d love to host you, come be a part of the team, come hang out and we’ll help keep you from saying stupid things.”
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