Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory last Sunday at Michigan – his first in four years – roused the Junior Nation and got fans and media across the country buzzing.
Like the slap in the kisser in that famous after-shave commercial, NASCAR should say, “Thanks. We needed that.”
There’s nothing like a long-awaited win by the sport’s most popular driver to give the sport a much-needed positive jolt.
Although Earnhardt hadn’t won in 143 races, his fan support never wavered. Throughout his four-year losing streak Junior continued to rack up Most Popular Driver Awards – last season’s was his 9th consecutive – an indication of how faithful his following is.
Let’s be honest: Jimmie Johnson is a nice guy and a talented racer, but he’s boring. His run of five consecutive NASCAR championships had turned into snooze-ville. Tony Stewart finally ended Jimmie’s run last year, but even Tony’s Amazing Chase didn’t significantly bolster NASCAR’s anemic TV ratings and return staying fans to their seats.
But if Junior keeps running the way he has in recent weeks, look out. NASCAR will be back.
That’s not to say there won’t be detractors. They will continue to claim that Junior, 37 and worth an estimated $300 million, got where he is simply because of his famous father.
I disagree. While there’s no question that being the son of arguably the greatest stock car driver in history opened a lot of doors, Junior deserves credit for being able to take advantage of the breaks when they came along.
For example, his big brother Kerry is also named Earnhardt, and resembles the old man much more in appearance, speech and manner than does Dale Jr. Yet Kerry’s racing career never got off the ground. If being the son of Dale Earnhardt paved the way for Junior, how come it didn’t do the same for Kerry?
What accounts for Dale Jr.’s incredible popularity? It’s combination of things, starting with the famous third-generation racing linage. But Junior also possesses numerous intangibles, starting with a charm and charisma and down-home persona.
He has just the right amount of edge and swagger.
Also, Dale Jr. is a genuinely nice guy. I’ve been around him since he was tagging along at his daddy’s heels, and the Earnhardt you see on TV is the same Earnhardt when the cameras are turned off. His father was the same way: genuine. That appeals to fans.
For Southern race fans, Junior represents a vanishing breed. There aren’t many Dixie drivers left in what was once a Southern sport. For past couple of decades the brightest stars have hailed from California, Las Vegas, Indiana, Wisconsin and even Washington State.
It’s been 12 years since a Southern native (Texan Bobby Labonte) won a NASCAR cup championship.
This could be the year. Junior is second in the championship standings and has been improving steadily throughout the season, capped by last Sunday’s victory. If he keeps racing the way he’s raced the last couple of races Junior will win the championship.
Granted, there are lots of laps to be logged – the season is not halfway over – and this is fickle sport. One blown tire can blow a race or a championship.
But the message is clear: After years of struggle, Junior’s back and capable of winning any time he rolls onto the track. Batten down the grandstands – it’s going to be a wild ride to the finish.
Larry Woody can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org_vinson56@yahoo.com.