Four years ago, I attended what has proven to be my next-to-last NASCAR race to-date: the LifeLock 400, held on June 15, 2008, at Michigan International Speedway. The winner? Dale Earnhardt, Jr., via fuel strategy. My thoughts at the time? “Ugh,” “ugh” and “ugh” some more. It was instilled in my mind at a relatively young age that the Earnhardt name wasn’t the kind you rooted for, and my vitriol was unrivaled. I would be more than happy if NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver never won a race again.
About the time I decided that picking both favorites and least-favorites wasn’t worth my time, it occurred to me that Earnhardt’s winless streak (then about two years long) was potentially bad for NASCAR as a whole.
So when Junior returned to the scene of his last win four years later and finally garnered a trophy—sans strategy—the sight was welcome and altogether a bit relieving.
His win caps off a surprisingly good race, though one might have expected the outcome, given all the unknowns heading in. The track, like Pocono a week before, had been repaved, which, for the most part, put the competitors on an even playing field.
Earnhardt was the class of the field for the final two-thirds of the race, piloting his special Batman-schemed Chevrolet to the front of the pack on lap 70. All told, the driver of the No. 88 led 95 of the race’s 200 circuits. The win also gave him his 12th top-10 finish—the most in the series—and puts him four points behind Matt Kenseth in the race for the championship.
The popular driver’s finish, as well as his overall season, is nothing but a positive for the sport. It gives his fans a reason to cheer again.
Four years of frustration and heartbreak can do crazy things not only to a driver, but to his or her fans as well. In Junior’s case, the fans are plenty. Not only is he NASCAR’s most popular, but he likely holds that distinction by a sound margin. Certain fans will defend and support a driver to the bitter end, but others may become disillusioned after months of disappointment and turn off the TV altogether.
Any fans who shied away from the sport or lost interest should be flocking back soon, if they haven’t already. People like supporting a winning driver. If Little E pulls off a few more of these, the result from a crowd standpoint may be stunning.
Plus, Earnhardt’s results restore some credibility to the Most Popular Driver award. Rather than the distinction going to a driver with few accolades over a given season, the competitor poised to win his 10th such award is backing up his popularity.
On a national level, it returns a good image of NASCAR in the eyes of casual fans or even outside observers. In many sports, the most visible athlete(s) are also among its elite. From 2009-2011, NASCAR boasted a famed driver with zero wins, not to mention fairly substandard results (see: sub-20th-place points finishes in 2009 and 2010). Since last year, Junior’s finally been driving worth a damn, but what’s that worth without a few wins or even a championship?
Expect the floodgates to open now. I’m not predicting a slew of victories, but I am expecting more than just a Michigan race won in dominating fashion. After all, the series returns here again in August.
It’s interesting to think that Earnhardt’s win comes four years and two days removed from his previous victory, but it makes sense. Counting his win Sunday, the Hendrick Motorsports racer now has an average finish of 11.5 in the Irish Hills. It’s not a restrictor plate race, but Junior may have found another track that folks can expect him to run well at each time.
You have to feel good for Junior here. After years of speculation on when the win would come, folks can finally focus on some different storylines with him. Like, hey, did you notice that the guy’s second in points? If he keeps this kind of driving up, could we see another Earnhardt as the season-ending champion? Or when will his next win come? (Hint: I’m predictable, but Daytona’s sure looking good.)
A championship has to be the most prevalent thought now. Though observers will see the good results produced by NASCAR’s most patron saint and nod in approval, the next step is a spot atop the podium at season’s end. A sport’s elite is expected to reach that acme at some point. Junior’s finally running well, so that should be next on the agenda.
The outpouring of support and emotion from fans has been tremendous post-victory. A cursory glance on Twitter reveals a bevy of ecstatic tweets from fans who have waited a long time to see their royalty return to the top. Again, a reason to cheer again. REALLY cheer.
“I thought it would be all relief, but it wasn’t relief at all,” said Earnhardt following his win. “It was all excitement.”
Maybe he should run a superhero-themed paint scheme more often.
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