What If Junior’s Last Name was Smith?

Twice this year, the fans of NASCAR’s most popular driver have had their hopes rise only to fall in the closing laps. No driver has the fan base of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. These fans are extremely loyal to their driver to extent that they reject all others. This is why it has become so frustrating for them. Dale Jr., as he is fondly known, hasn’t won a race for a while—a long while. Earnhardt hasn’t won a Sprint Cup point race since 2008. He’s only won two races in the last five years and yet, his fans still come out to races, wear their various green or red clothing and root like the devil for their hero. It’s almost an addiction or so it seems.

[media-credit name=”Brad Keppel” align=”alignright” width=”253″][/media-credit]Many credit his popularity to the fact that he is his father’s son. Dale Earnhardt, Sr., was legendary. He won seven NASCAR Sprint Cup championships and his driving style and persona struck a chord with NASCAR fans everywhere. When he was killed while racing in the Daytona 500 on February 18, 2001, many of the senior Earnhardt’s fans became loyal to his son, and that hasn’t been fair to Junior. In fact, the father and the sons are very different. While the father wheeled a car hard and didn’t mind using his bumper to move people out of the way to win, the son has a much different style and a lot less success on the racetrack. The expectations that he is his father, or would have the same success, have put tremendous pressure on Earnhardt.

So, what if his name wasn’t Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? Let’s say his name was Dale Smith, Jr. Would fans have the same adoration for him? Would they be satisfied with his record? Would every race be so important? Would Dale drive more relaxed and be more confident? All good questions.


American Muscle

Let’s compare Dale Jr. with a driver who’s fan base is minute in comparison, is hardly noticed or mentioned by the media or the fans in the stands, and has similar statistics. Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. raced together in the minor leagues of NASCAR – the Nationwide Series. They pretty much entered the Sprint Cup Series at the same time. The tale of the tape is strikingly familiar. They’ve both been in 417 races. Kenseth has the most wins (20 vs. 18), the most top ten finishes (168 vs. 156), and more pole positions (16 vs. 10). Kenseth also has a Sprint Cup championship in 2003, and yet his name is not a household word, nor is he the darling of the media types who cast commercials. In fact, I’ve seen Kenseth in street clothes move through a race track unnoticed by all but a very few. Let Junior try that. There might be a riot. It’s obvious that the name means a lot. And the pressure that goes along with it comes nearly once a week has to be unbearable.

If his name was Smith instead of Earnhardt, it’s fair to assume that the son of a legend might be more relaxed and perform better, or is it? Earnhardt was leading in the closing laps at Martinsville, only to have a faster Kevin Harvick pass him for the win. Fans were chewing their fingernails and some appeared to be praying. The same was true at last week’s 600-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway when Earnhardt ran out of gas on the last lap, giving the win to, yes, Kevin Harvick.

I think it’s time for Junior fans to just let Junior be Junior. Pretend for a moment that he is Dale Smith, Jr., a pretty good racecar driver with 18 career wins. Take the pressure off and find another driver to root for just in case things go wrong for Junior. Don’t leave early when he’s not doing well and don’t blame everyone from the crew chief to the owner when things don’t go well. There is no doubt that the man can wheel a racecar, but putting pressure on him to replicate what his father did is a little much.

He’s having a fine season so far, and that should be good enough.


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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com.

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Ron Fleshman has followed NASCAR racing since attending his first race at Martinsville Speedway in 1964. He joined the Motor Sports Forum on the CompuServe network in the 1980s and became a reporter for Racing Information Systems in 1994. In 2002, he was named NASCAR Editor for RIS when it appeared on the World Wide Web as www.motorsportsforum.com. He can now be found at www.ris-news.com. Ron is a member of the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association. You can find Ron following and reporting on the top three NASCAR divisions each week. As a lifer in his support of racing, he attends and reports on nearly 30 events a year and as a member of the motor sports media, his passion has been racing for 47 years. He lives with his family in rural West Virginia and works in the insurance industry when not on the road to another track.

8 COMMENTS

  1. AND BTW; I didn’t like Dale Sr. because I was a Terry Labonte fan when a certain incident happened at Bristol in 99′. I was deeply saddened when he died, and I have definitely grown to respect him as a driver and as a person throughout these years after his life was tragically ended.

  2. Well for one, I never really much cared for hid dad (while he was alive). I have always been a Jr fan from the time he got into a race car. I never expected him to be like his dad. I always expected him to race how he was going to race, and not question what he did. I’ve kept that mentality for 10 years, and I always will go for him. Through the bad times, and the good, he’s always gonna be my favorite.

  3. I would like to say that I am a Die Hard Jr Fan and to me he is a great person and great driver I am also With Jr Nation and we stand beside Dale Jr 100% I have had people tell me that Jr will never be like his father and I tell them well he is not his Father and he will never be his father he is his own person and we Love him for who he is and always will. We are Loyal To Our Driver And Always Will Be.

    • Could not have said it better myself Patty why these writers are always trying to annalize Dale’s fans and Jr Nation it is beyond me they just don’t get it,its all for them to write about it is not his fans that put pressure on him or his name it is the media and his writers that have nothing construtive to say

  4. @Ron Fleshman

    I challenge you sir…. have you ever heard a Jr. fan say I wish Dale Jr. was like his father? if you have …. i bet those fans are VERY few and far between….

    • Ron, You are so right. It is not the Dale Jr Fans wanting him to be like his father. It’s the haters and some of the media projecting it on this young man.

      I liked Dale Earnhardt Sr, but he was far from my favorite. Dale Jr on the other hand I’ve been a fan of from his early Busch days. Love the driver, and not his name.

  5. To compare Dale Jr to Matt Kenseth is fair, but I find another comparison a little more accurate.
    There is another driver in the field who was thrust into a role with fans that he was uncomforatable with. There is another driver in the field who has similar career numbers 17 wins vs 18, 82 top 5’s vs 93, 162 top 10’s vs 156, 15.0 avg finish vs 16.8. That is not where the similarities end however. This other driver has 2 Nationwide (Busch) Series Championships as does Dale Jr, a successful race team & has created a sucessful brand similar to Dale Jr. This other driver has All-Star, Bud Shootout & Daytona 500 wins similar to Dale Jr. This other driver is considered dominant on restrictor plate tracks, as is Dale Jr. This other driver also has suffered through a comparable 115 race winless streak. One driver had a Budweiser sponsorship, the other driver has Budweiser sponsorship.
    Kevin Harvick is a much better comparison to Dale Jr than is Matt Kenseth.
    I think when you look at the numbers and compare the two drivers, there is quite a similarity between the two of them. I would expect that if Dale Jr’s last name was Smith, he would likley have as much pressure on him as that which Kevin Harvick feels. I would also suggest that things look a lot worse when you are nearing the end of your 100+ race winless streak. Dale Jr has the talent, now he has the team and he is getting the confidence. The winless streak will end soon, and I wouldn’t be suprised to see a couple of championship runs from Dale Jr in the coming years. Similar to what we’ve seen from Kevin since he ended that dreadful 115 race streak of his own back in 2010 at the spring race in Talladega.

    I don’t see a problem with expecting Dale Jr to be competitive and compete for championships. I don’t want to cheer for another driver in case things go wrong. I don’t leave early if he’s not doing well (though I may take a quick nap) and if his equipment isn’t good enough to be able to him to compete for a championship it is because of the crew chief and the owner.

    I don’t expect Dale Earnhardt Jr to be Dale Earnhardt Sr. I expect Dale Earnhardt Jr to be exactly who he is. I also expect him to run in the top 5 and compete for wins and a championship. Not because of who’s son he is, but because he has shown in the past that he has the ability to do so.

    Dale Jr is having a fine season, but it is never good enough. A championship will never be good enough. Want proof? Go ask Jimmie Johnson if he’s good enough now that he has 5 championships in a row. No doubt he’ll tell you ‘no 5 is not good enough, I want 6’. Thats because he’s a competitor that is always striving to do his very best. Not because of who’s son he is or what his Dad’s fans think he should be.

  6. I assure you, the media is the only one putting THAT much pressure on Dale Jr…. I have been a fan since Jr. came into the Busch series and I will tell you that most fans root for Jr. because we see ourselves in him. The pressure of living up to our parents and grandparents legacy. The need to leave our own marks on this world. The fact that he is an Earnhardt just adds to the pressure for him. Its that we all relate in are own small way to him. He’s one of us.

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