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Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Danica Patrick: Who Will History View as Most Influential?

Sandra MacWattersCorrespondent IJuly 5, 2011

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 17:  Danica Patrick (L), driver of the #7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, talks with Dale Earnhardt Jr. (R), driver of the #5 Hellmann's Chevrolet, in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Nationwide Series DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona International Speedway on February 17, 2011 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Jason Smith/Getty Images

Relatively few people make a significant historical mark on a particular sport. There are those who become famous as personalities more than for statistical achievements.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick are two individuals who have become recognized by race fans as well as those who have never watched them race.

It remains to be seen exactly what the record books will reflect when Patrick and Earnhardt Jr. are no longer active drivers.

What we do know about these two individuals is that they have made a significant impact for just being who they are. The mention of their names can stir a love/hate debate at any given moment.

There is little doubt both Patrick and Junior have influenced segments of the general population for various reasons. Whether you are a fan of either person, you likely have an opinion about them even if it is just to say you think they are overrated.

Had the legendary, late Dale Earnhardt not had a son bearing his name, who chose to follow in his father's footsteps as a NASCAR driver, Dale Jr. would be reflected in a totally different light, but that's not how it is.

Certainly after the loss of his iconic father, the burden of being Dale Earnhardt Jr. took on a much greater significance. Fans of his father were lost and they turned to the son.

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It was Junior who needed to fill a gaping space in NASCAR and as a result one of the largest fan bases for any driver became known as Junior Nation.

When Dale Jr. won the July race at Daytona in 2001 behind the wheel of a Dale Earnhardt Inc. car, the healing process began for NASCAR and its fans.

Those who are part of his legion of fans support him not because he has 18 Sprint Cup career wins. The support from those fans has barely waivered and he hasn't won in the last 110 races.

People care about Earnhardt Jr. because of the persona he exudes. He is old-school, perhaps an old soul who acts like the average person.

He is not the cookie-cutter, coiffed driver who carefully chooses his words and lives a jet-setting lifestyle flaunting his wealth. Despite his wealth and fame, he comes across as a regular guy fans relate to.

The power of the Dale Jr. fan base equates to money for NASCAR, sponsors, Hendrick Motorsports and, of course, the driver himself.

The sale of his racing merchandise, die-cast cars and all things Earnhardt far exceeds other drivers. He is seen as a valued spokesperson for many companies.

Patrick and Dale Jr. have the fact that they are marketing machines in common except one is often seen in minimal clothing. Patrick's attractiveness is an asset to be flaunted, not denigrated.

Earnhardt Jr. is a man of integrity who does many charitable things out of the limelight. Fans appreciate his straight talk and the quiet appreciation he shows to those who support him.

Junior is the face of NASCAR even though reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion, Jimmie Johnson, has won an incredible five consecutive series titles. It may not be fair, but that's how it is.

Both Patrick and Earnhardt Jr. are high profile personalities who are constantly being scrutinized by media, fans and non-fans. It may seem a foolish phenomenon to some.

The fact is both of these people bring attention to whatever endeavor they are linked to be it racing or something else. It is a good thing for the sport of NASCAR that this happens.

Dale Jr. never wanted to be like his father though many put expectations on him to do so, then when he didn't perform, he was condemned.

The driver of the Amp Energy/National Guard No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports will likely continue to drive for at least another three to five years after the 2012 season.

He has turned his performance around under the guidance of his new team headed by Steve Letarte. He has come close to winning and his finishes are much better than the two prior seasons.

This is likely indicative that wins are in his future and if not this year, there will be other years which may find Earnhardt Jr. as the Sprint Cup Champion.

Whether or not the son of the "Intimidator" ever wins a championship may be a mute point. He is the eight-time Most Popular Driver and Junior Nation will follow him loyally until his racing days have long since come to an end.

Patrick was not the first woman to be taken seriously as an IndyCar driver, but she is the most recognized.

If she does make the move to NASCAR on a full-time basis, it is inevitable she will move up to NASCAR's top-tier series.

Patrick has shown she can race with the boys of NASCAR and despite the fact she is known for her provocative commercials and pictures, she is quickly finding her footing as an equal in the NASCAR Nationwide series.

Her presence in a sport that has always been predominantly male is opening the door for other women coming up through the varied layers of racing with a goal of reaching the big leagues.

Certainly she is not the only women in the Nationwide series, but she is the best. Patrick is and will be a role model not only with her racing, but with her confidence and persona.

Unlike the males who set out to race as a long term career choice and a means to support themselves and their loved ones, Patrick races because she is paid to do it, she wants to race and she wants to win.

Her male counterparts look at a twenty year or more career in NASCAR. Patrick may or may not recognize the intensity and demands of a full race season that stock car racing requires.

Likely her long term goals do not include NASCAR. She will go on to other career moves long before she is age 40 which is 11 years away.

Her impact, however it turns out, in motorsports will be recognized in the history books.

Many may argue she is a novelty, but she is more than that. She is a competitive racer and she is competitive in everything she does.

This article was written as a focus on the big picture as to how these two people shall have influenced the sport of NASCAR and the many corporations and people who have found Patrick and Earnhardt Jr. of relevance.

It is the conclusion of this writer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., without a doubt, will be the most influential of the two as the history books continue to be written.

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