|Photo credit: Matt Sullivan NASCAR via Getty Images|
Even those who don’t count themselves among “The Nation” keep up with his performance. Ask a non-fan to name a driver and nine out of 10 times, they’ll mention Earnhardt Jr. … the 10th time, they will mention his dad. Despite never having won a Sprint Cup Series title, Earnhardt is more the face of NASCAR than his teammate, six-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
When Earnhardt Jr. is having a good day, all is right with the world. NASCAR gets a gold star. Fans who have become disillusioned with the ever-changing rules return to the track and their televisions because it might just be his turn to hoist the trophy at Homestead.
Following his Daytona 500 victory and two second-place finishes, Earnhardt Jr.'s ducks seem to be in a row. There’s a smile on his face and a swagger in his step. People are talking about NASCAR striking up conversations at the water cooler Monday morning.
But Earnhardt Jr. says he isn't concerned with how much his performances impact viewership and NASCAR’s following as a whole. “I can’t concern myself with how much I move the needle. I think that goes outside of my comfort zone and what I feel is and what I think you need to concern yourself with if you’re as an individual,” he said Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway, site of the fourth race of the 2014 season.
According to Earnhardt Jr., it’s bigger than one guy. The differing personalities and rivalries, new faces and new opportunities play a role in the ebb and flow of the sport’s popularity among both new and seasoned fans.
“It definitely doesn’t live and breathe on everything that I’ve got going on. It would be perfectly fine without me, but I’m glad to be a part of it.”
That begs the question. Would NASCAR actually be OK without its Most Popular Driver? What if Earnhardt Jr.’s concussion from two years ago had caused long-term problems forcing him to retire? Who would fill the void? Who would people love and loathe? Where would all the Jr. fans go?
We don't know the answers to those questions, and neither does Earnhardt Jr. Though he says he's glad to be a "part" of the sport, he may not realize just how much sway and impact he actually has. What he does realize is that what he says and how he acts affects the perception of the sport.
"I want the sport to be healthy. And I want to do things that help the sport and make an impact on the sport. I try to do those things always taking opinions and advice on what I can do better and what I’m not doing that I could be doing to help the sport. You want to leave a mark of some kind. We all do."
The Food City 500 is currently under a delay for rain blanketing the area. Earnhardt Jr. is slated to start from the 14th position.
Follow @SkirtsandScuffs for updates from the track.