NASCAR is famous for the dedication of its fans. Whether they are loyal to a given manufacturer, an organization, a sponsor or a driver, the fans of the sport are loyal to the bitter end. While sometimes it is the end that is bitter, like it was for Darrell Waltrip’s fans, there are times when it is while the driver is active or establishing their name in the sport. Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt fans were derided frequently at the beginning of their drivers’ careers due to the fact that they went against the grain of the sport. Other fans had to deal with derision when their popular driver failed to live up to the expectations that went with the vastness of their fanbase as Bill Elliott’s fans dealt with over the last 17 years of his career. Two drivers are currently falling squarely into the last two categories this season as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch are causing quite a bit of division among the fans of the sport.
Earnhardt is the most popular driver in the sport. His fanbase is known as Junior Nation and they are ferociously loyal in the face of ever growing criticism of the abilities of their favorite driver. His detractors like to maintain that Earnhardt lives on the legacy of his father and does not have the ability to drive a racecar better than their mother. They maintain that Junior’s only wins have been on restrictor-plate tracks and that was because his cars were so far superior to the competition’s for the few years that he and Michael Waltrip dominated the plate tracks. They point to the fact that he has been in the best equipment in the series and has had multiple crew chiefs with virtually no success while the other members of the organization are winning races and competing for the championship.
Busch is at the opposite end of the spectrum. He is winning races and leading laps with a skill set that is possibly the best in the series at this point in time. Unfortunately for his growing fanbase, his off-track actions, especially those right after races, detract significantly from his talents and make it very easy for his naysayers to point fingers and admonish him every time he doesn’t take the checkered flag. He talks negatively about his cars/trucks and his crew when he doesn’t run well, and the haters say he never takes the blame for when he does something wrong and that he drives dirtier than anyone else on the track.
It would be easy for fans of these drivers to bail off of the band wagon and chime in with the fans on the other side of the fence, forgetting about all of the positive things they feel for their favorite driver. However, we are talking about NASCAR fans and they seldom bail out on their heroes, even when times are hard. Earnhardt’s fans still show up at the track wearing his sponsor’s colors, standing in unison and cheering whenever he looks remotely sporty in a race. When he takes the lead in a race, the roar is louder than the engines on the track, which is still the loudest cheer of any driver in the series. Most weeks he shows flashes of what could be but ends up falling by the wayside with another subpar finish. It is enough to test the intestinal fortitude of the fans, and yet they come back the next week, cheering as loud as ever and believing that it will be the week that he enters victory lane.
Busch’s fans come to the track knowing that they’ll hear the same jeers and jibes that they hear every week. He’s a spoiled brat who only cares about himself and doesn’t appreciate what he has. They know that he does a lot of charity work during the week, and he knows a lot about what it takes to make his cars run quickly. He worked on his own cars and still works at his late models on occasion. He’ll run at a local track during the week just because he loves to race, and still runs for free in the Truck Series because of his longtime relationship with Billy Ballew.
Being a true, loyal fan is never easy, even when your driver is winning all of the time and living the clean-cut American boy life. Jimmie Johnson is a three-time defending champion who’s only indiscretion in his career was a bad surfing accident on a golf cart. His fans have to deal with the negative comments about the fact that it is all the crew chief and the driver just hangs on.
When it is all said and done, when we pick our drivers, it is usually for life. Drivers will go on hot and cold streaks. They’ll win several races in a year and make a run at a championship, then turn around and run like a rookie the following year. Through thick and thin, once a fan has chosen their man, they’ll stick with them through it all, and if the time comes that their driver does win a title, it will be the sweetest tasting victory of all.