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.
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 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.