Even if you aren't knowledgeable about NASCAR you probably know who Dale Earnhardt Jr. is. He 's the offspring of NASCAR royalty, someone who was idolized, revered, hated and died on an iconic racetrack (Daytona International Speedway), so his son would have unreasonable expectations.
But for the first few years of Dale Jr. being in NASCAR's top Series he lived up to the hype, winning the first race at Daytona after his father's death, winning the first race after the September 11th tragedy and contending for titles the next few years (especially 2004), and beginning his run of 11th straight years of being voted most popular driver.
There's no question Dale Jr is NASCAR's most popular driver, where fans or foes, he's always being talked about (good & bad), and when he does well its good for racing. Sure because of legendary name but he is was NASCAR used to be, a southern man with racing lineage who enjoys a good win and relates to the fans.
Every time I go to the NASCAR races here in Joliet, you see tons of Dale Jr memorabilia and plenty from his father too. Its thought many of Dale Jr's fans are from his dad and he has managed not to lose them and to keep people coming out to the track.
You have many who feel (best said by George Diaz the Orlando Sentinel's racing writer), "That with a different last name he'd be working at the local Pick N Save". But the Dale Jr. can race, now granted he'll be 40 years old before this NASCAR season is over and that's officially past your peak years, still he gives the fans a thrill and they come to see him.
He's not the first son of racing royalty not to live up to his old man, remember Kyle Petty who is the offspring of Richard "The King" Petty. Kyle at times in the 1980's seems much more disinterested in racing that Dale Jr. There have been long stretches (years), where Dale Jr. didn't win and made excuses for not winning but he always seemed ready to race and never burdened by his last name.
Now granted right as Dale Jr. came into his own, a former off road driver named Jimmie Johnson came along and dominated NASCAR for 5 straight championships (2006-2010) and then won another championship this past year. Now Jimmie is legendarily good but he doesn't have Dale Jr's popularity and I can't figure out why, he seems like a nice guy, races, hard but clean and yes he's also on the Hendrick Motorsports super team but some people claim he's "vanilla", but the man wins races and lot of them.
But prior to Dale Jr. dominating the most popular driver for decade it was ruled by another southern man for 10 years and that was "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville", aka Bill Elliott. Bill was a great driver but only had one championship and during this time another driver for the Hendrick super team Jeff Gordon won 4 championships in a 7 seven year span but never had the popular vote.
As a lifelong NASCAR fan I can tell you a drivers perception can be everything, a hard driving guy who seems like an "everyman" can be fan favorite while a statistically better driver can have many detractors especially if he does not have southern origins. You can't go to a NASCAR race (even here in Joliet), without seeing Confederate flags flying and at least one person driving the "General Lee" from Dukes of Hazard. This is a sport with strong southern roots and the fans are no question blue collar and if you look at the many commercials during a NASCAR race that's where the demographic is aimed to be.
So I understand how NASCAR would want to promote Dale Jr. (and they do along with the networks sometimes uncontrollably), because he seems like the ideal face for the sport, yet he's not the best driver. His father without question was the best of his time and one of the best of all time. But from a marketing standpoint Dale Jr and his massive fans (affectionately known as Jr. Nation), are what bankrolls the sport.
But Dale Jr. did just win his second Daytona 500 (NASCAR's single most important race), so he joins just 11 men in that right, who knows this may be his year where he wins the championship that he was born to win.
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