Gentlemen, start your personalities.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement opens the door for a new competitor to earn the title of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver.
Who might have an edge in the garage?
“I don’t know, I think you might be surprised,” Earnhardt said. “It’s going to be close. I think it’s going to be a close battle. When I think about that, I think that the drivers that have the opportunity to win it also have the opportunity over the next 12 months before they get here to double and triple and quadruple their fan base with the engagement they can create and capitalize on throughout the season.
“Chase (Elliott) obviously has a great personality. He has a great family history much like I did. That’s something he has going for him but he has a lot of guys that are doing a lot of great things on social media and interacting with the fans and engaging with the fans in a lot of different ways that is going to make this an interesting vote next year.”
Kyle Busch didn't wait to put his hat in the ring. As the driver took the stage to accept his award for finishing second in the Monster Energy Cup Series standings, he made sure to offer a shout-out to Earnhardt.
“Dale, thanks for the friendship we’ve grown over the years and of course, for converting all of Junior Nation into Rowdy fans,” Busch said. “It’s all going to be very different hearing all those cheers next year at driver intros.”
Earnhardt doesn’t have a feel for where his fanbase might go. He’ll support whatever decision Junior Nation makes when it comes to next year’s ballots.
“Any driver out there to me, I can look at and find reasons to pull for,” Earnhardt said. “Any guy in the field has positives and has worth for a fan. It will be interesting. With me retiring, it’s a great opportunity for any of these guys—particularly the ones that are more media savvy. There’s some great opportunities for them to engage fans and introduce themselves to fans.
“But it really comes down to their relatability and the fans ability to feel like they're their next door neighbor that they’re going to meet down at the bar for a beer or at the grocery store. Whoever is that guy for them, that’s who they’ll pull for.”
Earnhardt will shift his focus to broadcasting for at least the next three years. While he has been the face of NASCAR—whether he wanted that responsibility or not—after his father died at Daytona in 2001, he believes another driver will step up in that role as well.
“I want to be good at it and I want to deserve to be there,” Earnhardt says of the NBC Sports booth in 2018. “I don’t know how vocal I’ll be but there are other drivers in the garage. (Kevin) Harvick is quite vocal and really knowledgeable of what’s going on in the business side as well as the competition side. He’s going to be the guy that has a lot of great opinions. Jimmie (Johnson, seven-time champion) also.
“The Drivers Council is doing an amazing job of being the voice of the drivers and what we think of the sport and where it’s going. I’ve got to get in there and do a good job in the booth and make sure I can do everything I need to do there. That’s top priority in my professional life—is to put everything into that to make sure I’m doing what I need to do to do my best.”
Dale Jr. for President (of NASCAR)?
Once Earnhardt gets a handle on the next chapter of his life, could he see himself taking a more active role with the sanctioning body? Despite a recent interview on the Dan Patrick Show, Earnhardt isn’t sure that NASCAR president is responsibility he will pursue. He described the interview as two guys having a couple of beers and BS-ing.
“I was given the question of whether I’d like to be the president, and I don’t think I would,” Earnhardt said. “But if I had to take any kind of position int he sport, I think it would need to be something with some influence, because I have that passion to influence the sport for sure. Everybody thinks they can be a better president, but it’s a difficult job. It’s not an easy position.
But (Mike) Helton and (Steve) O’Donnell are the guys that I have the most connection to and understand really what their role is, and I admire their roles and the positions they have and admire the jobs that they do. I think that would be a challenging, difficult position but one I might enjoy that would allow me to be involved in the sport.”
Enjoy the moment
There will be 40 drivers that have an opportunity claim the Monster Energy Cup Series Most Popular Driver in 2018.
But Earnhardt knows it will take more than just the individual driver to pull off the fete.
“I hope it’s as appreciated by them and it will be fun to hear that driver—whoever that may be—articulate his feeling about winning that award,” Earnhardt said. “But it’s more than just the popularity of just one guy.
“We tout our sport as being the most accessible sport and that’s what this trophy and this award represents—that accessibility and engaging with the fans. Whoever does that the best over the next 12 months is the guy that’s going to win because right now it’s neck and neck.”