Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wins Fans, No Matter the Results

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 12, 2009

There is an unmistakable quality about NASCAR's most popular driver -- one that stock-car racing fans and corporate America can't seem to get enough of.

He's genuine. Relevant. Down-to-earth. Likable. All these adjectives convey the essence of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s appeal.

Yet he has never been called a champion in the sport's top ranks. And only rarely has he been called a winner.

Saturday's Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway makes official what has been evident for months: Earnhardt Jr., 34, won't qualify for NASCAR's postseason for the second time in the past three years.

This season, he'll miss by the equivalent of miles rather than inches.

His failure to make the 12-driver cut is especially glaring because all three of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates are either locked in or well-positioned. Jeff Gordon is second in the standings; Jimmie Johnson, third; and Mark Martin, 10th.

But while Earnhardt Jr. has enjoyed the same first-rate equipment and technical expertise as his Hendrick stablemates, he's 21st in the standings, a staggering 1,166 points in arrears to front-runner Tony Stewart, with no wins and just two top-five finishes.

Barring a surge over the final 10 races, Earnhardt Jr. will end the season with the worst points finish of his career. But in terms of popularity, earnings and endorsements, he leaves his rivals a distant second.

Forbes magazine ranked him the world's 10th highest-paid athlete in its latest list, raking in $34 million.

Voted NASCAR's most popular driver for six years running, Earnhardt Jr. dusts the field in souvenir sales, accounting for roughly 25 percent of sales on NASCAR.com Superstore, the most reliable gauge of merchandising. And when he jumped from the red No. 8 Chevrolet to the green No. 88, his share was far higher, with fans replacing their red T-shirts and caps with green.

But how long can Earnhardt Jr. sustain this wild popularity and command top-dollar sponsorships without performance that justifies the hype?

A good bit longer, according to sports-marketing experts, for reasons unique to his celebrity and the loyalty of NASCAR fans.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company