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Why is Dale Earnhardt Jr. the most popular driver — ah-gain?

Jay Busbee
From The Marbles

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In at least one race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a record of victory that Jimmie Johnson can't hope to match.

For the eighth straight year, Earnhardt has won NASCAR's most popular driver award. Announced at Thursday's National Motorsports Press Association Myers Brothers luncheon at the Bellagio, the award has become something of a tradition for Earnhardt even though he hasn't won in 93 (and counting) races. He now trails only Bill Elliott (16 wins) and Richard Petty (10) for all-time most-popular wins, and he's within two of Elliott's record of 10 straight wins from 1991 to 2000.

Which begs the question: just why the heck is Junior so popular? The guy has a tough time breaking the top 15 in most races, and he seemed overmatched or underprepared for so many races this season. If he doesn't win before next April, he'll go into the Texas race at risk of losing 100 straight. And yet he's still got a rabid following, a Junior Nation millions strong, cheering his every move and forgiving his every failing.

We've discussed this before, but in short, it's the failure that, in a way, perpetuates Junior's popularity. Junior had the cards stacked against him from the start — raised in stock car royalty compared to, say, the trailer park of Johnson's youth, he never really had a choice in what he could become. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was one of the most domineering and intense figures in American sports, and the idea that Junior could even think of, say, going to law school wasn't just absurd; it was unthinkable.

So Junior fails. Often, and spectacularly. (Or miserably, depending on your point of view.) But really, don't we all? Don't we all have day after day when work's not going right, when the family or the significant other is just an utter pain, when we get cut off in traffic and snarked at by some mouthy cashier? Life is a series of small failings, and you can either be broken by that, or you can keep on driving forward. Junior, for all his faults, keeps on driving forward.

Perhaps Sprint Cup-level racing isn't really the thing for Junior. He seems to get a lot more enjoyment out of talking about his beloved Washington Redskins or his iRacing than out of breaking down yet another rough race by the 88, and you can't really blame him. Yes, he blames the car and the equipment and the crew chief and everything else other than the guy behind the wheel, but really, how many of us look at our own lives and consider that maybe we're the cause of all our own problems? It's a tough realization for anybody to make. To expect Junior to lay bare his soul for the delight of NASCAR fans might make for good drama, but it's pretty miserable psychotherapy.

Junior already knows this. He's already come to terms with the fact that he'll never satisfy everyone, that his last name is more anchor than honor. But he keeps on pushing forward, because he knows that's what he ought to be doing. Whether it's what he wants to be doing ... well, that's for him to decide.

Still, for all his troubles on the track, he's got a nation of people who like him better than any other driver in the sport. We should all have such problems.

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