One of NASCAR’s more amazing streaks continued this season, and no, I don’t mean Jimmie Johnson's record-extending fifth championship.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Most Popular Driver Award for an eighth consecutive year.
It just goes to show that winning’s not everything. In fact, in Junior’s case, apparently it’s nothing. No matter how much he loses, his fans stand by their man.
Junior’s eight MPD awards are only half as many as Bill Elliott collected from 1984-2002 (he won it every season except three during that span.) And I know what a lot of cynics are saying: NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award is a bunch of bunk because it’s rigged to allow fans to vote early and often.
One of Elliott’s PR people told me, during Awesome Bill’s awesome streak, that sponsors liked MPD awards and so every effort was made to see that ballot boxes were property stuffed.
It was no secret that unabashed campaigns were launched every year to get out the fan vote for Bill and – I assume – similar efforts are made on the part of Junior.
To which I say: So what?
If a driver has a fan base that’s loyal enough and passionate enough about their guy to get out and rustle up votes, that says a lot about his popularity. It is evidence, in a round-about way, that the Most Poplar Driver Award is genuine. Or perhaps the name should be changed to the Most Passionate Fans Award.
It would be hard to dispute it in Earnhardt’s case. Anyone who attends a race at virtually any track around the country is aware of the thunderous ovation that greets Junior during driver introductions. They see the crowds on their feet, cheering raucously, every time Dale Jr. makes an upwardly-mobile move on the track.
Whenever Junior comes to town for a PR appearance, the crowds surge into the spill-over category. I watched him work an autograph session in Nashville a couple of years ago and the fan frenzy was downright scary. Some Little E enthusiasts got in line the night before and slept on the sidewalk in order to get a Junior autograph the following day.
And they put their money where their heart is: Earnhardt merchandise keeps flying off the shelves, wins or no wins.
The Earnhardt aura is easy to explain: His late father was a favorite of older, veteran race fans and they transferred their loyalty to the son. Conversely, Dale Jr. is a favorite of the younger, new-generation crowd who like his edgy persona. So he has the best of both worlds.
I’ve always been fond of Junior and I think he does an extraordinarily good job of dealing with his immense celebrity. He may be a rock star, but he’s never forgotten his roots. I think fans admire that trait.
For whatever reason(s) they stick with Junior through thick and thin, and it got pretty thin this past season. Just imagine the fan reaction if Earnhardt ever gets it in gear and starts competing for wins and championships. It will set the sport on its ear and cure a lot of what ails it.
Meanwhile, the struggles have not dampened Junior’s popularity. If you don’t believe it, just ask his fans.
Larry Woody is a veteran, award-winning sports journalist. Woody began working at the Nashville Tennessean in the 1960s and took over the auto racing beat full time in the early 1970s. Larry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.