Pro auto racing in the US has some big questions to answer this off-season. What to do about Danica Patrick may be one, but the biggest one of them all will be what to do about Little E. Dale Earnhardt Jr., heir to NASCAR royalty and a standout driver in his own right, built a massive following among fans of the sport. He became the face of a racing team, a huge fan favorite and an ever-present force in the sport’s surging popularity. And now he’s out.
Make no mistake; this is a massive loss for NASCAR. Sure, Earnhardt doesn’t have the Cup wins of other competitors, but he’s a lot bigger than his 26 wins. He’s been the most popular driver 14 times. That’s a huge accomplishment when you consider how splintered and dedicated the NASCAR driver fan base can be. These folks are intensely loyal to individual drivers, and they make no bones about it. But just about everybody loves Little E.
Thousands of NASCAR fans tune in to see how Junior drives and how he finishes. And, now that he’s retiring, will they go too? Probably not. Many of them have been raised on auto racing, and they can’t imagine a world without it. Then again, this isn’t like Jordan retiring from basketball or Manning leaving football. Remember, these fans follow drivers, not teams.
And, in that regard, NASCAR is losing steam. This year, it’s Little E. Last year it was Tony Stewart. While Junior was the babyface of racing, the guy all the fans loved to love, Stewart was the rebel, the loud mouth, the bad guy everyone loved to hate. And now NASCAR has lost them both in the span of a year. Where does the narrative go from here?
It’s a major question for a sport that is dominated by personalities unlike anything else. Even boxing and pro wrestling pale in comparison when it comes to the power of personality and narrative in NASCAR. Fans need to “know” the drivers. They want the good v. evil conflict spilling out on the track. They want team-ups and rule benders and squeaky clean, good ol’ boys who love their “Daddy” and “Mama.” That’s who Earnhardt was. His “aw shucks” demeanor was home grown, and now it’s gone.
NASCAR has been here before. There came a day the King Richard Petty retired. Jeff Gordon, the Rainbow Warrior who polarized and energized the fan base like no other before or since, had his time come and go. Then there was the day NASCAR died when The Intimidator hit the wall. The new generation came along. Junior capturing hearts, Jimmie Johnson winning everything else and Stewart right there in the middle, rubbing on the track and in the headlines.
So, there’s precedent for hope … but who will it be? NASCAR needs to answer that question, and they need to do it soon.