Earnhardt's Victory May Give NASCAR Needed Boost
By Tim Richardson
It took four years and 144 races, but Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of NASCAR's most popular drivers and marketable personalities, won a race.
Earnhardt led 95 of the 200 laps at the Quicken Loans 400 in Michigan June 17, and he held a comfortable 5.468-second lead with just 10 laps remaining. His win on Father's Day came almost four years to the day (June 15, 2008) since his last Sprint Cup Series win, also at Michigan International Speedway.
It's fitting that both of Earnhardt's Michigan wins were on Father's Day, because he is the son of a man many consider the greatest driver ever, seven-time Sprint Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Earnhardt Sr. died in 2001 when he crashed during the final lap of the Daytona 500. On that day, Junior -- as he's known now in the NASCAR world -- was given the torch, whether he wanted it or not.
Earnhardt Jr.'s lack of success for so many years had many wondering whether he would ever win another race. His 143 races between wins was the sixth-longest streak in Sprint Cup history. Additionally, 26 different drivers won a Sprint Cup Series race during Junior's winless streak.
Despite his inability to get to the winner's circle during recent years, Earnhardt Jr. has been named NASCAR's Most Popular Driver, as chosen by the fans, for nine consecutive years and was the highest-paid driver for the fourth year in a row.
According to Forbes, Earnhardt earned $28 million in 2011, largely because of the highest licensing income in the sport and an assortment of personal endorsements with companies such as Wrangler, Nationwide Insurance, Chevrolet and AMP Energy. To put that number into perspective, Earnhardt's winnings throughout a 36-race schedule in 2011 were more than $4.1 million, of which he received a 50-percent share.
Award-winning motorsports journalist Liz Clark covered NASCAR for nearly two decades as a reporter for outlets that included USA Today. She said NASCAR was better when Junior was competitive and winning.
"Every sport needs stars and villains, and NASCAR is better when its largest personalities are doing something," said Clarke. "In a sport where drivers are bland naturally or by design so as not to offend anyone, Junior connects authentically with people, as he is natural, speaks his mind and makes no apologies for being himself."
Although he is still the highest-paid driver in NASCAR, Earnhardt Jr.'s earnings in 2011 were down from his income during each of the previous years. Forbes estimated that Earnhardt made $29 million in 2010, slightly less than his 2009 total of $30 million. In 2008, Junior raked in $35 million.
Clarke is also the author of One Helluva Ride, an intense account of how NASCAR swept the nation. While covering the sport, she got to know many of its champions, including the late Earnhardt Sr. Clark said part of Junior's likeability came from the role he was thrust into after his father's passing.
"Junior's popularity cuts along generational lines," Clarke said. "He is someone who has tremendous goodwill among fans, some that he inherited from his father and those he's earned who have been incredibly loyal to him throughout his drought."
In Clarke's opinion, Junior was charged with the burden of helping NASCAR deal with his father's untimely death. She likened his situation to that of John F. Kennedy Jr.
"[Earnhardt Jr.] inherited the role of helping the NASCAR fan base grieve the loss of his dad, while he grieved as well," Clarke said. "Junior handled it with great dignity, and that endeared him to a lot of people. There was no one quite like his dad. … Junior's been great for both groups, old-school fans who followed his father, and the new generation that embraces him."
Junior's popularity extends into the social universe as well. His official Facebook page has more than 1.3 million likes. In comparison, five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has less than half that number.
While he has excelled on Madison Avenue and in merchandise sales, Earnhardt began to turn things around on the track in 2011, as he was one of 12 drivers to qualify for NASCAR's season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup. It was the first time he had made the Chase since 2008. He finished 2011 ranked seventh in the final standings, his best showing since a fifth-place finish in 2005, when he raced for Dale Earnhardt Inc., the organization his father had started.
Junior left DEI after the 2007 season to sign a five-year deal with Hendrick Motorsports. Earnhardt extended his contract, worth an estimated $10 million annually, with Hendrick in September 2011. The extension reportedly keeps Junior with Hendrick through 2017.
Junior's win June 17 was his 19th Cup victory. He is second in points in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings, with a series-best 12 finishes in the top 10 during 15 races this season.
Asked after the race about Earnhardt's victory ending his winless streak, reigning Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart said, "It's not a national holiday." Attendance has been down at many NASCAR tracks around the country, while television ratings are off about 5 percent on average this year, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Dover International Speedway in Dover, Del., has lost roughly 45 percent of its attendance during the past five years. If the reason for lower attendance and TV ratings is less excitement for the sport, more appearances by Junior in victory lane could provide an economic boost NASCAR needs.
Posted June 19, 2012