- Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been NASCAR's most popular driver 14 straight years but someone else is going to have to be the fan favorite now that he's retiring.
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. entered the NASCAR scene, he had it all. He had the name, the talent and the personality that made fans latch on and never let go. His popularity is unrivaled. And Jr. Nation is so widespread that throughout his 19-year career he never went out of style—14 most popular driver awards in a row prove that.
But the Earnhardt era is about to end with Dale Jr.’s retirement, and when that happens, someone will need to slide into the role he has occupied for so long.
NASCAR is going to need a new face.
Between Jr. and his late father Dale Sr., NASCAR fans have enjoyed 42 years of Earnhardt. But Jr.’s retirement signifies more than just the end of their story. NASCAR is at a crossroads. In the last few years drivers like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have retired, and now the sport is playing the waiting game.
“I think we are in that limbo right now to see who is going to step up, who is going to be the outstanding youngster or outstanding spokesperson with the personality that the fans are looking for,” said Darrell Waltrip, a three-time Cup Series Champion, and current NASCAR broadcaster.
There are four races left until the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series playoffs begin, and with 379 points and no wins, Earnhardt Jr. may not qualify. As his time on the track winds down, the question becomes, “Who’s got next?”
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Recreating the Junior persona is not possible, nor is it desirable: His rise was fueled by the tragic death of his father, and aided by the family name, charismatic charm and skill on the track.
No one is going to fill Earnhardt’s shoes, but here are five drivers who could wear a similar pair.
Kyle Larson, 24, drives No. 42 Chevy for Chip Ganassi Racing
Since his first race in 2013, Larson has been working his way up the ladder. In 2016 he finished ninth, and spent most of this season as the points leader before Martin Truex Jr. knocked him off the top spot. Still, Larson’s 759 points put him third, and most importantly, his two wins guarantee him a playoff spot. The talent is certainly there, and as he becomes more successful, Larson’s personality is beginning to emerge. Charismatic and outspoken, Larson gives his opinion freely, something that NASCAR fans appreciate. The pieces are coming together for Larson, and a solid performance in the playoff could catapult the California-native closer to stardom.
Expert opinion: “I like a lot of the things he’s done, and he’s shown himself to be an incredible driver,” Waltrip said. “Now that he is successful he doesn’t mind telling you what he thinks. He is still a little young, which might be a detriment to him being the face or the voice of NASCAR, but he has all the qualifications to do that eventually.”
Ryan Blaney, 23, drives No. 21 Ford for Wood Brother’s Racing
Blaney is in the midst of just his second season as a Cup series driver, but his Pocono Raceway win in June secured a playoff spot. Over his first two seasons Blaney has shown promise as a driver and his potential is only rising. Next season he will transition to Team Penske, where Blaney will drive the No. 12 Ford, putting him in a better position for success. Plus, Blaney comes from a racing family, which holds weight with NASCAR supporters. His father Dave Blaney, though never very successful, raced for 17 years, and his grandfather Lou Blaney is regarded as a Modified dirt track legend, winning 600 races in 47 years.
Expert opinion: “He is a great kid with a really great future,” Waltrip said. “He’s going to be working with the Penske bunch, that should really improve things for him. I don’t see him necessarily being a strong leader, but he is a great addition to the sport with the Blaney name.”
Austin Dillon, 27, drives No. 3 Chevrolet SS for Richard Childress Racing
As the grandson of Richard Childress, Dillon has NASCAR history behind him. Childress has been involved in the sport for 48 years, first as a driver, now as an owner. Most of his success came in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when Childress teamed up with Dale Earnhardt Sr. and the pair won six championships.
Dillon may have the family ties, but he’s a longshot to be NASCAR’s next superstar. Dillon was named rookie of the year in 2012, but hasn’t done much since, getting his first victory this season in the Coca-Cola 600. The win does give him a spot in the playoff, where a strong showing could help his case going forward.
Expert opinion: “I was happy to see him step into the 3 car and bring it back,” Waltrip said. “Also, he is a great source of information and a good source of the history of the sport.”
Chase Elliott, 21, drives No. 24 Chevrolet SS for Hendrick Motorsports
Before Dale Jr. was NASCAR’s fan-favorite, that title belonged to Bill Elliott, who won 44 races and 16 most popular driver awards. Now, his son might be the closest thing NASCAR has to a total package driver. He has easygoing personality, racing tradition, and a well-known name on his side. Plus he won two most popular driver awards during his time as an Xfinity Series driver. At 21, Elliott likely has a long career ahead of him, but there is one problem: He hasn’t won a race. It’s hard to gain credibility as a driver without winning races, but if Elliott has a breakthrough on the track, it’s easy to see him becoming a superstar.
Expert opinion: “Here is another driver that I think needs time,” Waltrip said. “Bill was a superstar and Chase is driving that Iconic 24 car. He is in a position to where eventually he could be one of, if not the biggest star in the sport. He has the personality, he has the looks, he has the history, the tradition and he is somebody that we are looking to for the future.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr, 29, drives No. 17 Ford Fusion for Roush Fenway Racing
At 29, Stenhouse is the oldest driver in this bunch, but he also might be the most intriguing. With no family history in the sport, Stenhouse has to forge his own path in NASCAR. Though his name has been featured in headlines, it’s usually only in connection to his relationship with Danica Patrick.
After this year, he may be shedding the label of “Danica’s boyfriend.” He’s been racing in the Monster Energy Series for seven years, but before this season Stenhouse only had four top-five finishes, and hadn’t collected a victory. Suddenly he has two. With wins at Talladega and Daytona, Stenhouse seems to be finally hitting his stride. This season could mark a turning point for the Tennessee native, especially if he performs well during the playoff.
Expert Opinion:"I think he is a better driver than he has had equipment to drive,” Waltrip said. “I think he has the personality, and I think he can win races, but the cars haven’t kept up with him.”
Larson, Blaney, Dillon, Elliott and Stenhouse all take the track Sunday at Michigan International Speedway and as the playoff approaches, the pressure on NASCAR starts to build. Fans, Waltrip says, don’t know who to pull for, so consequently they don’t cheer for anyone. NASCAR needs someone to start dominating on the track.
“Domination, as much as people hate it, that is what breeds interest,” Waltrip said. “People that love you want to watch you win, and people that hate you want to watch you lose. That kind of drama is I think what we are missing.”