Dale Earnhardt Jr.: NASCAR's Most Popular Driver, Win or Lose

Sandra MacWattersCorrespondent IJune 22, 2010

PHOENIX - APRIL 09: Jimmie Johnson (L), driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, talks with Dale Earnhardt Jr. (R), driver of the #88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet, during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Subway Fresh Fit 600 at Phoenix International Raceway on April 9, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Geoff Burke/Getty Images

Three NASCAR drivers have captured the hearts of their fans as most popular driver at least seven times in a row.

Last December, at the Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Dale Earnhardt Jr. joined Bill Elliott and Richard Petty in the small elite group.

Bill Elliott won 10 straight awards from 1991-2000 and 16 total. Richard Petty received the title nine times.

The award is announced at the NASCAR NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) luncheon each December based on voting by the fans.

Earnhardt Jr. spoke of the award saying, "You look at Richard Petty and Bill Elliott, and I've always felt that if you win this award one time, you are in good company. I'm real proud of it. The fans have hung in there and gave me one heck of a Christmas gift."

Junior Nation has stood strong behind their driver, whether he wins or has poor finishes.

The 2009 season for Dale Jr. will perhaps go down as his worst and most forgettable with zero wins and a 25th place finish in the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings.

Despite his dismal showing, his fans never wavered with their support and continued to vote him "Most Popular Driver."

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Junior was born with the name of his legendary father. It has proven to be a heavy burden as well as a blessing for the man so very different from his father.

No doubt much of Dale Jr.'s popularity is spillover from the fans who worshipped the "Intimidator."

Because of his name, Dale Jr. faces extraordinary scrutiny. Adoration, expectations, and criticism are equally targeted at the Hendrick Motorsports driver of the Amp Energy/National Guard car No. 88.

Earnhardt Sr. came out of the mills in Kannapolis, N.C. to become a legend in NASCAR racing, and fans felt he was one of us.

Dale Jr. is popular because his fans feel he is one of us as well. Sure, he is a highly recognized race car driver, but he dresses like the average guy, enjoys racing online, and hangs out with friends and family.

His low-key persona and introverted behavior is hardly the norm for someone so well known.

The fact that he is not the GQ, pretty boy type has not detracted from his extreme marketability.

Fans appreciate the fact that, regardless of the pressure exerted on him to perform, he continues to live life to his own beat. For that, his critics jump in and say perhaps he should hang out less and concentrate on his career.

Those who question his will to win or ability to drive certainly have that right. History will one day sort out his ability amongst his peers. 

Make no mistake, Dale Jr. does want to win races.

The fans who support Dale Jr. and vote him as most popular driver also recognize his other accomplishments.

JR Motorsports is the management company and racing division for Dale Earnhardt Jr. that fields late model cars and NASCAR Nationwide cars.

The operation at JR Motorsports maintains the goal of developing drivers to perhaps go on to the top-tier of NASCAR in the Sprint Cup series.

Any of the young men fortunate enough to have been selected to drive for JRM will tell you of their gratitude regardless of how long their stint was. They at least got an opportunity that might otherwise not have been possible.

Danica Patrick contracted with JRM to drive the No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevy co-owned by Rick Hendrick.

The deal with Patrick is but one of many savvy marketing deals Kelley Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have brought to fruition.

It is incumbent upon Earnhardt Jr. to keep his many sponsors happy. He must also be innovative with marketing, which flows into the world of diecast cars, racing attire and many other areas.

Some may think driver turnover at JR Motorsports is cruel and unusual punishment, as the young men get the opportunity to drive for Dale Jr., then, just as quickly, the ride is gone.

Junior is a businessman and NASCAR racing is big business.

Those who criticize his business model may be the last ones to see just how wise his long-term decisions prove to be.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the most popular NASCAR Sprint Cup driver year after year. It has nothing to do with wins on the track or championships.

Year after year, he remains the face of modern day NASCAR more than four-time champions Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.

The 2010 season appears to be stabilizing for Dale Jr. and his Hendrick Motorsports team. He has the motivation to make the chase, and quite possibly, he will.

It doesn't really matter how high Earnhardt Jr. finishes in the points standings when the season comes to an end.

This upcoming December, an announcement of the Hamburger Helper Most Popular Driver will be made. It will only be a surprise if Dale Earnhardt Jr. fails to get the award for the eighth time.

Note: To vote for your favorite driver, check out the following website: HamburgerHelperMostPopularDriver.com . Fans vote during the season, and voting ends at 11:59 pm CT on September 11, 2010. The count will be reset to zero for the top 10 drivers, and voting continues until 11:59 pm CT on November 22,2010. Fans may vote once a day everyday.

Top 10 drivers as of June 20, 2010 are as follows in alphabetical order: Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte, and Tony Stewart.

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