In football there is one winner and one loser on any given Sunday. The same goes for baseball, basketball, tennis and hockey: there will be one winner and one loser.
But in NASCAR whereas only one driver can be happy, it leaves 42 others very unhappy. That includes their legions of fans that are either going to party with their victorious driver or have another week of agony.
Fans are dedicated to their drivers; they will both defend their driver when needed and criticize them when the time calls for it. When their driver wins, they win, and enjoy all that goes with it. When their driver struggles, they struggle with them.
A fan goes through as much emotion as their driver throughout the course of the NASCAR season.
If you approach every fan at a race, every single one of them will give you a different story as to why they root for the driver they do. They’ll tell you about personal connections, about how cute their driver is, or maybe how they just enjoy the paint schemes or car makes.
Everyone has a story and they’re sticking to it.
On discussion boards, personal websites, and the comment sections of articles, fans love their drivers. Sometimes that love will be mocked by others that don’t understand why someone roots for the driver they do, or why they stick with them when things are going bad.
Not every driver is a winner. Some haven’t won in their careers and some have gone years between victories (Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears, Elliott Sadler and others) but fans stay with them. And nowhere is that more evident than with Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans.
Saturday and Sunday of last weekend at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, fans lined every one of Earnhardt Jr.’s merchandise haulers by three and four rows deep. It ends all debate to me about Earnhardt Jr.’s popularity declining. Instead, it shows that even though he’s having one of his worst seasons, JR Nation isn’t losing faith.
Lacy has been a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan for a short time, through a personal connection. “We were watching him leave DEI and for some reason I was smitten,” she says. “I think my dad had just died and I saw the sadness on his face and that made me feel for him.”
But Lacy knows, like fellow Earnhardt Jr. fan Diane Dale, that he isn’t likely to win very often. Instead experiencing more lows than highs, just like New Hampshire and Dover. She’s just taking it one race at a time. “When he loses I’m sad but I think ahead to the next race, but lately I feel like as a fan I suck and am letting him down.”
Diane became an Earnhardt Jr. fan because of his personality, “He’s honest and respectful and that means a lot to me.”
And how does Diane get through a difficult year from her struggling driver?
“I feel upset for him when he doesn’t have a good run or win,” she says. “He takes so much abuse from haters and bashers…When he has a bad race I just want to reach through the television and give him a hug and tell him it will be alright.”
She continued saying, “It never used to bother me when he didn’t do well, but he has had such a bad year and I know how much frustration he must feel. I find myself at the end of a race being more depressed.”
However, there will come a day when Lacy and Diane will get to celebrate with their favorite driver. “My emotions are a mix of such happiness, sadness, and anger when he wins,” says Lacy. “It’s like I can forget all the bad.”
For Diane, “I love watching him race and love that smile when he is happy. When he is in a position to win I get excited the closer it gets to the end of the race. I just pray for it to end while he is in the lead.”
One of Earnhardt Jr.’s teammates, Jeff Gordon, used to win everything there was and at one point was thought to be untouchable. Over the last year, and much of this year, Gordon seems to have lost that ability.
Jeff Abramo has been a Jeff Gordon fan since Gordon’s rookie year, which happened to be the same time that Abramo started watching NASCAR. He loved that Gordon was the new kid on the block who could rattle the veterans.
He’s seen Gordon at his peak, but now he’s seeing him on the downslide, “As a Gordon fan, since he has become essentially mortal, I wouldn’t say that the excitement has worn off, but I have learned what it’s like to be a frustrated fan of a driver who you know probably isn’t going to win that day.”
Even though he’s not used to seeing Gordon not win, he’s learned to live with it. “Over the last few years Gordon has become just another good driver, and has clearly been passed by more consistent winners,” Abramo says. “As a result, I find myself watching and hoping for, but no longer expecting Gordon to be in the hunt towards the end.”
Samantha Ramsey comes from a family of Jeff Gordon fans and she too has changed her expectations. “Sometimes when you root for a driver that you expect to win all the time you get disappointed more easily if he does lose,” she reveals, “than say, if he was a rookie and not much was expected out of him.”
In 2008 Gordon went winless for the first time in his career. As one NASCAR champion faltered, another was putting his name in the record book.
Jimmie Johnson by all accounts has not had a bad year since he’s entered the series back in 2002. Johnson and his fans are used to winning and winning a lot. And over the last three years they’ve never felt defeat in a championship battle.
“I’ve been Jimmie’s fan since 2004,” says Tina Dunn. “I picked him because one of my really good friends hates him.”
Since that time Dunn has grown to love Johnson, defends him to the point of shouting matches with people, and cheers so loud that the neighbors can hear her.
“I get really tense when it’s Chase time. I do yell at drivers that are around him or hit him,” she says. “I know Jimmie can’t win all the races, so where I know he can win I expect him to at least get a top five.”
The last three years Johnson has shown he is NASCAR’s top dog and Dunn has experienced it all with him. “When Jimmie won the last three championships I cried with joy. I am proud to say Jimmie Johnson is my driver … when he wins I get very excited and when something bad happens to Jimmie I get really upset.”
But Dunn like most NASCAR fans knows when it comes to Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 team, “at least that doesn’t happen much.”
Going through ups and downs with your driver is something that Genesis knows well, as she supports three drivers: Mark Martin, Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle. She explains why she enjoys each driver saying Martin is “easy to love and classy,” Stewart is “funny, sweet, feisty, and most of all, he’s an awesome driver.” And Biffle is the “underdog and fun to watch when he’s able to get up front.”
This season both Martin and Stewart have been the best in the Cup Series both in wins and as point leaders. “This year I’ve come to expect Tony and Mark to run well and win races, so when they lose a race by just a few seconds on pit road, I get frustrated,” she says.
It wasn’t always like that since 2008 wasn’t very kind to Stewart, who barely won once, and Martin who remained winless. But Genesis stuck with the Biff.
“Last year was a rough season for me. Martin, I knew I couldn’t expect to win races, but Stewart blew me away by only winning one,” she recalled. “When Greg Biffle got his first win of the year at New Hampshire, I burst into tears. That was the first time I’d cried when one of my drivers won. I guess that all the emotions, anger and frustration, that had built up over the season just came out right when Greg won.”
We’ve all seen the crewmembers and the families that become nervous when their driver is in contention. Genesis shows that NASCAR fans are no different and aren’t hiding it.
“I usually can’t sit down toward the end of any race that one of my drivers is about to win,” she reveals about herself. “I pace the floor and cover my eyes … for Mark, it was definitely watching him break that winless streak at my home track in Phoenix. Watching him celebrate in victory lane was just amazing, lots of tears were shed that night.”
But through it all no fan is going to say they get tired of their favorite driver winning or that because he’s expected win that it’s any less exciting. Not even Johnson fans say that. Nothing gets old for NASCAR fans, they want to experience it all and they want to experience it over and over again.
Who is anyone to take that away from them? Who is anyone to disagree, mock, or insult whom he or she is devoted to?
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