Dale Earnhardt Jr has hung up his helmet and will trade it for a microphone. NASCAR’s most popular driver will no longer grace the cockpit of the 88 car.
Junior Nation is huge within NASCAR circles. Where will those legions of fans turn?
One has to wonder how many of those fans got into NASCAR because of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Some hard core fans put his popularity on his dad’s name. Undeniably, there is some truth to that, though in terms of his demeanor and his career, Junior bore little resemblance to his old man. Because of that, there were those who resented the fact that adoration wasn’t bestowed upon a more accomplished driver.
Popularity is a funny thing. From this fan’s perspective, Dale Earnhardt Jr was a grand ambassador for the sport. In spite of his riches, he maintained a certain everyman quality that hearkened back to an earlier era of NASCAR. Not only was there something authentic about his “aw shucks” persona, he also had a genuine respect for the history of the sport. His ardent fans also knew that like his dad, Dale Earnhardt Jr had a keen feel for superspeedway racing, making him a man to watch at Daytona and Talladega. It was one of those occasions where the son was very much like his father.
With Earnhardt’s retirement, one gets the feeling there will be some fans “retiring” from NASCAR. I’ve been writing about this sport since 2007, and the field will look very different at Daytona next February. The departure of Dale Earnhardt Jr. follows that of such luminaries as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte, and Mark Martin. Because there’s no one quite like Junior, I suspect some fans- because no one else quite captures their fancy- will find other things to do. These same fans likely also share the sentiment with others that the racing is simply nothing like it was in NASCAR’s heyday. It ceased to be real stock car racing a long time ago.
But what about the die hards? It’s not a stretch to think some may latch on Chase Elliott. He not only races for Rick Hendrick- like Dale Jr- he is the son of 16-time most popular driver Bill Elliott. It won’t be that way for everybody. Chase’s story- because of his dad’s success- is nothing like Awesome Bill’s.
You know who just might pick up some fans? Ryan Blaney. It’s not so much that the son of World of Outlaws star Dave Blaney is a friend of Junior’s, but there’s something that’s kind of “good ol’ boy” about the driver who will switch from Wood Bros. to Penske next season.
In part, some may go to 2018 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup rookie William Byron. His career in the lower series has been pretty successful, and there’s something refreshingly humble and clean about the guy. He was also a JR Motorsports driver as well.
For those Dale Earnhardt Jr fans who are die hard followers of the sport, they could go anywhere. It’s not crazy to think some will hitch their wagons to Darrell Wallace, Kyle Larson, the Dillon brothers or maybe Erik Jones.
Junior fan? Where will go in 2018? We can speculate, but we want to hear from you.