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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Although Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't have a Sprint Cup championship and hasn't won a race since 2008, he's always had one thing to cling to -- being the most popular driver in NASCAR's top series.
Now he may be giving that away.
Hello, Danica Patrick!
By bringing the IndyCar Series marketing darling into the Nationwide Series full time in 2012, as officially was announced on Thursday, Earnhardt may be naming his own successor in popularity.
Not that Earnhardt is in danger of losing the award he has won the past eight seasons anytime soon. To be eligible you have to compete in at least two-thirds of the Cup schedule.
Patrick won't be eligible until 2013, when she is expected to move from her full Nationwide Series ride at JR Motorsports to a full Cup ride, likely at Stewart-Haas Racing. It is also expected she will race in eight to nine Cup races next year with SHR.
But when she makes that move, watch out, Junior Nation.
One of you actually planted the idea during last week's ESPN.com chat, suggesting Patrick indeed could replace Earnhardt as NASCAR's favorite son -- which would make her the sport's favorite daughter, so to speak. It didn't seem plausible initially, but the more you think about it, the more you realize it could happen.
Others believe it could happen, too.
|Danica Patrick has people's attention off the track, and that's important in this day and age.|
"You could make a pretty good argument for it," Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood III said. "I was running Indianapolis Motor Speedway when she became the first woman to lead the Indy 500. Who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated the next week?
"She brings a different appeal, attention or whatever it is you want to call it. You never know what that will do for you in popularity."
Yes, we do. It will shoot you right to the top of a sport that is looking -- begging -- for a fresh face to idolize.
Patrick doesn't have far to climb, either. According to a recent Harris Poll, she ranks third on the favorite female sports star list behind tennis sisters Serena and Venus Williams. No other race car driver is ranked in the top 10 in the male or female list, with Earnhardt falling out this year.
When Patrick arrived on the Nationwide scene a year ago, her merchandise sales initially ranked in the top five behind Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Ranked on single-trailer sales -- the other three had multiple trailers trackside compared to one for Patrick -- she was first.
She's dropped to 13th this season with another limited schedule, but most believe this is the lull before the storm.
Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage saw Patrick's potential when he visited Las Vegas Motor Speedway early last season.
"The lines in front of four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon's souvenir trailer were two deep," Gossage wrote in an ESPN.com blog at the time. "The lines in front of Danica's trailer, making only her third career NASCAR start, were 40 people.
"The American people -- or at least the fans at Las Vegas Motor Speedway -- have spoken."
Then there is the Davie Brown Index that measures a celebrity's ability to influence brand affinity and consumer purchase intent. Patrick ranked tied for third with seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty, trailing only Gordon and Earnhardt, before she climbed into a stock car.
In terms of consumer likability, she ranked second only to Petty among race car drivers.
In the most recent DBI study, Patrick ranked ahead of Earnhardt with an overall score of 68.49 to Earnhardt's 66.24. She blew him away in appeal -- 74.65 to 68.59.
The only driver who ranks ahead of Patrick on the DBI scale (0-100) is Gordon, who has a score of 69.67 because his awareness numbers are six points higher than Patrick's.
Need more proof? ESPN scored a record 3.2 rating, more than double a typical telecast, when Patrick made her Nationwide debut at Daytona last year. When she ran the ARCA race at Daytona, the Speed broadcast drew 2.4 million viewers, an 87 percent increase over the previous year.
Need more? Patrick has more than 404,000 followers on Twitter. While Earnhardt doesn't participate in social media, that's more than any other Cup driver, with Juan Pablo Montoya ranking second at more than 376,000.
Five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson has only 75,000 and change. So heck, yeah, Patrick could replace Earnhardt as the sport's most popular.
"She's definitely got mass appeal, which is good for the sport," said Chitwood, who fully expects Patrick to make her Cup debut in the 2012 Daytona 500. "She transcends sports a little because we've already seen her do that."
If Chitwood needed more convincing, he got it during the July Nationwide race at Daytona. Sitting in the grandstands, he witnessed up close almost every person stand and cheer when Patrick took the lead in the late stages.
"It wasn't whether they were Danica fans or not," Chitwood said. "They were just cheering because she was doing something people haven't seen before, being competitive and leading.
"That's what attracts people. It's a great story. People want to see it for the first time, to be there when history is made."
It doesn't matter to fans that Patrick hasn't accomplished anything in NASCAR -- her average finish in Nationwide this season is 16.0 compared to 28.0 a year ago -- anymore than it matters to them that Earnhardt hasn't come close to reaching the level of his father, a seven-time champion.
She's been the most popular driver in IndyCar for most of the past six seasons even though she has only one win.
It doesn't happen often in sports, but sometimes athletes become heroes for reasons that go beyond success. It's what many call the Anna Kournikova rule. Although the Russian tennis star never ranked higher than eighth in the world rankings and never won a WTA singles title, because of her looks and sex appeal she became one of the best-known players on the planet.
In a way, Earnhardt and Patrick are popular for the same reasons -- because they offer fans something they either don't have or want. At least that's what prominent sports psychologist John F. Murray says.
The author of the newly released book "The Mental Performance Index," Murray explains there's a worship button in fans that has nothing to do with winning.
"You're tapping into a part of the human psyche that is not logical, that is not based on facts, not based necessarily on immediate results," the Florida-based expert said. "It's more like the word 'fanatic' entails. It's a passionate hope for something much bigger than themselves, much bigger than the sport when you allow yourself to get into that way of thinking.
"It is part of our psyche that we have to have something like that to follow at some level. We're all built to be focused on the idea and less on details the idea of the ideal."
In Earnhardt's case, the idea is that he can be bigger than life like his father was. In Patrick's case, she can be a factor in a world dominated by men.
That she can do it in a sexual way -- as evident by her scantily-clad poses in FHM magazine and Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition -- makes her all the more alluring. Nothing against Earnhardt or any Cup driver outside of perhaps Carl Edwards, but you don't want to see them in a Speedo bent over a hotrod in a pose that is borderline soft-core.
It's a similar phenomenon the NFL experienced with Joe Namath when he posed for commercials in pantyhose. The difference is Namath called his winning shot in a Super Bowl, making himself a marketing dream before settling into a rather average career that saw him throw 47 more interceptions than touchdowns.
Patrick and Earnhardt are popular because they touch spots in the human psyche that makes winning a bonus rather than a necessity. That makes them a lightning rod for publicity, which makes them a magnet for sponsors and advertisers who see beyond performance.
"Obviously with Danica Patrick, she's really beautiful and a female, which is rare in that sport," Murray said. "She's being promoted by big companies such as GoDaddy. She's bigger than life in a lot of ways.
"It's not necessarily about winning and losing all the time. You can achieve success in the realm of publicity without necessarily being a champion."
So Murray also believe Patrick could supplant Earnhardt as NASCAR's most popular one day.
"Yes, yes, because there is only so much you can focus on," he said. "Dale Earnhardt [Jr.] will still have it, but she may become the top followed driver, absolutely."
Earnhardt has to see this coming. He saw the potential when Patrick made her Nationwide debut at Daytona.
"This might be the first time we don't have to weave through cameras and media reporters when walking to our car, because they'll all be in Danica's garage," Earnhardt said at the time.
Maybe it really isn't farfetched to think Earnhardt could be giving his popularity title away.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.