The focus of the coming week's "Championship Week" festivities will be, of course, Jimmie Johnson and his fourth-straight NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
There will be other awards and accolades to be handed out this week, though, including the Chex Most Popular Driver Award. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has owned the award since perennial fan favorite Bill Elliott permanently pulled himself from the ballot after winning the prestigious, fan-selected award for a 16th time, including every year from 1991-2000, in 2002.
Should the driver affectionately-known as Junior claim the award thanks to his colossal "Junior Nation," it will come as no surprise. In spite of his worst season ever in terms of on-track performance, Earnhardt's fans remain immensely loyal.
However, there is one driver who, based on 2009 souvenir sales, could potentially dethrone Driver #88—Tony Stewart.
Yes, THAT Tony Stewart.
There was a time when, if the long-held sentiment that the NASCAR community, from drivers to team owners to crew members to officials to fans, is one great big family is true, the theme song for Stewart and his many fans would have been country music star John Anderson's "Black Sheep."
The talented and tempestuous driver cut from the same mold as one Anthony Joseph Foyt piled up fines and penalties along with his numerous wins and a championship in 2002. He also did what was previously considered unthinkable heading into the new century: routinely out-performing Jeff Gordon, at least among the boo-birds during pre-race intros.
And Stewart wasn't the only one who caught heat for his blunt and brash nature.
Those who dared to call themselves Tony Stewart fans also found themselves squarely in the line of fire from the partisans of nearly all of his competitors.
I should know—I have been a die-hard Stewart supporter dating back to May of 1998, when he was in the midst of his final full season as an Indy Racing League competitor, long before most racing enthusiasts who only follow NASCAR's Cup series had even heard of Stewart. I have incurred my share of scorn for my choice of driver from fans of nearly a full grid's worth of speed merchants, including Dale Jarrett, a noted friend and supporter of Stewart's, and even Tony's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Bobby Labonte.
One only needed to browse the internet for proof of NASCAR Nation's love-hate relationship with Tony Stewart. As many fans called him their absolute least-favorite driver as did those who called him their hero. The mere mention of Stewart's name could spark heated debates that sometimes found itself on a personal, juvenille level. Again, I should know.
If there has been a low-point in all of this, it was probably 2004. On-track incidents with fellow veterans such as Gordon and Rusty Wallace, as well as four of that season's rookie of the year contenders (Scott Riggs, Scott Wimmer, and most notably, Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers) resulted in calls for Stewart's suspension from fans and members of the media alike.
Between reading that Tony should be suspended every week and arguing endlessly with fans of Kahne, NASCAR's newest young star, all combined with Stewart's worst season performance-wise made for a daunting year. However, support among die-hard Stewart fans never wavered.
But now, something has changed
It didn't happen suddenly, like the seemingly-overnight shift in the public's opinion of Stewart from bold breath of fresh air to spoiled punk. Rather, over the gradual course of the last few seasons, the boos that, as recently as that 2004 season, routinely outnumbered the praise for the hard-nosed racer, became fewer and fewer as the cheers became louder and louder.
Flash forward a half-decade, and another championship, later. The same driver, with pretty much the same attitude he brought with him to Cup racing in 1999, that was once regarded by most as little more than a cocky, loudmouthed kid (though in actuality Stewart is nearly four months Jeff Gordon's senior) rivals the sport's favorite son in popularity. If Earnhardt, Jr. continues to struggle on the track, it is possible that the aging All-American boy from small-town Indiana could become the face of NASCAR.
That is something that few would have considered possible as recently as last year. I certainly didn't. In fact, during the height of the Stewart Haters movement from 2001 through 2004, I came to enjoy that Stewart and his fans were "the black sheep of the family" and that finding another Stewart fan without cheating and getting online at TonyStewart.com or other sites dedicated to Stewart devotees was like playing NASCAR's version of "Where's Waldo?" My own parents even were among Stewart's detractors, though he and I have managed to win them both over.
It is unlikely that Stewart will top Earnhardt in the MPD voting. Earnhardt's fans are notorious for making certain, through mass voting with a blevy of email accounts, that their driver comes out on top in the final rundown. That is plenty fine with me, as I much prefer Stewart's two championships and 37 victories, including four this season, a winless year for Junior, to Earnhardt's six, potentially seven, Bill Elliott Trophies for winning the award. I'm sure most of my fellow Stewart fans feel the same way.
It is the mere fact that Stewart, not Gordon or Johnson or even the ageless wonder Mark Martin, is perhaps Earnhardt's stiffest challenge for the 2009 honor that is intriguing.
Even though, no doubt, his increase in popularity has been assisted by those "fans" who change allegiances as often as Casey Mears changes teams and considered Stewart to be the flavor of the day, that he has BECOME the flavor of the day is proof, when looking back upon his past popularity, that hey, in the world of NASCAR, anything is possible.