“They stuck behind me for all these years, and I know exactly what they’ve been thinkin’ about; they’ve been wanting us to get back to victory lane. So this is for them. I appreciate their loyalty and support. We wouldn’t have made it back to victory lane without it.”
Even if you aren’t a card carrying member of Junior Nation, you can’t help but appreciate the sentiment. Perhaps it may help his critics better understand the love that fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr. have for “their” driver.
The adoration may be difficult for some to understand. The resume of Lil E’s father- seven time champion Dale Earnhardt dwarfs that of Sunday’s winner at Michigan. There’s no denying Junior isn’t even the most decorated driver on his team, operating out of the same organization where Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon conduct their business. Does this mean NASCAR’s favorite redhead is unworthy?
The Chicago Cubs certainly hope not! They haven’t won a title in over a century, and yet their fans still flock to see them! As a native to the Pacific Northwest, this observer can attest to extreme loyalty in the form of Blazer Nation; the Portland Coliseum sold out 814 consecutive games from 1977 until 1995, though the NBA franchise won one lone title in the 1976-77 season.
At the heart of it, people root for people they like. Yes, many of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fans were originally fans of his father. Is there really something wrong with that? 11 years after the passing of The Intimidator, it’s safe to say the third generation NASCAR driver couldn’t have kept so many of them if he didn’t possess some fine qualities of his own. Some love his passion for racing. Junior may have a little rock star in him, but there’s no denying is a student of the sport and the history of NASCAR. For others, it’s the country boy persona that reminds old school fans of stock car racing’s roots. For those that love the underdog, Earnhardt has become something of one, given his struggles of the past half decade.
Given those struggles, it’s easy to forget the accomplishments of his early career as a two-time Busch (now Nationwide) Series champion with 23 career wins at that level, plus his 19 victories at the Cup level and three appearances in the top five of the season’s standings (2003, ‘04, and ‘06). Let’s be clear: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not NASCAR’s Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian.
Dale Junior went a long way down, but has made a steady road back since Steve Letarte became crew chief, culminating with the Sunday win. Is there more where that came from? The performance thus far in 2012 suggests there is as Earnhardt sits four points out of first on the strength of the win AND 12 top tens, AND six top fives.
Perhaps Junior said it best when opining on the outpouring of good vibes from his fellow competitors, “I guess it means I'm an all-right dude. When people are happy for you, they want to see you do good. That's the way I feel about people; I want to see good people do good things, and I want to see people that I think are good people have success and be happy.”
It reminds me of a line from an old Mac Davis song “I’d rather pick somebody up than kick them while they’re down.” That’s what I would rather do, and I bet most of you do too.
Jim McCoy is a TV and radio sports anchor living in Oregon with his wife and three kids. Jim also moonlights as a radio play-by-play man and writes about his true sports passion: NASCAR. To paraphrase, racing is a sport, the others are just games.
Other articles by Jim McCoy include:
For A 5-Time Champion, No Horseshoe Is Required