A generation of NASCAR fans have grown up with Dale Earnhardt Jr. as stock-car racing’s most popular driver.
Earnhardt has won the last 14 season-ending most-popular awards, even winning last season when he missed roughly half the schedule due to concussion symptoms.
Earnhardt has announced his retirement at the conclusion of this season, which poses a great question: Who does JR Nation root for now?
Earnhardt was asked that recently on Twitter and responded on his weekly podcast. He suggested a variety of drivers – most up-and-comers, but also a few veterans – who he finds likable.
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His thoughts (in somewhat alphabetical order):
“If you’re a fan of social media, Ryan Blaney is your guy, and he’s going to run good. He’ll go on late(-night) shows. If you like seeing your driver doing different things, being interactive and social, that’s your guy.”
“He drives the No. 3 car (Dale Jr.’s father’s number). He’s a bit of a goofball; an outgoing attitude and an outdoorsman. A bit of a cowboy. He has a reputation that maybe appeals to some of the core NASCAR fans, the older NASCAR fans. He obviously drives for a really established, old team (Richard Childress Racing) with a good reputation.”
“He has the last name (son of Bill Elliott) and the talent. A very similar situation to (Earnhardt), coming on as a legacy. He’s already pretty big, and going to be bigger when he starts clicking with some wins.”
“Super fast: Raw speed, he’s got it. He kind of shies away from really putting himself out there; I haven’t seen a lot of his personality (publicly). He is going to be part of the broadcast this week for the Xfinity race. He’s got that mullet, so he can pick on himself. Doesn’t take himself too seriously. But when you see him around the race track, you see a very focused, game-face kind of guy.”
“He is dominating the series. He’s the modern-day A.J. Foyt or Tony Stewart (racing in different series). Another incredibly talented driver with a great personality. A family man and squeaky clean. There’s a little bit of chatter in the media about whether he’s aggressive enough. Trust me, Kyle Larson has no problem putting the chrome” to the test.
“A fun guy. He’s a hard racer; doesn’t race aggressively or silly, but he’ll run you hard. I think he’s a guy who is around for a (long) time and continue to get better.”
“NASCAR has always been a kind of American sport with American drivers. We’ve had a couple of guys come in, like Juan Pablo (Montoya) that are international talents, but we haven’t really broken through the barrier to being a global sport, the way F-1 is. I think (adding Mexico’s Suarez) is a logical progression for NASCAR, where we could be a sport that races in Brazil, Canada and overseas.”
“Obviously you’ll get a guy who is winning races now, and championships. He’s All-American, a family man, not afraid to get his hands dirty. Just an all-around cool guy. So he’s the obvious choice for the good guy.”
“He’s got the black hat. He wins a lot of races and creates a little controversy here and there. Not liked by everyone, but he does have a rabid core fan base. A lot of young fans like Kyle Busch because he drives the candy car, and I do like M&Ms myself. Kyle keeps it interesting; you’re going to be entertained.”
Martin Truex Jr.
“Martin Truex Jr. is a neat choice because it’s unorthodox. They are a team up in Denver, Col. If you were outside this little bubble (of race shops) in North Carolina, people didn’t take you seriously at all. Now (Furniture Row Racing) is one of the best teams in the sport.”
“He did an amazing job in the Xfinity series; he outraced our cars. Now he’s in a brand-new team, not one of the higher-funded operations, and I think he gets quite a bit out of that race car. He’s a guy who can make it and you can go on that ride.”
Whoever drives the 88 car
“I’m excited for them to figure all that out. We’re going to give you a little mystery – like the prize in the Crackerjack box.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell