By Dustin Long
December 03, 2012

Eight hours after a season-long campaign culminated with Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the NASCAR NMPA Most Popular Driver Award for a record-tying 10th consecutive year, a new call to his fans arose: A stronger commitment is needed next year when Danica Patrick becomes eligible for the award.

Patrick's immense popularity means it's no longer a foregone conclusion that Earnhardt will win the fan-based award in 2013 and break his tie with Bill Elliott. What might be NASCAR's biggest rivalry will pit Dale Jr.'s fan base vs. Danica's. Voting won't begin until February, but that doesn't mean it's too early for each side to rally support for their favorites.

Thus, on the same day that Earnhardt thanked his fans for their loyalty and said he was "humbled and honored" to accept the award last week in Las Vegas, talk in an Earnhardt-themed chat room centered on next year's vote and Patrick. One fan implored Junior Nation "to MAKE SURE Danica doesn't take the (Most Popular Driver Award) away from Junior."

For fans of other drivers, a popularity award might have as little meaning as it did in high school. To Earnhardt's, the NASCAR honor cements a bond with their favorite driver. "It makes us as fans feel special that we can do something to give back to him," said Toni Osborn of Irving, Texas.

The 44-year-old Osborn became a Dale Jr. fan before he joined the Sprint Cup series, and was attracted by his "down-to-earth" personality. She diligently voted this year via email each morning, three times: once via her home account, another via her work account, then finally through her husband's work account. He's a Matt Kenseth fan, but is OK with her using it to vote for Earnhardt.

Mary Graham, a stay-at-home mom in Camarillo, Calif., votes every day at 9:01 pm Pacific Time because it's just past midnight in the Eastern Time Zone and the start of a new day. Graham, 50, admits there are some days when she might not vote until 9:03 pm PT, but that's because she's "trying to get [her six-and-a-half-year-old] kid in the bath."

Graham votes twice: once for her and her husband. She admits that she started liking Earnhardt in 2000, but became a lifelong fan in 2001 based on his resilience after the death of his father in that year's Daytona 500. The devoted fan told her husband years ago that if Junior ever won the Daytona 500, they would go to the July race there that year. In 2004, they were able to carry out her plan, and she's hoping for a return trip soon.

Graham says that Patrick "is definitely a threat" to take the most popular driver award next year. "It just means Dale Jr. fans have to get on the stick and make sure they vote every day." She plans to tell her sister, brother and other family members that they need to vote for Earnhardt next year -- something she's not done before.

Earnhardt's fans will face a driver in Patrick whose popularity in some forms can match his. Patrick's fan base reaches a wide audience that, if it can be mobilized, could swing next year's outcome. She has more than 670,000 followers on Twitter -- nearly as many as new Cup champion Brad Keselowski and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson combined. Earnhardt, who is not on Twitter, has the advantage on Facebook. His official page has nearly 1.5 million likes; Patrick's has less than 300,000.

Patrick's fan base includes Katie Copple, a 20-year-old sophomore at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, and Candace Kendall, a 29-year-old resident of Rule, Texas. They represent the youthful, tech-savvy crowd that Patrick has attracted.

Copple admits that she first got to know about Patrick through her appearances in Super Bowl ads for sponsor and began to learn more about the driver, eventually becoming a fan. Spied with her Patrick T-shirt and hat at Kansas Speedway in October, she was invited to enter a contest to meet Danica before the race and receive one of her limited edition watches. Copple won. The brief meeting with her favorite driver strengthened her devotion to Patrick, and she says she voted for her often in the Nationwide Series' balloting this year and talked her roommate and friends into voting, too.

"It didn't take much convincing," Copple says. "They know I'm a big fan of hers."

Copple knows it won't be easy to topple Earnhardt and his fan base. "It would be interesting to see if it could actually happen and, if it does, it would be nice to see a new face up there, especially a female face," she says.

Kendall, who was attracted by Patrick's personality, voted daily for the Nationwide award. After Patrick won the honor last month, Kendall tweeted: "MY goal this year for her is complete!"

Kendall's focus now shifts to helping Patrick win the Sprint Cup's award next year and dethroning Earnhardt. "I'm just going to try to get the word out more and more and try to get everybody to rally around and help me out," she said. "I'll try my best."

It won¹t be easy to beat Junior Nation. As one fan stated in an Earnhardt chat room: "We have to do what we do best and support our driver."

Game on.

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