By admin | September 17, 2008
By Richard Allen
NASCAR Is an oddity in that the sportâ€™s most popular figure has not been a regular winner in some time and has never won a championship.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is without question the most popular driver in the sport despite the fact that he has only one win over the last two years of racing. As a matter of fact, in 2005 and 2007 Junior was already eliminated from championship contention by this point of the season. In each of those years he failed to qualify for the Chase for the Championship.
Unlike the other major sports, with one possible exception, a team must win and be a championship contender year after year or they will fall from the ranks of fan favorites. That one exception is baseballâ€™s Chicago Cubs who have made much of the â€˜lovable losersâ€™ title.
The major sports leagues, the media and the television networks may not admit to rooting for certain teams or individuals to win, but the leagues in particular certainly do not mind seeing the increased attention, attendance and television ratings boost that comes with the most popular teams winning championships.
Would a title run by Earnhardt provide such a boost for NASCAR?
Obviously, his fans have remained loyal without titles. Perhaps a championship by their driver is not necessary to keep their interest.
Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson have more impressive career statistics than Junior. Each has multiple championships and each has more race wins. However, the popularity of each pales in comparison to Earnhardt.
Certainly, Earnhardt has improved his lot in life by moving from Dale Earnhardt, Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports. Last year while driving for DEI he suffered numerous mechanical failures and poor finishes which left him out of the Chase.
This year, a win in Michigan combined with more consistently strong runs throughout the season have placed the fan favorite well within the Chase standings. And, Junior made the most of his opportunity to race for a title by leading numerous laps and scoring a Top 5 finish in the opening playoff race this past weekend in New Hampshire.
He currently sits fourth in the standings, 50 points behind co-leaders Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson. This is the best chance Junior has had for a championship in some time.
So, with Earnhardt now driving for a solid, championship proven organization the question remains, what would a title do for NASCAR?
Needless to say, Junior himself, Hendrick Motorsports and many fans would be pleased. But, would there be a significant boost in television ratings? Would the sport receive more attention? Would there be more tickets sold if Junior emerges as the 2008 Sprint Cup winner?
While it would be impossible to answer those questions without Earnhardt actually winning the Cup, it seems as though Juniorâ€™s fans do not necessarily need a title to remain loyal.
Could it be that NASCAR would be better served for Kyle Busch to win the championship so that his anti-hero status could remain in tact?
While it may not be appropriate to lump Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in with the Chicago Cubs as lovable losers, he is without question the most loved figure in NASCAR. It does not appear as though that will change with or without a championship.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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