For the last several years, I've read comments on message boards that said that they like Dale Earnhardt Jr., at least somewhat, but they hate his fans. I've been doing some soul searching on that issue, because I am a Dale Jr. fan. Is it because of beer cans on the track at Talladega and some other tracks? Is it because we are the largest fan base in Nascar, and we are vocal in our support for our driver? Or is it some other reason?
I have read hit pieces on Dale Jr. over the last year that absolutely disgust me. I've read people bashing him because he left DEI. I've covered the reasons why Dale Jr. left the company that his father founded many times here. It's simple. Racing. DEI wasn't competitive, so Dale Jr. left to go race for a team that was. It's that simple. Did he whine or cry in the process? If he did, he did not do so publicly. He was very forthright about the situation, and he answered questions with very direct answers when he was able to. When a contract is being hashed out, it's not always in the best interests of anyone involved to be spilling their guts to the press. Dale Jr. didn't do that, but he tried to keep his fans, and the Nascar world as a whole updated on what was going on.
Have Dale Jr. fans thrown beer cans and other objects over fences at race tracks? Of course they have. But don't fool yourself into thinking that fans of other drivers haven't done exactly the same thing. For some reason, it's only the Dale Jr. fans that get blamed though. I've been at race tracks and have seen fans of virtually every driver under the sun do stupid things. I've seen fans of Kurt Busch hurl Miller cans over the fence. I've seen fans of Kyle Busch hurl Bud cans, which I find interesting. I've seen fans of Jimmie Johnson hurl cans, bottles, and what I think might have been a dirty diaper one time. Does this make the individual drivers bad people? Of course it doesn't. They have no control over what some drunken idiot that happens to be wearing a certain tee shirt or hat does. Are there Dale Jr. fans that probably shouldn't be allowed in the stands? Yes. But it's all proportional. Dale Jr. has by far the biggest fan base, so you are going to probably see more idiots wearing Dale Jr. gear just because of that.
What many people like to do is crucify a driver based on what a small percentage of his fans do. Show me any driver in Nascar, and I can go to any track on race day and find a fan of that driver doing something idiotic. Whenever you bring in a crowd of 100,000 people, there are bound to be a few mental cases in the crowd. There are likely to be a few drunks too. Or even maybe more than a few!
A common misconception is that Dale Jr. seeks out the media and looks for opportunities to get his face on TV. That's just not true either. Dale Jr. has never sought the spotlight, but he has been a smart business man. He recognizes his popularity for what it is, and is willing to make the most of it. Does he do so many Wrangler commercials because he demands to? No. He does them because that's what the sponsor demands of him. All drivers with sponsors do the same thing. Is Dale Jr. the most sought out driver, by both sponsors and fans? You bet he is. There are major corporations in the world that would love to have Dale Jr.'s name associated with their products or services. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a marketing manager's dream come true.
Way back in 2001, after a terrible Sunday afternoon, Dale Earnhardt was gone. In his book, Driver #8, a distraught Dale Jr. was worried about losing his job, his sponsors, everything he had worked for. He believed that with his dad gone, nobody would ever sponsor him to driver a race car. As it turned out, he was wrong. What Dale Jr. didn't know was that people loved him for who he was, not just because of who his father was.
Today, the sport of Nascar is more popular than ever. Many fans at the track or who faithfully watch on TV have never seen Richard Petty race, or David Pearson, or Cale Yarborough, or Tim Richmond, or even Dale Earnhardt for that matter. Dale's death prompted something that even he probably never would have thought possible. Nascar became a national sport, and began drawing even international fans. Dale Earnhardt's standing as a hero and as a national icon soon became the domain of his son.
Dale Jr. is famous worldwide. I was watching some show on the National Geographic channel one night. The show dealt with Japan, in some way or other. The cameraman was wearing an old Budweiser hat with the famous '8' on it. People pointed to his hat and said "Junior!" Dale Jr. no longer uses the 8, but instead the 88, but people even in Asia recognize what that number means. Strangely enough, the cameraman didn't seem to understand what they were saying. Apparently it was just some old hat, and he obviously wasn't a Nascar fan, but some of the people on the streets in whatever Japanese city he was in recognized the famous '8' and what it represented.
As the largest fan base in all of Nascar, the Earnhardt Nation is a huge, diverse family. We fight amongst ourselves from time to time, and we've got the black sheep we'd probably rather not talk about, but we are a family nonetheless. We share very few things in common, except for our admiration for a certain Nascar driver. We our doctors, lawyers, factory workers, husbands, wives, sisters, and sons. We are postal employees, we are convenience store clerks, we are fast food cooks. Some of us drive nice cars and live in nice homes. Some of us ride the bus and are just barely making it. But we're all united in our love for Dale Earnhardt Jr.