Dale Earnhardt Jr. Needs to Back Up His NASCAR Most Popular Driver Award In 2011

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. Needs to Back Up His NASCAR Most Popular Driver Award In 2011
Jason Smith/Getty Images
He's NASCAR's most popular driver, but Dale Earnhardt Jr's success on the track has not reflected it.

Let's be honest, no matter what happens in NASCAR these days, there is only one guarantee: when the driver introductions take place, one man gets the loudest cheer of anyone in the entire starting field.

Only one driver can ignite a crowd more than any other in the field. One number is seen on more t-shirts, hats, coolers and in die-cast purchases at the track than any other.

It's Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88.

For the eighth year in a row, Junior was honored as the sport's most popular driver. It's quite obvious why, as the lines for his merchandise at the track are always long. He's also the most requested autograph by fans and the highest-selling driver on many online NASCAR merchandise outlets.

The only problem that could be associated with this fact is that, for some of those years, his performance on the track has not reflected that of a popular driver.

Earnhardt joined Hendrick in 2008 after leaving DEI, his father's company. Even with a number change, new colors, new sponsors and a new team, the fans followed him. It was as though his followers were stuck on him like glue.

Sure, some still had the red and black No. 8 during his first season with Hendrick, but they were still there; "Junior Nation" was still running strong.

But the last two seasons have been some that Junior's fans would just as soon forget. They can be summed up in two simple words: disappointment and frustration.

Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. succeed in 2011 with the changes Hendrick made?

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In the last 72 races, Earnhardt has zero victories, five top-fives and 11 top-10s, statistics fit for a part-time driver rather than one going a full season, let alone two.

Junior needs to rebound, otherwise those fans that have loyally followed him will surely leave. Next year will be the fourth year in a five-year deal he signed with Hendrick. So far, only his inaugural season has been a successful one driving the Amp Energy/National Guard Chevrolet.

One thing Junior can look forward to is getting a new crew, new equipment and a new crew chief for the 2011 season. Steve Letarte is making the move to the No. 88 car after spending the last four seasons with teammate Jeff Gordon.

That's not to say former crew chief Lance McGrew wasn't the issue behind the struggles Junior experienced the last two years. There have been some disagreements, but it was nothing like what could be heard when his predecessor Tony Eury Jr. was on the pit box.

Bringing over an entirely new team could potentially lead to a great start in 2011. Despite having only one victory to show for his efforts, Letarte was successful with Gordon the last two seasons, keeping him in the title hunt.

At the same time, Junior's team is going to be sharing a shop with Jimmie Johnson, so the information given to Letarte will continue to be that of Chad Knaus. The driver getting to use the info in-house, however, is going to be different.

More than anything, Earnhardt needs to back up his award for himself. It's no secret that he's been frustrated with how the last couple years have gone. The fact that Junior puts more pressure on himself than does his team could also be a huge factor.

When you have the following that he has, it's easy to see that pressure is part of his Sunday routine. Junior knows he is the one that gets the most cheers, and he's trying to live up to it.

But as his struggles have continued, the fans almost seem to be getting as frustrated as he does. Fortunately for the fans that paid for their tickets to the track, they have the option to leave if they so desire. Junior, on the other hand, must remain strapped in the car and finish the race to the best of his ability.

Now the fans and Junior may have the spark needed to get that done.

The frustration is building, the anger is nearing a peak and Junior Nation is tired of wondering if Earnhardt will ever find the success he had in 2008.

If he doesn't start having some success on the track, Junior Nation will be losing members.

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