Heading into Michigan, Kevin Harvick made some headlines on his radio show when he laid blame for the sport’s lack of progress in recent years in the lap of Dale Earnhardt Jr. That never is a good thing to do.
“For me, I believe that Dale Jr. has had a big part in kind of stunting the growth of NASCAR because he’s got these legions of fans and this huge outreach of being able to reach different places that none of us have the possibility to reach, but he’s won nine races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports and hasn’t been able to reach outside of that,” Harvick said. So, is Junior a “big part in kind of stunting the growth of NASCAR?”
Junior is an interesting, unique story. In fact, his life story from the date of his father’s death to his winning the 2004 Daytona 500 is pure Hollywood gold. His win when they returned to Daytona in 2001, his four straight Talladega victories, to 2004 when the 500 was his first of six victories that season. Pure gold, damn near fictional if we had not lived to see it happen with our own eyes. The Legend’s fans became those of the Legacy, and those 15 wins in his first five seasons put the focus squarely on him.
After 2004, he went from extraordinary to ordinary, yet his legion of fans remained. Is it his fault Jimmie Johnson has not been marketed properly? I mean, you shouldn’t see a poster of Jimmie without seeing him flanked by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. He is NASCAR royalty. Still, he was not the son of a legend.
Junior is popular because he is the son of that Legend, a young man who had tremendous early success to allow the Earnhardt fans to keep on cheering. He also had enough of a good ole boy personality to keep them loyal through all the tribulations to come.
Did his lack of success over recent years stunt NASCAR’s growth? Maybe, it was his continued presence that kept it from sliding further down the tubes. In fact, the champion has only taken the Most Popular Driver award six times in the season they won the championship. The last was Bill Elliott nearly 30 years ago. So much for Harvick’s theory.
The Most Popular Driver award has been handed out 66 times. On 50 occasions, the most popular driver had the last name of Petty, Allison, Elliott, or Earnhardt. In fact, since 1970 only David Pearson and Darrell Waltrip (twice) has interrupted that dynasty.
Mr. Harvick is wrong. It is a combination of success and personality and royal jelly that makes one the Most Popular. Neither Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart laid claim to the award. Neither has Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, or either Busch brother. Neither has Kevin Harvick.
I guess next year we will have to find another Most Popular Driver. My guess? How about another Elliott. These families have carried NASCAR on their back for decades. Why stop now?