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Woody: Junior Winless But Not Fan-less

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, December 7 2011

Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains a fan favorite despite his lack of victories. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Erik J. Perel)

Larry Woody | Senior Writer

In most pro sports an athlete’s popularity rating is determined by his success. He’s adored when he’s winning and scorned – or at least ignored – when he’s losing.

NASCAR fans aren’t like that. They stick by their favorite drivers through fair weather and foul, through good times and bad. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a prime example.

Junior hasn’t won a race in over three years, yet he was recently voted Most Popular Driver for a ninth straight season.

Earnhardt’s most recent victory came during the 2008 season. He laid goose eggs in 2009, 2010 and 2011, yet the fan fever hasn’t cooled. Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson was reeling off a record five consecutive NASCAR Cup championships, yet year after year lost out to Junior in the popularity contest.

What accounts for Earnhardt’s high ratings amid low performances? Junior’s critics claim it’s all due to the name – that if his name was Joe Sixpack Jr. fans wouldn’t be so taken with him. There’s no denying that Junior’s late father was an icon of the sport, arguably its greatest driver, and legions of his father’s fans transferred their loyalty to the son.

That might explain the first couple of Most Popular Awards. But I’m not sure it explains Junior’s continued accumulation of the tributes. I don’t think it’s complicated: He got them because he earned

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is honored by fans. Again. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

them. Junior is a personable, charismatic young man who possesses a Southern racing pedigree tinged with a rock-star personality. He enjoys the best of NASCAR both worlds, old and new.

Jimmie Johnson is also genuinely likeable, yet he doesn’t get the adoration – and fan votes – that Junior gets. Jimmie lacks the Earnhardt edge, as well as the deep-fried pedigree. Jimmie’s missing the grits and the grit.

The record for Most Popular Driver awards is held by Bill Elliott who garnered 16, including 10 in a row. Some of those came when Bill’s star was fading and the fans still stood by him. They stuffed the ballot boxes as his fan club made a concerted effort every year to secure the award for their driver.

I asked Elliott’s PR person about the practice and he said it showed how loyal Bill’s fan club was. Maybe he didn’t have the MOST fans, but he certainly had the most ENGERGETIC fans. Other drivers’ fans had the same opportunity to get out the vote – under the rules they could vote early and often – yet Bill’s fans out-did them year after year. Eventually Elliott announced that he wouldn’t accept another award.

So far Junior hasn’t made a similar thanks-but-no-thanks decision. He accepted his 9th Most Popular Driver trophy and told the fans he appreciated them sticking by him.

Earnhardt has to feel good about the support because he knows it’s genuine. The fans aren’t merely jumping on a winner’s band-wagon; they’re supporting their favorite driver because they like him. Win or lose.

– Larry Woody can be reached at lwoody@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, December 7 2011
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