Most Popular Driver.
Three words in NASCAR that have been associated with one man for the last eight years. One man has the honor of being voted by the fans as "their driver."
There's even a name for his fan following.
That man is Dale Earnhardt Jr, and his fan base has been deemed the "Junior Nation."
From the time he stepped into his father's number to race in the then-Busch Series, everyone knew that the second-generation driver had a big name to uphold. Two Busch Series titles later, that name was honored and kept where everyone hoped it would be, at the top.
After his father's death, he's become the driver the fans constantly cheer for. Whether he leads a lap or is at the back, the fans are there for him.
The question is how long can this run go? Eight years is a long run, and it seems as though it will continue for years. But why, what exactly is causing the NASCAR fans to continue voting Junior the popular driver?
Truthfully, it's not that hard to figure out. Take a look.
Whether he's trying to market a new name in NASCAR or putting new merchandise on the market, Junior's marketability is unlike any other.
Each weekend you can see majority of the fans decked out in the dark green of Amp Energy or the blue and red of the National Guard. Before then, you saw a sea of red, as the majority of the grandstands were decked out in the No. 8 Budweiser colors.
The day that Junior and Hendrick Motorsports unveiled the No. 88 cars, merchandise was made available to the fans to buy or pre-order. The shirts, hats and jackets were going off the shelves quicker than they could be put out.
Die casts of the No. 88 are often on back-order because of the demand.
Then there's the uniqueness that Junior possesses when promoting special products. His take this year, when Amp Energy debuted the "Amp Energy Juice" product was priceless.
"I can't wait to make a screwdriver out of it," he said.
If marketing a product is key for popularity, Junior has it made.
The name Earnhardt has a lot of meaning in this sport. Junior's grandfather, Ralph, started on the dirt and was a legend in his era. It was followed by his father, Dale, who brought the sport to the main stream in the 1980s and 1990s.
Now, its his turn to continue the legacy of the Earnhardt name.
That alone adds a lot of pressure, and the fact that his father died doing what he loved adds even more pressure. Almost immediately, Junior's following grew ten-fold because his father's fans seemed to rally around him to carry on the Earnhardt name and legacy.
When he left DEI at the end of 2007, Junior said his father would be proud because he would want him to write his own legacy, or chapter in NASCAR.
The pressure is there, but it's clear Junior has no problem carrying on what his father and grandfather have done in years past.
More than anything else, drivers need to respect the sport in order to race in it. They have to respect the equipment, the crews, the other drivers and everyone else involved in NASCAR.
Junior's always had respect for the sport—even before he began driving. When he stepped behind the wheel, he didn't go out and drive like his dad because that's how he did it. Junior drove smart, and earned the respect of his peers.
As the sport changed in both audience and in equipment, despite some negative opinions he had, Junior respected the sport and the direction it was heading.
You don't see him disrespecting officials, or saying derogatory remarks about the sport; at least, not when he's on camera or on the microphone. Junior simply knows what's expected of him by people like Brian France, Mike Helton and others within NASCAR.
Respect is earned, and he certainly has done that.
Earnhardt Jr. is not an individual to beat around the bush when it comes to issues. He's straight-forward and no nonsense.
This is especially noted in three instances: the aftermath of his father's death, him leaving DEI, and the new car.
After his father passed away, fellow competitor Sterling Marlin was getting a lot of hate mail and death threats from fans. The reason: they claimed that he was the one to cause the car Earnhardt was driving to get out of control and eventually take his life. This did not sit well with Junior and he made it clear that he was not accepting of those acts, or threats. He straight out said it had to stop...and it did.
When he decided to leave the family team, he was honest in the reason why. There was some issues between he and his step-mother, Teresa, in ownership of the team. He wanted majority say in the company, but with the company left to her, it was something not being discussed. He flat out said "I want 51 percent", meaning he would have majority control.
He didn't get it, and thus left for Hendrick Motorsports.
Finally, Junior has been one of the most outspoken about the new car, especially after it was introduced. The wing, the splitter, the look...he outright said it didn't look great and didn't drive well.
It could be a reason he's struggled in it, but that's another discussion for another day.
If being honest equals being popular, this equation certainly has worked out very well.
You cannot go anywhere with Earnhardt Jr. and not expect some type of media attention. Whether it's radio, online or television, Junior is a magnet for stories.
In the last four years, his departure from DEI, signing with Hendrick, his struggles to succeed and his final run in the No. 3 have garnered a media firestorm.
The reason, they're huge stories.
We as readers, viewers, listeners and in some case, writers, love these kind of bits and pieces. They always seem to produce great content, awesome debates and sometimes, some controversy. At the same time, they make the person reading, watching, or listening wonder what could be coming next.
Junior always seems to provide some great media content, even if it's the most minuscule thought. He got more coverage this year for his full beard than his performance on the track. But then again, Jimmie Johnson's facial hair also got a lot of attention.
Earnhardt Jr. seems to always have a story to tell, and when he has that kind of attention, being popular soon follows.
One thing most people forget about Junior is despite his main job being that as a driver for Hendrick Motorsports, he has his own team to run. JR Motorsports has seen great success since entering the Nationwide Series, and has grown to be as popular as the driver.
Not to mention, he's hired some talented drivers to drive his cars.
It was a young man named Brad Keselowski that Junior hired to drive his No. 88 Monte Carlo, and since then, his former driver has gone on to a Nationwide title with Roger Penske. Next year, Keselowski takes over the blue deuce as he now will pilot the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge.
He has also managed to snag one of the biggest names in IndyCar, Danica Patrick. She not only brought over female fans, but also brought her partnership with GoDaddy.com to JR Motorsports, meaning one less sponsor to hunt for.
Junior has even moonlighted in some Nationwide races, driving for his own team. He's been successful as he's won races, so it shows he can get the best equipment and win.
As an owner, Junior has shown he is just as good as he can be in the driver's seat. His team is among the most popular among fans and drivers, and that only helps his image.
The lifeblood of Junior's popularity will always be his fans. There is no other driver in demand for an autograph, a picture, or an appearance than that of the No. 88 Chevrolet.
"Junior Nation" grew every year, and continues to find new followers. People flock to the garage area just to get a glimpse of his car being worked on, and then the roar of the crowd when he's on the track is a common occurrence each weekend. When his car finds the lead, it's almost as if a rock concert had begun. Fans scream louder than the motors.
It's those fans that buy the merchandise, the race tickets, and show their support that constantly keep Junior ahead of everyone else in popularity.
How can anyone compete with that?
It's simple, they can't. As long as the Most Popular Driver award is voted on by the fans, there is no question that Junior will be victorious. The year he doesn't win it will be the day his fans riot.
That doesn't seem to be happening anytime soon, so it seems Junior's popularity will only grow each year he is driving.