Has Dale Earnhardt Jr’s popularity stunted NASCAR growth or did he save it from itself?

Heading into Michigan, Kevin Harvick made some headlines on his radio show when he laid blame for the sport’s lack of progress in recent years in the lap of Dale Earnhardt Jr. That never is a good thing to do.

“For me, I believe that Dale Jr. has had a big part in kind of stunting the growth of NASCAR because he’s got these legions of fans and this huge outreach of being able to reach different places that none of us have the possibility to reach, but he’s won nine races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports and hasn’t been able to reach outside of that,” Harvick said. So, is Junior a “big part in kind of stunting the growth of NASCAR?”

Junior is an interesting, unique story. In fact, his life story from the date of his father’s death to his winning the 2004 Daytona 500 is pure Hollywood gold. His win when they returned to Daytona in 2001, his four straight Talladega victories, to 2004 when the 500 was his first of six victories that season. Pure gold, damn near fictional if we had not lived to see it happen with our own eyes. The Legend’s fans became those of the Legacy, and those 15 wins in his first five seasons put the focus squarely on him.

After 2004, he went from extraordinary to ordinary, yet his legion of fans remained. Is it his fault Jimmie Johnson has not been marketed properly? I mean, you shouldn’t see a poster of Jimmie without seeing him flanked by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. He is NASCAR royalty. Still, he was not the son of a legend.

Junior is popular because he is the son of that Legend, a young man who had tremendous early success to allow the Earnhardt fans to keep on cheering. He also had enough of a good ole boy personality to keep them loyal through all the tribulations to come.

Did his lack of success over recent years stunt NASCAR’s growth? Maybe, it was his continued presence that kept it from sliding further down the tubes. In fact, the champion has only taken the Most Popular Driver award six times in the season they won the championship. The last was Bill Elliott nearly 30 years ago. So much for Harvick’s theory.

The Most Popular Driver award has been handed out 66 times. On 50 occasions, the most popular driver had the last name of Petty, Allison, Elliott, or Earnhardt. In fact, since 1970 only David Pearson and Darrell Waltrip (twice) has interrupted that dynasty.

Mr. Harvick is wrong. It is a combination of success and personality and royal jelly that makes one the Most Popular. Neither Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart laid claim to the award. Neither has Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, or either Busch brother. Neither has Kevin Harvick.

I guess next year we will have to find another Most Popular Driver. My guess? How about another Elliott. These families have carried NASCAR on their back for decades. Why stop now?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com

Ron Thornton
Ron Thornton
A former radio and television broadcaster, newspaper columnist, Little League baseball coach, Ron Thornton has been following NASCAR on this site since 2004. While his focus may have changed over recent years, he continues to make periodic appearances only when he has something to say. That makes him a rather unique journalist.


  1. I think Kevin Harvick, along with NASCAR and many others, are overlooking the fact that many fans have stayed BECAUSE of Dale Jr. He has been a tie to the throwback days, when the racing was good, and the “new” NASCAR. Through the COT, schedule and rule changes, later start times, boring races, ect.., many were interested only because Jr. was racing. He has not always been competitive, but has been a great ambassador for the sport.
    There’s no doubt it would have been better for the sport if he had won more often. But stunt the growth? No way! I think he has slowed the decline, and it will be evident when he is gone.
    Some drivers need to learn that being up front and winning does not guarantee popularity; it’s often how you behave when you don’t win that the Fans will judge.

  2. Maybe Harvick should blame himself, since taking over Sr.’s ride he hasn’t had the success that Earnhardt did. Or blame JJ for being uninspiring in spite of being an exceptional driver. How about Brian France, for messing with a formula that worked for decades, and has turned it into something unrecognizable? I really expect better than this from Kevin. Cheap shot.

  3. If you ask the question, would NASCAR (with respect to ratings and attendance) be better off if Jr. would have had more success? The answer is probably “yes”. If you ask the question, would NASCAR still have ratings and attendance issues regardless of how much success Jr. had? The answer would definitely be “yes”.

    I think most fans place the blame on NASCAR leadership (specifically Brian France), the wholesale changes thrown at fans that nobody asked for and the homogenization of both the cars and drivers (the cars are all the same and drivers have had to become PC to please both sponsors and television).

    Of course Harvick doesn’t have the balls to cast any blame on NASCAR leadership because he is afraid of the repercussions. And for the record, while I like Jr as a person, I have never been a fan. It’s just typical of Harvick’s punk/bully personality. Blaming Jr for NASCAR’s ills is ridiculous.

    Hey Kevin, a lot of fans were also turned off when you purposely wrecked half the field on that restart at Talladega a couple of years ago for your own selfish benefit. Punk.


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