Kevin Harvick sure lifted the lid off a box with remarks about the growth of NASCAR and how Dale Earnhardt Jr. affected it. In a twisted sort of way, it seems like a swipe at Junior Nation. What you can take away from his remarks is that Earnhardt’s lackluster resume has “stunted” NASCAR’s growth, and he appeared to wonder out loud the seven-time champion Johnson was not.
It’s a fair question. You’d think fans would flock to an 83 race winner and multiple time champion the same way NBA fans flock to Steph Curry or the way NFL fans were drawn to Peyton Manning. Johnson isn’t considered as villainous as say, Harvick or Kyle Busch, yet he is not as beloved as Earnhardt. What’s up with this? There are perhaps many good reasons.
There are some things Harvick has not considered. First, there is precedence within NASCAR for this phenomenon. Bill Elliott won 16 Most Popular Driver awards in his career. With 44 wins and a championship, he was not chump. He came from a humble start to become one of the fastest wheelmen around. On the other hand, the most decorated driver of Elliott’s era was Dale Earnhardt. How many Most Popular Driver Awards did he get? One. That’s right, one. Dale Sr. didn’t get that until the year died at Daytona.
Some of it was Earnhardt’s style. He was aggressive, too aggressive for many. Some considered the Intimidator an on-track bully. Some just didn’t like the fact that he seemingly won all the time. From 1986 to 1994, he won six of his seven titles, after taking the old Winston Cup Series by storm in 1980, Dale Sr. became the Dominator with championships in 1986, 1987, 1990, 1991, 1993 and 1994. That kind of track record would make the Patriots and Yankees proud.
Earnhardt had his fans, but nothing like Awesome Bill from Dawsonville. Elliott was more affable, and frankly, had more in common in terms of personality with the younger Earnhardt.
There’s another point Harvick misses. Frequent winners also fall victim to conspiracy theories. How often do you hear the word “cheat” associated with Jimmie Johnson? Not so much Johnson, but crew chief Chad Knaus. He’s not on that island alone. I remember thinking of the Oakland Raiders as cheater during their heyday under John Madden and Al Davis in the 70s. What about the New England Patriots?
Johnson isn’t without fans, and truth be told, he was no silver spoon baby either. Frankly, as a blue collar kid, JJ has more in common with NASCAR’s fan base than Dale Jr., Chase Elliott, or Ryan Blaney. Besides racing for Rick Hendrick and the cheating allegations, Johnson isn’t a badass figure that appeals to a large number of fans. He is who he is. It’s not a bad thing, but Jimmie Johnson just doesn’t evoke the same positive OR negative reaction that a Tony Stewart did, or that a Kyle Busch does.
Dale Jr.’s popularity is easy to explain. He has that winsome “aw shucks” demeanor. He’s kind of a big kid at heart. And Dale Jr. is Dale Sr.’s son, a man who tragically died on the race track. Mix that with a measure of success in the early 2000s, and there you have it. Also note that was at a time where NASCAR really took off in popularity after the passing of Junior’s famous father.
Having said that, Kevin Harvick does have something of a point. Imagine if Dale Earnhardt Jr. had managed to sustain his on-track success from 2000 to 2004. Perhaps some of those “looky Lou” fans may have stuck around.
On the other hand, NASCAR has a number of bigger issues to tackle than the varying fortunes of its most popular driver. Often, the racing is less than thrilling. The rules and the cars change too often. America just isn’t as in love with the automobile as they were in days of yore. Some argue the races are too long, and too expensive to attend.
So, fellow fan, what’s your take on this? Any of Junior fans bailing after this season? What about Jimmie Johnson? Love him? Hate him? Why?