The Frontstretch: Could Cracks Be Forming In The Foundation Of Junior Nation? by Mike Neff -- Monday July 23, 2007

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Could Cracks Be Forming In The Foundation Of Junior Nation?

Full Throttle · Mike Neff · Monday July 23, 2007

 

When it comes to who’s a fan favorite in Nextel Cup, there’s no question Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has always carried the biggest legion of followers to each track the series visits. The winner of the Most Popular Driver contest for four years running, he dominates every vote about the sport that ever seems to take place.

All that might be about to change.

Six weeks after his groundbreaking announcement that he’s not only leaving the company that his father and stepmother built, but moving to the so-called “Evil Empire” of NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, there are cracks beginning to appear in the foundation of the house that is Junior Nation.

Right now, those cracks appear to be subtle in nature, although they’re visible nonetheless. This week, ESPN's online popularity contest known as Who's Now, a completely unscientific poll that pits modern athletes against each other in a bracket style tournament to determine which is the most “now,” paired Earnhardt against Peyton Manning, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, in a round of 16 matchup. This seemed like it would be a very close competition, especially considering the fact that Earnhardt usually wins every online voting contest in which his name appears.

Not anymore.

When the final vote was tallied, 70.6% of the over 150,000 votes received were in favor of Manning, while Earnhardt only garnered 29.4%. Forget a nail-biting finish; this vote was a whitewashing. Junior was completely dominated in a contest that would have appeared, on the surface, to have been a perfect opportunity for Junior Nation to come out in force and show the amount of support that they have for their driver. It’s a scenario in which they’ve always come out full force in the past; for Junior to lose badly in so openly advertised a competition is enough to raise a question mark in my book.

Of course, this outcome may just be a blip on the radar screen, a cross-sport poll that shows the vast red army that follows Earnhardt as passionately as the black army that worshiped his father simply doesn't pay attention to ESPN or their gimmicky contest. But this could also be the first glimpse of the ramifications that Junior's decision to go to Hendrick might have on his popularity in the sport. As I’ve noted previously, Junior has been one of the most dominant merchandising players NASCAR has ever seen since he rose into the Cup level full-time in 2000. The sea of red in the stands every week speaks volumes to his popularity with his legion of fans, backing up the throngs of phone and online support which has led to his four consecutive Most Popular Driver trophies. No question about it, six years after his father’s death, Junior has emerged as a marketing force all his own.

A career decision is what’s threatening to change all that in a heartbeat. All of the molding of Junior’s image took place while he was driving for his father’s company, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. It was a safety net for him, a company which has allowed Junior to come into his own while, at the same time, seamlessly carrying on the legacy of the Earnhardt name for a legion of trusting supporters. But things are about to become very, very different. Junior has announced that he will break rank with both history and tradition, moving instead to the organization that embodied everything that both his and his father's core fans appear to have despised.

Junior’s move to the slick, corporate, big city team of Hendrick doesn’t jive with the way most of his fans think. Fielding cars for Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, old-timers see the organization supporting California boys who didn't pay the dues the way Earnhardt's father did on the dirt tracks and bullrings of the Southeast. The majority of those that root for Earnhardt are also ardent non-fans of Gordon, willing to disown their mother or child if they were to root for the No. 1 driver for Hendrick. Such hatred for the Rainbow Warrior became clear by the embarrassing scenes Junior fans have jumpstarted at Talladega. In 2004, several showered the track with debris when Gordon defeated Earnhardt after a questionable caution flag call at the end of the race. Not to be outdone, fans this year repeated the same unruly behavior when Gordon won there over Earnhardt again, doing the unthinkable by surpassing Dale Earnhardt, Sr.‘s all-time victory total in the process. Now, those same fans must stomach the fact the Intimidator’s son is going to be Gordon’s teammate, and – even more despicable in their eyes – his friend.

Such logic of not being loyal to Junior can be understood on some levels…but not all. It’s true that Hendrick Motorsports embodies the new image of NASCAR: very corporate, very politically correct, and most importantly, very successful. The organization has dominated the first third of this season, with Gordon currently leading the points by 303 over his nearest challenger. That’s the point that brings fan’s loyalty into question: if someone truly wants to see their driver succeed and win races and championships, it seems as though there would not be a better place for him to end up at than with the team who’s had the most recent success.

Hendrick has won HALF of the championships decided in the sport in the last 12 years, and 111 races over that time. Add to that another 10 races out of the first 19 this year, and you have to realize that there isn't a better choice to enhance the opportunity to win a championship than Hendrick. Any fan that is serious about wanting to see Junior win that title trophy has to realize that potential. With the best equipment on the track, not only could their man be the most popular in the sport, but he could earn a second distinction as well – most dominant.

Junior hopes all his fans will be able to see that in the end, and only time will tell if they follow through with what they claim. But if this first vote is any indication – as innocent as it may be – there are signs not all of Junior Nation has come to terms with the future.

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Angie
07/24/2007 01:04 AM
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That was a stupid poll! Even I knew Junior wouldn’t win over Peyton Manning. And no one will win over Tiger Woods! Junior is the most popular RACER. And his true fans will never leave him.

Sally B
07/24/2007 03:44 AM
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You’re basing this on an ESPN poll? You must be trying Nascar’s version of ‘how things really are’. As long as Junior isn’t sucked into the Hendrick clone machine, his fans don’t care where he drives. His biggst appeal has always been that he has no pretensions. As long as he doesn’t lose that, I can’t see things changing too much.

Brandon James
07/24/2007 06:15 AM
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You need to do a little checking around on numerous message boards and chat rooms to find out just how many people did vote for Jr. and several times for each person, some over a 1,000 times. Everybody in the rooms and boards I have been on find it hard to believe that only a total of 150,000 votes came in in the first place for these two. Espn is a site that mainly caters to stick and ball sports and (stuart is a S.O.B, and I refuse to watch him)ESPN has shown little care for Nascar until now when there getting ready to start covering the next 6 races. I am some what surprised they purchased a contract to carry them at all, and there coverage sucks to say the least. And any fan that would ditch there driver for leaving a sinking ship with a absent owner that lacks alot to be desired was never a fan in the first place….wannabe fans move on and dont come back. Jr. and his nation will be just fine without them, time will reveal this!

Ginger
07/24/2007 06:45 AM
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I can’t help but laugh at your column. You obviously don’t know Jr fans very well. Sure, there will be a few rats who desert the ship, but the main core of Jr fans will follow him to the ends of the earth. Actually, we are proud that he had the courage to take charge of his life and sign with someone who will supply him with top-notch cars, someone who will respect and support him. As a matter of fact, he is already making new fans because of this move. He will not change who he is, and that is what matters.

So rest easy, Jr fans are strong, faithful, and true to our driver.

Douglas
07/24/2007 06:45 AM
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No doubt about it! JR. stock is falling, and fast!

Part (or maybe most) of JR.S “charisma” was that he represented the “old school” NASCAR! A country bumpkin made good!

A “TEE” shirt & beer image, now joining the White Collar & Wine congregation!

THAT AIN’T GONNA WORK!

And here’s your sign!!

(oh yes, a few month’s ago a similar poll was held and JR. did womp the others big time! This time his cry-baby image has caught up to him!)

Jim C.
07/24/2007 08:02 AM
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I think comparing Dale Jr. to one of the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks is like comparing apples to oranges. Sure, there are fans of both sports. I’m a fan of Peyton, but I like Jr. better, because Nascar is my sport. I voted in the ESPN poll, but found it to be pretty boring and felt that it wasted far too much of my time for the java stuff to load. Oh, and Douglas? Crybaby?! Get with it, dude. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a driver with more integrity and honesty than Dale Jr. Douglas, Dale Jr. takes responsibility for accidents that weren’t his fault. I don’t know who your favorite driver is, but I’ll bet he doesn’t do that.

Celeste
07/24/2007 08:24 AM
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That ESPN poll was nothing more than silly donkey dung! A premiere quarterback ( who won the last Super Bowl) beat a racecar driver! What a shocker!!! What nonsense…Dale Earnhardt, Jr. needed to weed out the low class trashy people who can’t accept the fact that Dale Earnhardt, Sr. is never coming back. Sorry to be so harsh, but that’s the truth. I have gained much admiration for Jr. for putting his driving ability on the line for all to see. He’ll now be in top notch equipment and have all the support and resources he needs to be successful. I think he’ll finally be able to reach his potential and his fans will be right behind him all the way.

donb
07/24/2007 08:25 AM
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I’m not part of the Jr nation of fans, but you must be dreaming if you think his going to HMS is going to cost him any fans, sure some will leave, but he will gain many more, for the first time since I have been reading Jr and other racing boards, the Jr and Gordon fans are getting along, Jr will not only gain better cars to drive, he will also gain fans

Race Fan
07/24/2007 09:11 AM
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Dale Jr. has lots of bandwagon fans who know nothing about NASCAR, act like he’s the only driver on the track, and just like rooting for a famous name and like that they can wear Budweiser merchandise in the process. His real fans will follow him to Hendrick and will root for him regardless of his sponsor. The others will find the next bandwagon to jump on.

Mike
07/24/2007 09:36 AM
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What a ridiculous article. That ESPN contest is a joke. Everyone knows who’s going to win. Of course Jr lost to Manning, any driver would lose to a NFL qb that just won the Super Bowl. Racing will never be as big as football but JR will always be the most popular driver. His fans will follow him wherever he goes because he’s a genuine guy and he cares about his fans. I don’t know a single person who’s no longer a JR fan because he left DEI. In fact I think he’s made some more fans because he made a tough decision and did what’s right for his future.

Bill
07/24/2007 09:38 AM
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The results of polls like that are too predictable. Considering that ESPN was conducting the poll, I think we as NASCAR fans know that Peyton Manning would win over Dale Earnhardt Jr. It’s the audience to which they are catering. At this time, the ESPN audience does not include as many NASCAR fans proportionally as NFL fans.

The same is said about NASCAR.com polls. In those polls, Dale Earnhardt Jr. ends up on the winning side more than ever. Why? Because he is the most popular driver and the question being asked is pretty much irrelevant.

marion
07/24/2007 10:47 AM
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YOU ARE OBVIOUSLY ONE OF THOSE JEALOUSNONFANS OF JUNIOR NATION. WE ARE NOT IN AGREEMENT W/YOU BY ANY MEANS. Try as it may Nascar will never be on the same page as football. There are many more football fans than Nascar. The Mannings are the Mannings, that all I’ll say. Who cares anyway? Any true fan of Junior’s doesn’t care about any poll. Take this to the bank

Diane
07/24/2007 11:14 AM
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What a waste of space. It is like pitting a Democrat against a Republican and polling only Democrats and Independents. Junior should gain fans as parents who wouldn’t let their kids wear Bud gear
can now support him.

Kristi
07/24/2007 11:15 AM
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Please find a little more info to back up your opinion next time. A silly little ESPN poll should not make or break Junior’s fan following. Get a life!

8Fan
07/24/2007 11:18 AM
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Jeff Gordon has a tremendous following as well but he lost to LeBron James. The sky is not falling. We’re just not used to ESPN giving air time to NASCAR. Me personally, I watch SPEED.

Randy
07/24/2007 11:23 AM
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Mike, what a silly column. You know it’s a slow week when you see BS like this. Who cares about a stupid ESPN poll like this. As Jim said, it’s apples & oranges. If you want to have a real poll, why don’t you ask this: Since Jr. announced he’s going to Hendrick & can’t take Bud with him, are you a.) still a Jr fan no matter what, b.) was a Jr fan, but no longer, because he went to Hendrick and/or lost Bud, c.) became a Jr fan since the announcement. Maybe with the results of a poll like that you can have some argument, regarding whether cracks could be forming in the foundation of Junior Nation.

Judy
07/24/2007 11:49 AM
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The few cracks that might be forming will fill with new cement in the “nation” foundation when all is said and done. Mark my words!

raceguy
07/24/2007 12:18 PM
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I think the problem in the poll is that your comparing a average driver to one of the top 3 quarterbacks of all time. All my racing friends all watch football too. If you wanted a real poll as whos better J. Gordon or Payton Manning. That would be alot more even. Anyone who knows anything about sports will have to think about that one.

Daisy
07/24/2007 12:41 PM
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“…The molding of Junior’s image took place while he was driving for his father’s company…it was a safety net for him…” Seriously? Ha! Obviously the net wasn’t big enough. Wasn’t it Teresa Earnhardt who said that Jr. needed to decide whether he wanted to be a driver or a public personality?

That’s one reason Dale Jr. left DEI, they didn’t like his image. They didn’t understand that it was because of his public personality that he had so many fans. HMS understands. Rick has said he won’t make Dale Jr. change his ways. And, if Jr. does change in any way it’ll be because that’s what he wants to do. He’s maturing.

As for this WHO’S NOW? Poll. That’s ridiculous. I knew Peyton Manning was going to win because…c’mon! He’s freaking Peyton Manning. FYI. I voted for Dale Jr.

Like you said, many NASCAR fans don’t watch Sports Center -so they won’t catch those five minutes of the Who’s Now segment. They won’t waste two hours of their time to get 30 seconds of “COMING UP…WHY DALE JR..blah blah blah…” When it takes the people 20 minutes to get to a non-baseball/football/basketball story. NASCAR Nation usually sticks with something that is all NASCAR, like NASCAR Now or NASCAR Live.

I think JrNation is still strong. Those abandoning ship were never a part of the REAL JrNation to begin with.

anna
07/24/2007 12:57 PM
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You are telling it like it is . Here at work we all moved over to Martin Truex Jr Got new banners and flags and took down Jrs. I know he lost 23 fans here . no telling how many other to.

Bill
07/24/2007 01:32 PM
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Junior nation is comprised of Dale Junior fans, and Bud fans. True fans of Dale Junior will support him wherever he drives, and whatever his sponsor is. Bud fans will be unhappy that they are no longer associated with the most popular driver in the sport today. However, however many fans Junior may loose in this new deal, he’ll gain back ten fold!

nancy
07/24/2007 02:13 PM
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we love him—not his sponsor- not his number—the guy who tells it like it is and gives his all— the fella who will NOT change into “corporate” Nascar but will continue to be our JR.

Wayne
07/24/2007 02:15 PM
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What about the Hendrick fans that he is adding to his following. There are a lot of Hendrick fans that will now be wearing Dale Tee shirts.

Dennis
07/24/2007 02:50 PM
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What a goofy poll. Manning must be the #1 jock commercial whore on TV so that exposure has a lot to do with it. He could not even win a Super Bowl until his owner had the NFL changed to the no hard hitting “No Fun League” that it is now. Manning is a Paper Panty Waste who can’t perform under pressure. He would poop his pants in a COT.

Geoffrey Littleton
07/24/2007 02:56 PM
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Let me say this. I was at Gateway on Saturday night. I saw lots of Junior gear , lots of Stewart gear, lots of Gordon gear,, yet they were all wearing Office Depot hats. There is fixing to be a new “red army”

Doug
07/24/2007 04:16 PM
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Obviously you wrote this article so you would get lots of hits. I dare say that Jr has lost not a single “real” fan. I and many others would follow Jr even if he drove a #13 toyota sponsored by Planters Peanuts. It’s not the car that we “JR NATION” follow it’s the driver.

Nicole
07/24/2007 05:25 PM
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I’m a die-hard Dale Jr. fan. Have been for years. I didn’t vote in that silly ESPN poll. In fact, I don’t vote in any online polls. They don’t make any difference in the long run.

You want to prove your point here? Watch the next race at Talladega and listen for the reaction Dale Jr. gets. If there are more boos than usual, then you have a case. But basing Dale Jr’s star power on a ESPN poll—a channel that wouldn’t focus on NASCAR unless they were forced to—is just silly.

Theresa
07/24/2007 05:35 PM
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It’s not about his daddy, or a company, a sponsor or even an number, it’s about the man. I’m a proud member of Jr Nation and will be no matter what the future holds for him. It’s rediculous to say that an ESPN poll is a sign of the fan’s loyaltiies. Put links to this poll on SPEED or NASCAR.com or any other site or sports channel that would reach a large number of NASCAR fans and see what would happen. Not saying Jr would win, but, doubt it would be the landslide that it was.

Tex
07/24/2007 05:58 PM
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Dear Author,
Pehaps a poll of the above comments will reveal what readers think of your words and the ESPN Poll.

I feel positive that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is not worrying about a loss of popularity.

Just wait until his “new “ merchandise goes on sale !

Robby
07/24/2007 07:57 PM
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I’m a Hendrick/Gordon (and forever a #3) fan, and have been for years. The move to Hendrick will attract new fans, I am proof. Say what you want (most journalists do anyways) but Jr nation is growing! Go 24!

Tom
07/25/2007 07:21 AM
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Are you kidding me? This poll does nothing to indicate cracks in Jr Nation. What it does show is how far NASCAR still has to go to match the national popularity of football, baseball and basketball. If this poll had been taken 6 months ago the results would have still been the same. As for the rivalry between Gordon and Earnhardt, this gets it’s life from the interaction of the fans stirred by the exaggeratory comments of the media in regards to the rivalry. The truth be known, I am sure both drivers enjoy the on track rivalry but respect and enjoy each others company off of the track. I am sure they look at all of this rivalry hype and just shake their heads.

Timmie
07/25/2007 10:29 AM
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I give a hoot about Who’s Now!!! Dale Jr. Is the best of them all. ESPN produced a True Movie, about Dale Sr. All Earnhardt’s, said that was not true. If people want to switch drivers, feel free. To me it seems that you were never an Earnhardt fan to start with. I am very proud of what Dale Jr. has done with his life now. I can finally buy my son and myself something without Bud all over it. Anyone calling Jr. a crybaby, should watch the replays.
He is a down to earth person, and one heck of a driver.On another note, try driving for your Step Mom.. C’ya

Tammi
07/25/2007 01:22 PM
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I am shaking my head at this column. Just because Jr is leaving DEI and Bud doesn’t mean that he is leaving NASCAR. Jr doesn’t care about the popularity, the most votes…what he cares about like every other driver out there is to have a car that he can drive to winners circle after a race and bring home a championship ! Did Sr’s fans desert him when he moved to Ford back to Chevy and the times he changed teams ? NO…there are people that want Jr Nation to crumble but it’s still as strong as ever and will remain the same with him throughout his career.

JOHN WYCKOFF
07/25/2007 01:54 PM
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Dale going to HMS is the best thing for him and DEI. Both Dale and Martin are running a lot better since Dale’s announcement. Gone now are all the distractions with his contract talks with DEI. If fans want to jump ship because of where he is going then so be it. They aren’t really true fans to begin with then. He doesn’t have worry about the stepmother anymore. She never really cared for him that much anyway. The one thing that sticks in my mind is when Ty Norris was let go it seemed that the program at DEI started its downward trend.I will always remain a fan regardless where he goes as I did with Dale Sr.

juniorbb8
07/25/2007 02:14 PM
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I didn’t even know there was a pole on ESPN but I vote every day for the Chex Most Popular Driver Award. Junior Nation is just fine & well. His true fans don’t care about what color his car is, what number is on it or what sponsor. We are loyal Junior fans. He could drive the Oscar Meyer Weiner Wagon & we would still be for “THE MAN”. We don’t necessarily have to like his teammates (I certainly don’t) but he wants to win not only for himself but also for his fans and I am damn well one of them.

Marc
07/25/2007 06:10 PM
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Cheer me on or Boo me, at least they know I’m here. Know who said that? Dale Earnhardt to a young and upcoming Jeff Gordon.

Get over it people. Bobby Allison once drove for six teams in one year, and was always popular. Dale jr and Bud are not synonymous.

Diane
07/25/2007 07:07 PM
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You must be desperate for hits on your site.
ESPN pole. Yeah, right they are noted for being “race“oriented. Try Most Popular Driver voting if you want to gage the true Earnhardt Nation which is probably stronger than ever.
What a waste of space and I can’t believe I took the time to read it.

 

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