5 Reasons Why Dale Earnhardt Jr. Remains NASCAR's Most Popular Driver
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It's hard enough to win one election, let alone two. Ask President Obama about that.
But there is one figure in NASCAR who transcends the sport, who has been its "face" for more than a decade and seemingly makes national news for even the smallest happenstance or change in his life.
He is to NASCAR what Michael Jordan was—and still is, to a degree—to the NBA, a pair of superstars known the world over. Go to a far away land like China, mention the NBA and Jordan's iconic name almost immediately still comes forth from respondents. Ditto with the red-haired wonder of stock car racing: even if they're not race fans and know only one thing about NASCAR, it's his name. To them, he IS NASCAR.
Of course, we're talking about Dale Earnhardt Jr.
How has Junior been able to sustain as the sport's most popular personality for a decade?
Even though he has yet to win his first Sprint Cup championship and has won just two races in the last five seasons, Earnhardt continues to be Mr. NASCAR, much like his late father. He is the apple of fans' eyes and the focus of the majority of their attention.
Some people are already touting Danica Patrick as a rival to Earnhardt's dominance of the "most popular driver" category this season, but that's unlikely. His fan army far outnumbers Danica's and likely always will.
So what makes—and keeps—Junior as the MPD of NASCAR? Let's count five of the ways:
1. His Fans Still Want to See Him Win a Sprint Cup Championship
Junior won two Busch championships in the late 90s, but what he and his fans want most is a Sprint Cup championship.
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Has there ever been such a beloved athlete that fans have stuck by his side for so long, anxiously awaiting him to win a Sprint Cup championship? Not in NASCAR.
But if you look to other sports, Earnhardt has a lot in common with at least two other big-name athletes who were big fan favorites yet never won a championship in their respective sports: Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, who never reached the World Series, and Miami Dolphins Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino, who never won a Super Bowl.
While there admittedly have been some defections from the ranks of Junior fans over the years—primarily because those fans got tired of seeing their driver fall short season after season—there are still millions who continue to wait, wish, hope and pray for him to win a Sprint Cup championship.
NASCAR chairman Brian France has even said on numerous occasions that a Junior championship would be good for NASCAR, and that as Junior goes, so goes the sport.
The 2012 season was one of Earnhardt's best to date, although his championship bid was cut short when he suffered a concussion in a massive wreck at Talladega that forced him to miss the next two races.
Will 2013 be the year that Junior finally puts it all together and wins that first elusive Cup title? It remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: If and when he does do it, the Junior Nation will finally be able to emit the big sigh of relief they've been holding in for more than a decade.
2. The Folksy, Down-Home, All-American Boy Personality
Junior is by far the No. 1 fan favorite in NASCAR.
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Earnhardt is the sport's biggest rock star. He's idolized by millions, adored by millions of female fans and thought of a man's man by his male followers.
A big part of Junior's charm is his All-American boy personality, with a slight smattering of mischievousness (remember when he was caught on camera sneaking a smoke behind his race hauler several years ago).
He's friendly, sometimes shy, mild-mannered, respectful, quiet and not a rabble-rouser, all part of the charm that makes him such a fan favorite. In short, Junior is Junior, and people love him for the way he is.
3. Junior's an Advertising Magnet
His car is a rolling billboard for millions of dollars of sponsorship dollars.
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From Diet Mountain Dew to Wrangler Jeans, and from Nationwide Insurance to the National Guard and more, Earnhardt is among the most sought-after product endorsees of any driver in NASCAR. As we mentioned in the previous slide, his All-American boy persona makes Junior a natural for advertisers to flock and gravitate to.
Plus, like the way so many people wanted to be like Mike (Michael Jordan) when he was at his best, many people want to be like Junior, as well.
That's why sponsors and advertisers line up to get him to push their wares, knowing that John and Jane Fan will go out and buy a product solely because Junior says it's a good one.
Even when he retires, Junior will continue to be one of NASCAR's most popular pitch men for many more years to come.
4. He's the Connection Between Old School and Modern NASCAR
Junior (second from right) with some of the sport's greats back in 2005. He likely would have fit right in back in the day.
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Let's face it, for all the modern-man persona that Earnhardt presents, he is one of the closest links between old-school NASCAR racing and the modern-day stock car racing world.
That's why his appeal is so universal. He drives old school, while presenting an image that both old and young fans find appealing.
Perhaps a better way to explain it is this: If Junior could travel back in time, he would likely be right at home 30 or 40 years ago in NASCAR, banging fenders with the likes of Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and the like.
In some ways, Junior was born a couple decades too late, at least. Yet he still carries on the Earnhardt family tradition that began with his late grandfather Ralph more than a half-century ago.
Oh, and by the way, did you know that Junior's real first name is not Dale? That's right, he was named after his father, who was named after his own father: Junior's real name is Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Don't believe me? Look it up.
5. He Was, Is and Always Will Be Dale Sr.'s Son
Like father, like son.
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When Junior's father, Dale Earnhardt, was tragically killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, it stunned the world. Many of the senior Earnhardt's fans were left with no one to cheer for or support, so they transferred the object of their affection—their driver—to the younger Earnhardt.
In many fans' minds, it was a situation of "like father, like son." And even today, as we close in on the 12th anniversary of the senior Earnhardt's death, he's still a very visible and popular presence in NASCAR.
Souvenir stands for the late Earnhardt continue to draw brisk business at most race tracks, and the marking of his birthday every April 29th is a popular event for fans (by the way, if he was still living, Dale Sr. would be 62 in a little over three months).
If Junior wasn't named after his father, he likely wouldn't have had some of the carryover effect of fandom that followed his father and ultimately turned its support to the son. If, say, half-brother Kerry Earnhardt switched bodies and talent level with Dale Jr., it's likely Kerry would not have anywhere near the appeal that his half-sibling has simply because of his name.
Being named after one of the greatest drivers in racing history has its advantages, but it also has its burdens, what with trying to live up to his father's image and reputation, trying to please his father's fans when the son is a completely different type of driver and so forth.
When your name is Dale Earnhardt Jr., It's often hard to live up to or live down your father's accomplishments. To his credit, Junior has done both very well, while at the same time building a reputation that he's his own man, as well.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.