Mar 14, 2014, 4:16 PM EDT
Ever since the economy started to go south in 2007, NASCAR chairman/CEO Brian France has said several times that the sport needs Dale Earnhardt Jr. to earn wins and be among the best drivers out there – which would, in turn, hopefully bring NASCAR back to prosperity and increased fan and media attention.
Junior is off to the best start of his career in 2014, with a win in the season-opening Daytona 500 and back-to-back runner-up finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas.
He’s also one of only five drivers in Sprint Cup history to start off a season with three top-two finishes.
But as good as things are going for Earnhardt and the No. 88 team, at-track attendance is about the same as it has been in recent years, and Fox Sports’ NASCAR telecasts of the first three races have not shown significant gains as a result of Earnhardt’s performance thus far.
Is Earnhardt feeling a bit of pressure to essentially become the sport’s savior? He addressed that during his weekly session with the media Friday morning at Bristol Motor Speedway.
“That’s a very uncomfortable question and to get asked about it really makes me uncomfortable,” Earnhardt said when asked if he can be the one person who can elevate the sport to another level. “There are so many other drivers – there’s guys like Jimmie (Johnson) – who have done so much and accomplished much more than I have.
“They do a lot to elevate the sport. They do a lot of things that, you know, carry the sport as well or better than I do. It’s just very uncomfortable because I don’t have the accolades and the hardware that a lot of these guys have, like a championship and things like that.
“I’m comfortable with the popularity and things like that because I feel like that we do a lot and we have a great fan base and we do a lot to engage with them. But carrying the sport is a whole other conversation – or being the face of the sport is a whole other conversation. It’s a very uncomfortable position to be put in. I don’t think it’s realistic. All the drivers have a role in that and they are actively doing that.”
Earnhardt may have welcomed France’s hopes and expectations at a time when Junior admittedly wasn’t doing quite as well as he has last season and certainly since the start of this season.
But even with his massive Junior Nation of fans, Earnhardt admits he hasn’t seen much movement in NASCAR’s popularity, even with winning the sport’s biggest race for the second time in his career to start the new season.
“It’s hard for me to kind of have my finger on the pulse and know exactly how much the needle is moving,” Earnhardt said. “They say we can’t really look at the Daytona because of the rainout. The network broadcasts are about the same if not a little bit, a percentage point one way or the other.
“I guess my fans have been tuning in all along. We just enjoy what we do. I try not to really worry about – I can’t concern myself with how much I move the needle. I think that goes outside of my comfort zone and what I feel is and what I think you need to concern yourself with if you’re as an individual.
“I want the sport to be healthy and I want to do things that help the sport and make an impact on the sport. I try to do those things always taking opinions and advice on what I can do better and what I’m not doing that I could be doing to help the sport.
“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. There are so many personalities and other drivers and new guys coming in. It’s an ebb and flow of personalities. So, I try not to get too caught up in it. It ain’t always gonna be that way. Something could happen this weekend between two different drivers that reach far beyond what I could do, and that will be great. That’s how the sport survives. It definitely doesn’t live and breathe on everything that I’ve got going on. It would be perfectly fine without me, but I’m glad to be a part of it.”
If Earnhardt wins or finishes second on Sunday, he would tie the legendary Richard Petty for being the only drivers to start a season with four consecutive top-2 finishes.
“Anytime you do anything that Richard has done and you put yourself in the conversation with him to do with any statistic, it’s a pretty awesome accomplishment because of everything that he has ever done winning as many races as he has and running as many races as he has,” Earnhardt said. “He’s been such a fixture in the sport still today.
“Yeah, that would be awesome. Just something else we can hang our hat on and we’ve got a shot at it, man. We really run good here. I like coming here. … If we can be in a situation to do that and try to capitalize and get another win or another top three or top two or whatever we need to join Richard in that statistic, we’ll be going for it.”
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Sep 22, 2014, 7:30 PM EDT
It hasn’t always been easy for Logano since he broke into the Sprint Cup Series in 2009. But there’s no disputing that the kid once known as “Sliced Bread” (as in, greatest thing since) has grown up.
Sep 22, 2014, 6:45 PM EDT
Two teams on the opposite ends of the Chase spectrum head for the Lone Star State.
Sep 22, 2014, 5:30 PM EDT
A wild doubleheader in Los Angeles has left Block with an 18-point edge over Wiman as the series heads for Seattle.
Sep 22, 2014, 4:15 PM EDT
Coming up today: Highlights and analysis from Joey Logano’s Chase win at Loudon; an interview with Penske president Tim Cindric; Kevin Harvick’s Chase progress; Denny Hamlin’s nightmarish day; 16-year-old Cole Custer’s historic Truck win.
Sep 22, 2014, 3:55 PM EDT
The former CART and F1 driver’s incredible story is spotlighted in a special clip that previews a new film regarding BMW’s legacy in touring car racing.
Sep 22, 2014, 3:30 PM EDT
Wally Dallenbach Jr. to make competitive return to driving in Trans-Am, starting next month.
Sep 22, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT
Eric Boullier indicates that he feels Red Bull breached the FIA’s new radio ban with its messages to Daniel Ricciardo during Sunday’s race.
Sep 22, 2014, 2:30 PM EDT
Mark Webber enjoys his return to Austin in FIA WEC, even if the result in his No. 20 Porsche goes begging.
Sep 22, 2014, 1:30 PM EDT
The clash of the titans has gone Team Penske’s way so far. But next weekend’s race at Dover could see the tide turn in favor of Hendrick Motorsports.
Sep 22, 2014, 1:00 PM EDT
Andre Lotterer reflects on the openness of FIA WEC and Super Formula compared to his one-off Grand Prix appearance in Belgium.
Sep 22, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT
The FIA WEC headed to Texas this weekend. Here are some thoughts on how it went down.
Sep 22, 2014, 11:15 AM EDT
Both the TUDOR Championship and Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge put on a show in Austin this weekend.
Sep 22, 2014, 10:21 AM EDT
Audi 1-2 leads FIA WEC winners at COTA.
Sep 22, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT
Reliability woes have left Nico Rosberg reeling. If he doesn’t respond at Suzuka, it could be game over.
Sep 22, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT
German driver does well to keep his anger in check in his post-race video blog.
Sep 22, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT
Vijay Mallya delighted as Force India makes 2014 its most successful season since entering F1 back in 2008.
Sep 22, 2014, 7:00 AM EDT
Lewis Hamilton has put himself back in control of the 2014 F1 world championship after a great win in Singapore as teammate Nico Rosberg retired.
Sep 21, 2014, 8:43 PM EDT
Millen scores his second win of 2014, while YouTube icon Block takes an 18-point lead in the championship with two races left in the season.
Sep 21, 2014, 7:51 PM EDT
Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), Courtney Force (Funny Car), Dave Connolly (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were the winners in Sunday’s final rounds of the NHRA FallNationals in Ennis, Texas.
Sep 21, 2014, 7:00 PM EDT
The talented rookie continues to duel with the Chasers at New Hampshire before finishing second to Joey Logano.
Video from NASCAR America
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