Favorite son

Jonathan Baum

LONG POND, Pa. – Forget about ending a pole drought. Forget about rebounding from a bad day at Indy.

And forget about what the track position means for his chances to gain valuable points and keep himself in the top 12.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored the pole Friday here at Pocono for Sunday's Pennsylvania 500, but the real winners were those fortunate enough to witness his post-qualifying press conference.

No, there were no Tony Stewart-like fireworks or Kevin Harvick-esque barbs. Nor was there any Mark Martin-vintage humility or (insert your least-favorite driver here) whining.

It was just Junior being Junior. Funny, engaging, self-deprecating yet confident.

In other words, likeable.

This isn't about Junior favoritism (we've both praised and criticized Junior plenty on this site). This isn't about anointing him the second coming of, well, his father. This isn't some declaration that Junior is the best driver since Charlton Heston wheeled his chariot around in "Ben Hur."

It's about his personality, his presence.

It's about the guy who takes the time during a rain delay to chat with his fans, who tries to make them happy with conversation and autographs, who knows he's going to get cussed at (his description) when he finally must walk away and return to his car.

And he feels bad for those fans that were waiting three- and four-deep in the crowd, who, according to Junior, "probably got somebody next to them that needs to change deodorant brands."

Junior says it like it is, but without ripping anyone (well, except for odor-challenged fans). Junior praises his team but also points out their deficiencies, all without insulting them or calling for their heads – except perhaps when crew chief Tony Eury Jr. refuses to give him the Redskins score during the race – "Even when they're winning," Junior says. "Tony Jr. is not much of a talker."

The same Tony Jr., according to Dale Jr., who apparently would like to be described not as being a good crew chief, but as being "great" – though he would prefer Dale Jr. stop waking him up in the middle of the night with worried calls about the next race's car and whether it's any good.

The driver-crew chief relationship is key in NASCAR, and it's always been as real as it can get with Junior.

Earnhardt Jr. recalls how teammate Martin Truex Jr.'s current crew chief Kevin Manion, while at the helm for one of Dale Jr.'s races, refused to pull over on the way to a race to let Junior buy some CDs at Wal-Mart partly because Manion surely wouldn't like Junior's taste in music.

There isn't necessarily anything extraordinary about any of this other than Dale Earnhardt Jr. letting his fans see this normal side of him, this real side. It's not manufactured or censored, it's just him.

Those who don't like Jimmie Johnson might call him vanilla (and those who really don't like him might call him a cheater). Those who don't like Stewart might call him a, well, a word that might earn us a 25-point penalty.

Junior is neither but exudes the best qualities of both. He'll give a good quote, provide some color (sometimes a little off-color), but usually not at the expense of others. He can question another driver's actions without using the standby (and admittedly amusing) "he ran out of talent" line.

Junior will call out NASCAR if need be but also will give the organization credit if merited.

He'll speak up if he feels someone was out of line in their comments or actions, like he did after Harvick's criticisms of Teresa Earnhardt. He also will back down when he realizes he took the wrong tack, as he did several years ago at Daytona after criticizing Harvick and questioning his place with RCR (Junior admitted he was "acting a little asinine").

In other words, he takes responsibility for his words and actions. The same can't always be said for all drivers.

Junior won't just regurgitate the same old thing you hear from some drivers – most of whom are perfectly friendly, intelligent, accessible and likeable in their own right – but rather will put his own unique, sometimes grammatically entertaining slant on whatever the subject may be.

It's just things Junior does right simply by being himself.

If you aren't a fan, maybe it's because you are tired of hearing about him all the time. Or maybe you think he needs to earn more of the hype himself and not benefit from his last name.

Perhaps you don't like Chevy. Or maybe you don't like beer – at least not the King of (no, we're not talking Richard Petty).

And all of those reasons are, by and large, perfectly legitimate. Not everyone needs to be a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan. In fact, the more fans rooting against the man our own Bob Margolis described as being the "Son of Elvis," the better for the sport. There are plenty of drivers out there worthy of fan dedication.

But after watching Junior interact with those who do pledge their allegiance to the red No. 8, after listening to him speak his mind with complete honesty but without venom, after being entertained in press conference after press conference, after watching how well he handles the constant swarm of attention from fans and reporters who sometimes don't even have any questions to ask but simply gather so as not to miss a single utterance, after witnessing again and again how at ease he is with himself – well, forget about jumping on the Junior Nation bandwagon, it just becomes hard not to like the guy.

When he says he'd be the most surprised guy in the garage if he doesn't make the Chase, it's hard not to view that as confidence rather than arrogance.

When he freely admits that he benefited from the rain delay and cooled track during qualifying, recognizing he wouldn't have won the pole without it, he doesn't try to take credit when it's not fully deserved, yet he still praises his team for a solid effort.

But when he does get plenty fired up while in the car during races after a mistake on pit road or a setup change he doesn't like, he'll yell back and forth with his team, his crew chief, over the radio. Shows he's passionate, he's imperfect, he's human.

When he is asked about finally winning another pole, he is genuinely excited that "They're giving these flags out now" for winning poles. "We're going to hang that up somewhere," he says as he slightly lifts the flag off the table in front of him.

He shows how he values his fans' input, that he wants to hear what they think about his move to Hendrick, how he is relieved that he is gaining more and more support from his fans for the move. It all shows.

"It's good to be able to talk to the fans when you can get them in a crowd like that and really listen to what they're saying," he said. "Some of them are congratulating us and wishing us good luck. … That's a good feeling.

"Everybody gets their motivation from different areas. But I get a lot of my motivation from my fan base. And I'm sort of dependent on that."

All this doesn't make Junior better than anyone else – many other drivers have good (or better) images, say the right things and are good with fans and the media – and it certainly doesn't make him a better driver. He has a bunch of wins, but he clearly has more to prove in the form of Cup championships.

So root for him or don't, praise NASCAR's biggest star or curse him. Either is your right, and neither is right or wrong.

And if you choose to hate him, that's cool. It doesn't matter much to Dale Earnhardt Jr. He'll take it in stride, just like he does with most everything else.

Or he'll get fired up and cuss a little, as he is prone to do.

Either way, what's not to like?