Is Kevin Harvick on to something with his idea that NASCAR has been stunted by the lack of superstar-level success from the sport’s most popular driver?
Harvick mused about Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ties to NASCAR’s popularity during his SiriusXM show Tuesday night.
— SiriusXM NASCAR (@SiriusXMNASCAR) August 9, 2017
“Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the most popular driver for however many years in a row and he has been our sport’s most popular driver but he hasn’t been anywhere close to being our sport’s most successful driver,” Harvick said. “And when you look at other sports and you look at basketball and you look at football and you look at their most popular [athletes], they’re also right at the top of the list as their most successful [athletes].”
You can listen to Harvick’s complete comments above.
Earnhardt Jr. has won 26 races over 600+ starts in the Cup Series and is retiring at the end of the season and moving into a television role with NBC. Meanwhile, his current Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson has seven championships and drivers like Harvick, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski have won a title.
As Harvick notes, Earnhardt Jr.’s popularity began as a byproduct of his heritage. The popularity Junior’s father gained throughout his career was organic. After Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s tragic death in 2001, it was only reasonable that his fans would turn to their favorite driver’s son. If they wanted to stay with Earnhardt’s team, Richard Childress Racing, they could have latched on to Harvick, who was tabbed to replace Earnhardt Sr. a week later at Rockingham.
Junior has done a more than admirable job carrying the superstar mantle in the Cup Series. He’s become one of the most insightful and open drivers in the sport and his authenticity is a big reason why he’s remained the sport’s most popular figure. If fans thought Earnhardt Jr. was a fraud, he wouldn’t be a shoo-in to be the sport’s most popular driver every season.
But yet it is easy to wonder just how much more popular Junior would be with a title. Jeff Gordon became a transcendent star in sports because of his four titles and because he proved to be a worthy foil to Earnhardt Sr.
“Imagine how popular he would have been if he won two or three championships?” Harvick asked of Junior. “That’s what this is all about. His dad was popular because of the fact — he became Dale Earnhardt because of the fact that he won seven championships and he was out there grinding every week.”
But has Earnhardt Jr.’s lack of (relative) success hurt NASCAR? That’s debatable. No sport revolves around a single superstar and it’s highly doubtful that a more popular Earnhardt Jr. would translate to consistently better television ratings or a better sponsor environment.
It’s impossible to view things in the alternative universe lens, but if Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the 2004 Cup Series title, Target’s still probably not renewing its deal with Kyle Larson’s car and Hendrick Motorsports would still be parting ways with Kasey Kahne after his two main sponsors decided to not return for the 2018 season.
Monster’s probably not paying double than the reported $20 million it’s paying to sponsor the Cup Series in 2017 if Junior’s a champion either. And if Junior’s a champion, his hypothetical larger army of fans is still looking for a new favorite driver at the end of the 2017 season.
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