February 19, 2009
He walked through the back hallways of the Volusia Mall, accompanied by a security detail and a horde of publicists on cell phones. He was shorter than you'd expect, wearing jeans -- Wranglers, I'm sure, though I didn't check -- and an adidas warmup jacket over a gleaming white t-shirt.
And when Dale Earnhardt Jr. stepped out in front of the Champs Sporting Goods, a thousand members of Junior Nation screamed in delirium.
Before Daytona, before The Vickers Incident, before Junior split NASCAR down the middle this past weekend, he spent an evening at the Volusia Mall meeting and greeting many of his most loyal fans. If you'd bought $150 worth of Junior swag from Champs, and if you were willing to wait in what turned out to be an hours-long line, you too could get fifteen seconds and a photograph with Junior. I stood in the center of the crowd, as you can see there, but the rows of people went on behind me for fifty yards.
As the festivities began, an adidas flack tried hard to get the crowd stoked into a frenzy, throwing a few shots Kyle Busch's way and leading halfhearted "Dale!" "Junior!" cheers. The man came onstage himself, and he looked both casual and uncomfortable at the same time -- casual because he's used to being in front of millions, uncomfortable because he has to speak in marketing jargon at these events, using phrases like "great brands" and "good relationship," lines that nobody can pull off without sounding forced and cliched.
You want a reason why Junior is so popular? That's it. His popularity stems not from who he is, but what he represents. Sure, he's the son of a legend, but he's not The Intimidator Reincarnated. He's everybody's dream boyfriend, dream best friend, dream son, dream big brother. "He drinks beer," a guy named Dave from Montpelier, Virginia told me, and that pretty much sums it all up. Dale Earnhardt Junior drinks beer, and millions of people love him for that.
Once Junior finished up his awkward rah-rah-adidas speech, the PR machine went into action. Junior was hustled back into the store, and large curtains were erected over the windows that you can see in the photo behind him. If you didn't pay, you didn't get even a free glimpse.
But the people who did get behind the Junior Curtain -- man, you should have seen their faces. They were beaming, clutching this photo of a smiling Junior with his arm on their shoulders. I'd bet that's going to be quite a few 2009 Christmas cards. You look at how happy these people were at getting to touch their idol, and even the most hardened cynic would have to admit that Dale Earnhardt Junior is doing something very, very good for his fans, whether he knows it or not.
"Should I ask him if he wants to go to dinner?" one female fan asked another as they waited in line. "Do it! Do it!" her friend encouraged. I never found out if they closed the deal, but if I had to guess, Junior rejected her in such a way that made her feel thankful.
So in the end, then, it doesn't matter if Junior never wins another race. Oh, his fans want him to win, sure. But more than that, they just want him out there. Maybe it's even better that he's not the best driver in NASCAR; that just means he's working hard at it, every single day. That's a hell of an inspiration.
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