Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in the midst of a really good year, having already won the Daytona 500 and currently on top of the Sprint Cup standings. However, despite this good fortune, Earnhardt is confident NASCAR’s popularity does not depend entirely on his exploits.
Earnhardt is without question the most appealing draw on the circuit, as evidenced by his 11 consecutive most popular driver awards. Dale Jr. is by all appearances carrying NASCAR at the moment with a potent combination of talent and marketability. However, Earnhardt would respectfully disagree with this sentiment:
“(The sport) definitely doesn’t live and breathe on everything that I’ve got going on,” Earnhardt recently explained. “It would be perfectly fine without me, but I’m glad to be a part of it.”
The success and popularity of Earnhardt has benefited NASCAR greatly, reflected in part by a tangible increase in social media notoriety and the sale of merchandise. While these are certainly positive indicators, Dale Jr.’s substantial contributions have not translated into higher television ratings. In fact, despite Earnhardt’s hot start, ratings are actually down overall for the first three races of the current season.
NASCAR chief marketing officer Steve Phelps attempted to explain this phenomenon to USA TODAY Sports:
“I don’t think it’s an easy question to answer. Yes, it impacts the sport positively. He has a massive following, and his fan base is energized. But trying to measure an impact is difficult, and we look at a number of things. Ratings are one indicator, but we’re not overly concerned about that. It’s way too early to tell where that’s going to net out, and we think we’ll absolutely see some gains.”
Logic dictates that any success had by Earnhardt must be good for the sport. However, whether Dale Jr.’s impact will have a more universal effect on the future of NASCAR is another matter. Also, there is the question of whether or not NASCAR could sustain any success they may be currently enjoying without the contributions of Earnhardt. Regardless of the answer, Dale Jr. would rather not consider such questions:
“I can’t concern myself with how much I move the needle,” Earnhardt said. “I think that goes outside of my comfort zone … and what I think you need to concern yourself with as an individual. … You want to leave a mark of some kind. We all do. Everybody here wants to have some sort of mark left in their field and in the sport because we all care about it.”
While Earnhardt’s modesty is commendable, it is clear that his impact is substantial. Dale Jr. should continue to flourish, but will NASCAR do the same long-term?
[Image via Terry Renna/Associated Press]
[Video courtesy of NASCAR/You Tube]