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Mark Edwards: Even Jordan documentary can't beat Dale Earnhardt

Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Dale Earnhardt Sr. with his car at the California Speedway in Fontana, Calif., in April 2000. (Jonathan Ferrey/Allsport/Getty Images/TNS)

Have you heard the old joke about how a NASCAR fan counts?

One … two … Dale Earnhardt.

Earnhardt drove the No. 3 car for most of his NASCAR Cup Series career, as he won seven Cup championships and the hearts of racing fans. He died in a horrific crash at Daytona in 2001, about two months shy of his 50th birthday.

Earnhardt was so popular, even Michael Jordan, Bear Bryant and Bo Jackson lag behind in at least one area.

Let me explain that.

ESPN developed and broadcast a movie based on Earnhardt's life. It's title was "3" — nothing else was necessary, because that number is associated so closely with Earnhardt.

It drew 7.25 million viewers for its original broadcast Dec. 11, 2004 — about 46 months after Earnhardt's death. Even now, that's still the most viewed original documentary/movie broadcast by ESPN.

Not even the recent 10-part documentary about Jordan could take down the Earnhardt movie. Figures released this week by SportsMediaWatch.com show that of the top 11 viewed ESPN documentary/movie premieres, the 10 parts of the Jordan documentary, "The Last Dance," took up Nos. 2 through 11. The first part drew 6.34 million viewers, the largest Jordan figure.

No. 12 on the list is the Dec. 14, 2002, premiere of the ESPN-developed "The Junction Boys," which was about Bryant's beginnings at Texas A&M and starred Tom Berenger as the legendary football coach. That drew 4.56 million viewers for its original broadcast.

No. 13 was "A Season on the Brink," which was about former Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight. Brian Dennehy played Knight, and 4.27 million watched the movie, which looked like it was made in somebody's garage.

The documentary about Jackson, "You Don't Know Bo," drew 3.6 million in its Dec. 8, 2012, premiere. That ranks 14th.

In a sense, these figures are skewed because many of us who saw the Jordan documentary didn't watch the TV premiere. Instead, we watched a recording on our DVR (which is what I did) or through streaming. According to ESPN, the total figures for the first part of the Jordan documentary now top 15 million.

Then again, back in 2004, ESPN showed anything the network developed itself almost constantly. I didn't see "3" in its premiere, either. Instead, I saw it a couple of weeks later. And again a week after that. And a week after that. Also, "3" didn't benefit from not having any live sports to watch, as we're dealing with now because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earnhardt's time as a NASCAR driver predates mine as a reporter of NASCAR, so I asked Russell Branham at Talladega Superspeedway about why Earnhardt was so popular that even a Jordan documentary can't beat the viewing figures for "3".

Braham has worked as the track's vice president of consumer marketing and communications, but he's been in the industry since 1989 and knew Earnhardt well. In his office at the track, he has a photo of him and Earnhardt. It was taken in 1996, and they're by Earnhardt's car, just chatting.

"When people saw Dale, they almost saw themselves," Branham said. "It was almost like you were driving the 3 car through him. He was the ultimate blue-collar guy."

Branham said that even though Earnhardt's father, Ralph Earnhardt, was also a driver, Dale "didn't get anything for free."

Branham said Dale didn't even graduate high school. He drove dirt tracks for years. He didn't get a chance to drive regularly on the Cup Series circuit until 1979 when he was 28.

"So many race fans worked a long, hard week from Monday to Friday — sometimes to Saturday — and on Sunday, they got to see a guy who grew up like them," Branham said. "He wore blue jeans, worked hard and drove hard. He really was like no other in that era."

Braham worked as head of public relations at Darlington Raceway from 1989-99.

"I knew a lot of people who were Earnhardt fans because they felt like they could relate to him," Branham said. "They saw that his hard work paid off. He was good to his fans. He would talk with them, joke with them.

"He had a good heart, and people saw that, even though he had the facade of being a tough guy."

Branham said his friendship extended to the other drivers, who liked him even though he competed so hard on the track. It also extended to Branham himself when he worked at Darlington.

"The first three years, I couldn't get to know him," Branham said. "You had to earn his trust. Once you did that, he would do anything in the world for you. I used to ask him to do stuff for me, and he always would give me a really hard time. He would do it, but he would make me work for it.

"I asked him why he did that, and he said, 'Russell, I thought you were smarter than that. I do it because I like you. If I didn't like you, I wouldn't do anything for you.'"

Branham said Earnhardt even was good friends with Jeff Gordon — considered the anti-Earnhardt by fans who didn't like him because he wasn't like them and could beat their favorite driver. Branham said Earnhardt and Gordon were even occasional business partners.

"Dale was a good-hearted person … that sounds like an old country song," Branham said.

If you can find the Earnhardt movie somewhere, it's worth watching. It's called "3: The Dale Earnhardt Story" now. To play Earnhardt, they got Barry Pepper. To that point in Pepper's career, he had had small parts in big movies like "The Green Mile" and "Saving Private Ryan" and a starring role as New York Yankees baseball player Roger Maris in "61*" which was about Maris' chase to break Babe Ruth's season home run record in 1961. Maris was a much different personality that Earnhardt, but Pepper was terrific in both.

In "3," J.K. Simmons played Ralph Earnhardt. These days, he might be best known for his Farmers Insurance commercials. He's great in everything, even those commercials, and he was in "3" too.

If you haven't seen the Jordan documentary, check it out. But, check out "3" as well.

Sports Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.

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