When the news that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was unable to race at Charlotte and Kansas – Chase races Nos. 5 and 6 – due to a concussion sustained at Talladega, a collective sigh could be felt around “Junior Nation.”
It dawned on me that there was no current heir apparent to the NASCAR/NMPA Most Popular Driver title if something took Earnhardt Jr. out of racing permanently. He is vastly popular despite the fact he is not a prolific winner and hasn’t won a championship.
This season was so promising but now is laid to waste like so many others since he teamed with Hendrick Motorsports. Some would say it’s been that way ever since he came into Sprint Cup racing
Nevertheless, Earnhardt Jr. has captured the hearts of his fans, who dutifully choose him as their favorite year, after year.
This took my thoughts two ways: Who could even try to take over the most popular title and who came before to pave the way for Earnhardt Jr.?
It’s far easier to look to the past than project into the future, so to the past we go.
The first year the most popular driver award was given was in 1956 and last week’s subject, Curtis Turner, won. He had a one-year term, however, and “Fireball” Roberts held the title the following season.
In fact, there wasn’t a repeat winner until Richard Petty scored his second nod in 1964, his first coming in 1962. In between Fred Lorenzen got a turn. In 1965 Lorenzen became the second repeat winner. Petty, gaining the hearts of his fans, won a third term in 1968.
Bobby Allison earned some notoriety in 1971 with his first of four consecutive most popular driver honors. But Petty beat that by earning his fourth through eighth titles from 1974-1978.
Allison was never one to roll over to Petty. He won his fifth through eighth designations as most popular driver from 1980-1983.
And then there was “Awesome Bill” Elliott from Dawsonville, Ga., who came on the scene. Elliot got his first title of most popular driver in 1984 and won it consecutively until 1988.
Darrell Waltrip interrupted Elliot’s popularity in the years 1989 and 1990, but Elliot rebounded in the 1991-2000, gathering a total of 15 honors.
Dale Earnhardt halted Elliot’s accumulation of most popular driver awards in 2001 as the late driver earned his one and only nod that fateful year.
In 2002 Elliot won his 16th, and last, title – a record.
From 2003 to the present Earnhardt Jr.’s name has been etched on the MPD trophy. He is a beacon for his fans, the symbol of the sport, and a goodwill ambassador for NASCAR.
Which begs the question, if not Earnhardt Jr. as most popular driver, then who? Which of the field could possibly fill his driving shoes in the hearts of the NASCAR-loving public?
The Busch brothers have been far too brusque and bristly to earn the honors. Tony Stewart is likable to his fans, but he doesn’t quite fit the image. Matt Kenseth was a possibility leaving Ford for Toyota may have closed that avenue.
Carl Edwards is certainly likable, so he is a possibility. But some say his charming exterior thinly veils his anger. Denny Hamlin could be on a short list, but a lot of people feel he considers himself morally superior, so he could be blacklisted.
Brad Keselowski won the most popular driver title three times in the Nationwide Series – he is tied with Kenny Wallace for the most to date. He is a strong candidate for earning the Cup title. A championship would almost solidify it – but perhaps not.
It seems difficult to figure out the criteria used by the fans to choose the most popular driver. Elliot had won the Winston Million in 1985 and the championship in 1988. He was likable, had a goofy grin and a nice-guy persona.
Earnhardt Jr. has yet to win much of note in the last decade. His two Nationwide Series championships in 1998 and 1999 are old news. He’s won a Daytona 500 but that was also a long time ago – Kenseth has scored two since then. So, why is he most popular nine and possibly 10 years running?
It has to be more than simply being Earnhardt’s son. It has to be more than old nationwide championships and a Daytona 500 win. It is something intangible and unexplainable that gets Earnhardt Jr. the fan vote year in and year out.
One day Earnhardt Jr.’s reign will end. When that finally happens, who do you think NASCAR’s next most popular driver will be?