Fans. If you're reading this site, chances are you are one. Or perhaps not. All I know is that fans are what makes the NASCAR world go round and round. A lot of people think it's the sponsors, the owners, or even the drivers. Sure, all those elements add value to the NASCAR experience, and having fun watching races wouldn't really be possible without them.
But fans are where it's at.
The fans support the sponsors, and until the last year or so, bought tickets for the races. Without the fans, sponsors wouldn't be in NASCAR. Without fans, these guys might as well be driving around a cow pasture somewhere, like they did before NASCAR even was.
NASCAR fans come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Their devotion to certain drivers is, well, fanatical at times. That's the basis of the word 'fan' anyway, isn't it?
In other words, their driver can do no wrong, and if their driver fails, it must be either equipment failure, some other driver's fault, or their crew chief's fault. If NASCAR fans based their adoration for drivers based only on statistics, we all would have been Petty, Pearson, Yarborough, and Earnhardt fans in the 1970's and 1980's. We all would have been Waltrip fans during that time as well. In the 1990's, we all would have to have been Gordon fans, because Jeff Gordon's stats from the '90's are particularly spectacular.
But that's not the way being a fan works. We are fans of a certain driver for as many reasons as there are stars in the evening sky. We like the way they look, or their personalities, or the way they give interviews. Some of us have personally met a driver, and he was gracious and kind. He may not produce much on the race track, but we become fans of that driver just because of a personal smile or wave. In the old days, drivers were not so much celebrities, as they now are, but more or less circus clowns. They provided the entertainment, back in the days when you could bring a family of 4 into the track for $10.00. People who populated the stands back in those days began to follow the careers of certain drivers, and eventually became fans of those drivers. Sometimes the loyalty to those drivers led to fans only buying certain types of automobiles and other products. That's what NASCAR counts on these days: Fans support the sponsors, and therefore, the sponsors support the series.
How do you explain Bill Elliot being the most popular driver all those years? Bill has won some races, sure, and one championship even. But Bill was the most popular driver in NASCAR for many years when he wasn't winning many races, and other guys like Gordon and Earnhardt were winning races and championships. Bill is a likable enough fellow, sure, but why the MPD status? It's simple. Fans of Bill were fans whether he won or lost races. Bill's personality seemed to overcome any problems he had on the track.
The same can be said for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Dale has not won a championship in Cup at all. He's won 18 races, and he did win those two Busch championships. But Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s on track performance has been less than spectacular for the last few years, yet he keeps winning most popular driver awards. It's not his feats at driving that lead to those awards, obviously, it's who Dale Jr. is.
If we all went by statistics with which to base our loyalty to drivers, we would all be Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, and Carl Edwards fans these days. Of course we are not. These drivers have their own fan base, some of which is based on their performance, and some of it on just who the driver is.
There are fans of some drivers who have achieved relatively little in comparison to other drivers, yet they are free and willing to call other drivers who have achieved more as being 'idiots', or 'over rated'. That's the fun of being a NASCAR fan. Everything goes when one is defending one's driver.
Personally, I am a fan of not just one driver, but several. I'm guessing most of you feel that way as well, though I once got slapped lightly on the wrists, figuratively, for cheering on some other drivers as well as my friend's favorite driver. It was all or nothing for this friend, and there were no other drivers good enough to cheer for in my friend's opinion. I'm not that way. I personally like drivers based on what they've done in the past, but also on their personality and basic outlook on life.
I don't consider any driver in any of the current NASCAR series to be a hero, but there are many that I personally admire. My last hero in NASCAR was Dale Earnhardt. Other heroes I've had in NASCAR in the past were Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, and people like Tim Richmond, Davey Allison, and strangely enough, or not, a guy named Alan Kulwicki.
I'm fans of those guys because of not only what they did, but the kind of men they were, and for some, fortunately still are.