NASCAR is in the midst of the chase for its championship. It should be, without doubt, the most exciting time of the season, Daytona being the exception of course. The teams are in high gear and the drivers should be shining bright in the glare of the spotlight they are cast into. It is, however, not the drivers racing that hold the public’s interest, but the one driver that is not. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has long been NASCAR’s most popular driver and being sidelined with a serious concussion has done nothing to stem the tide of loyalty and affection fans express for one of the biggest names in the sport.
So what is it about Junior that makes him so popular even though he hasn’t been in a car since early summer? Some may say it’s being the namesake of one of the biggest stars in NASCAR. Dale Earnhardt Sr was more than a driver, more than even a racer, he was an icon of racing, one of the last ties to a history rich in culture and tradition. Dale Sr was one of the last blue collar heroes, learning to race on the dirt tracks of rural North Carolina and at the hands of legends such as his own father, Ralph Earnhardt. This is where Junior comes from, a long line of men who raced hard with success being marked by the amount of dirt on the car on Sunday morning. It would be ridiculous to say that is not part of it, not part of what draws fans to him, endears him to their hearts, and makes them feel like he is part of their family. It is, without question, part of it, especially for the long time fans. He is the last tie to his father and many fans hang onto him like a life preserver, desperate to hang onto a past that racing has long left behind, for better or worse.
Junior is, however, much more than his lineage. Dale Earnhardt Junior is an ambassador for a sport that has in recent years seemed to lose steam in its level of popularity and who is in desperate need of a real champion, and much more than that, a hero. Junior is just the person they need. He is the right combination of the old and new guard. He drives hard but smart and seems to see a much bigger picture in racing and in life. When Junior made the announcement he would be steeping out of his car due to a concussion the response received was a tumultuous one. Some people applauded as he made the commitment to be well and take care of himself, while others grumbled he wasn’t his father, who was infamously tough. Junior held his ground though, bringing much needed attention to concussions, and other head injuries, as he openly shared his concussion struggles with the public. As Junior has made progress with his condition, being sure to take his time, the public has learned a great deal regarding head trauma and the effect it can have on someone’s life. He has made concussions, and recovery, a part of everyday life and brought, not the tragedy of them, but the hope of recovery from them, to his fans and to the public.
So while the Championship Chase continues, while Jimmy Johnson pushes for his seventh championship and Kevin Harvick and the others chase Johnson, it is Dale Jr. that garners the attention and affection of the fans, not because he is his father’s son but because he is him-and the fans love him for it.
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