At Homestead when Dale Earnhardt Jr. parked his Chevrolet and enjoyed a beer-chugging sendoff with his Hendrick Motorsports teammates and others, many people thought it was the end of an era.
An “era” might be overly descriptive, but don’t tell the “Junior Nation” that.
Because NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver – he will be for the 15th time this year – and the son of a racing icon whom no one has forgotten or will forget, was through as a full-time competitor.
He will move on to new adventures, the most public of which will likely be his role as a television analyst. He will be busy with his team, JR Motorsports, occasional racing and other as yet unpublicized endeavors.
Earnhardt Jr. had already won two Busch Series championships before his father perished in a wreck at Daytona in 2001. By that time the son was well on his way to the assumption of his father’s mantle.
But the death of the elder Earnhardt created a void in NASCAR, if for no other reason than the sport lost the man who represented almost everything fans love about stock car racing – achievement from humble beginnings, a warrior’s courage and skill, willingness to give no quarter or ask for none and blessed with common sense and leadership qualities.
Fans turned to Earnhardt Jr. to help fill that void. Their thinking was that if they could support the father they would do the same for the son.
Earnhardt Jr. gave them their reward. He didn’t do it by being the “Intimidator” his father was. He didn’t do it by achieving a high number of victories. He didn’t do it by winning a championship. He never won a Monster Series NASCAR Cup title.
Instead, he did it by simply being himself. As a competitor he was able and talented. But as a man he was smart, affable and humble.
His personality was such that fans and media alike were attracted to him. As far as the press was concerned his opinions were as valued as his father’s.
Fans appreciated Earnhardt Jr. and supported him if for no other reason than while he was a more than capable driver, he was also a “nice guy” with whom they couldn’t find fault.
I believe Earnhardt Jr.’s legacy is simply himself.
So the question arises, how does NASCAR find, and promote, another Earnhardt Jr.?
It should not bother. It can’t. But it should hang on to the fans it has, which include those who aligned themselves with Earnhardt Jr.
How it does that is NASCAR’s dilemma.
But it doesn’t have to worry about its next most popular driver. There will be one.
Or will it be someone we don’t even suspect?
When a new driver ascends to the level achieved by Earnhardt Jr. – assuming that one does – that will be good for the sport.
But what is also good for the sport is the fact that Earnhardt Jr. will still be a part of it.
I’m thinking we’ll see a lot of him and hear a lot from him.
He’ll continue to be himself.
And that is exactly what his fans want.
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