Will popularity alone define Dale Jr.?

11/29/2012 - NASCAR
Junior Nation shows up en masse whenever Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- NASCAR's most popular driver for the 10th straight year -- shows up to race. Kevin Liles/US Presswire

LAS VEGAS -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. chuckled at his table during Thursday's Myers Brothers Awards Luncheon as Matt Kenseth jokingly referred onstage to the long speech he'd written for being named NASCAR's most popular driver.

"I'm sorry I wasn't witty enough to have a comeback for him," Earnhardt said after winning the award for the 10th straight year.

But one day somebody other than Earnhardt will be on the stage accepting the award voted on by fans.

It could be sooner than we think.

Danica Patrick will be eligible in 2013 when she runs her first full season in the Sprint Cup Series for Stewart-Haas Racing. She overwhelmingly won the most popular driver award in the Nationwide Series despite finishing 10th in points.

Kevin Harvick, sitting at my table during the luncheon, speculated the former IndyCar star could become even more popular now that she's getting a divorce and on the open market again.

Stranger things have happened.

But Earnhardt isn't concerned. Although he jokingly suggested Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson -- nicknamed Four-Time and Five-Time for their titles -- should call him Ten-Time, his goal isn't to catch Bill Elliott for the 16 times he was named most popular.

His goal is to become One-Time.

As in a champion.

"That would be awesome, yeah," Earnhardt said with a grin.

But is it realistic to believe he can do it? Is the window closing on this 38-year-old driver whose dad won the title seven times?

Will his biggest legacy other than being popular be that he gave current champion Brad Keselowski his big break in the Nationwide Series at JR Motorsports?

He doesn't think so, which has to be encouraging to the nation of fans that follows him. He gives sound reasoning for why he can be fast and competitive well into his 40s, reminding us that 53-year-old Mark Martin is "one of the fastest pure speed guys on the circuit."

"So I don't feel like the window and opportunity is closing in," Earnhardt said.

But Martin never won a title. And there are young drivers like Keselowski and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who are going to make winning one even harder for veterans. It's been 11 years since Gordon won his last.

But Earnhardt remains as loyal to his commitment of trying to win a title as his fans are to him.

"If I apply myself I should be able to remain competitive and even be better in the future," he said.

Maybe a title is in the cards. There was a point this season when Earnhardt appeared to be a legitimate threat. He ranked among the top five in points for the first 25 weeks and led the standings for two weeks.

Then came the Chase, in which a few bad finishes and two missed races due to multiple concussions left him 12th in points.

That he won't be able to stand on stage Friday night -- only the top 10 are honored -- at the champion's banquet seems like an injustice for the improvement he and his team made.

For Earnhardt, that is the sad part of this week. As much as he hates speaking in public, he would like the opportunity to thank crew chief Steve Letarte, team owner Rick Hendrick, his sponsors and others at Hendrick Motorsports for putting him in equipment that makes him feel like a championship contender.

"That is such a big stage and it's in front of the entire sport, all your peers, and you don't get the opportunity to give people thanks," Earnhardt said. "That's regretful and a bit of a bummer."

At least the most popular driver award gave Earnhardt an opportunity to take care of some of that. You could hear the sense of pride and optimism for the future in his voice.
You could hear the determination.

Some seasons Earnhardt's performance was so bad that he hated the thought of even attending the luncheon to accept the award.

"When the performance is the most important thing and you don't have it, it was real tough to come out here and accept that award," Earnhardt said. "Almost a bit of shamefulness feeling, a bit of embarrassment to it.

"When we run like we did [this year] it makes you feel proud to come out here and acknowledge and talk to the fans and tell them how I felt about the award."

He's sincere in this. His popularity may have begun with his father, but Earnhardt has maintained it because he represents a genuine, honest quality that fans admire and trust.

But one day Earnhardt may not have the most popular driver award to fall back on. One day he'll have to listen to another driver -- sorry, Kenseth, probably Patrick before you -- accept it.

"Danica is a great example of popularity and recognition," Earnhardt said. "I look at guys like Tony Stewart and even Brad coming along and making a name for himself you never know who might walk through the door tomorrow who could turn the sport upside and ignite the fan base and really connect to the fan base.

"You just never know when that person is going to walk through the door. It could happen tomorrow."

And that's OK with Earnhardt, because his real goal is to be One-Time.

As in a champion.