SPARTA — These are the times that try the soul of Junior Nation.
For the last 110 Sprint Cup races, the fans of NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. have shown up at racetracks with No. 88 flags flying, their The Son Always Rises T-shirts on, convinced that this is the week Junior wins.
For the last 110 Sprint Cup races, Junior Nation has been wrong.
Now, as the Cup Series prepares to make its debut at Kentucky Speedway with Saturday's Quaker State 400, the Junior Nation is sufferin'.
"There are a lot of (Jeff) Gordon fans at home," says Zack Kleilein, 17, of Mansfield, Ohio, "and they make a lot of comments, say Junior will never win again."
Greg Nelson, 50, of Adair County is so tired of hearing people suggesting that Earnhardt Jr. just maybe isn't that good a driver "that I want everyone who says that to say it to his face," Nelson says. "He is a good driver. He's just stuck in a (losing) streak."
To tour the campgrounds that surround Kentucky Speedway on a steamy Thursday is to marvel once again at how massive and passionate the fan base of Dale Earnhardt Jr. is.
Junior Nation has members eligible to join AARP.
"I know he has a mother," says Darlene Flory, 62, of Arcanum, Ohio, "but I'd like to adopt him."
It has members not yet eligible for kindergarten.
"Junior," chirped 4-year-old Andrew Choffel, when asked by his father, John Jr., who would win Saturday's race.
"The boy's been brainwashed," said the elder Choffel, of Cochranton, Pa., proudly. "In our family, we're Earnhardt fans."
For much of the Junior Nation, rooting for the driver of the 88 car is all about family. Many trace their NASCAR fandom to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s father. The elder Earnhardt was a working-class hero whose fierce style of driving and seven Cup championships made him an American icon.
After The Intimidator died in an accident on the last turn of the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, much of his vast fan base transferred its allegiance to the driver who bears the same name.
"I've been a big Earnhardt fan way back to 1993," says Richard Simpson, 67, of Blanchester, Ohio. "After big Dale died, I picked up Junior."
More than one Earnhardt fan who has moved from father to son fretted Thursday that the driver whose driving style most resembles Dale the elder isn't Junior but the highly aggressive Kyle Busch, who won Thursday night's UNOH 225 Truck Series race.
"I was a fan of his daddy," Findlay, Ohio's Don Allshouse, 56, said of Earnhardt Jr. "Junior would probably be well-served if he used some of his dad's drive and aggressiveness."
Larry Rinaca, a Junior Nation member from near Cleveland, Tenn., thinks Earnhardt Jr. hasn't had as forceful a driving style since he survived a fiery crash in a Corvette in a sports-car race at Infineon in 2004.
"I just don't believe he's as aggressive a driver as he was before he got burned," Rinaca says.
This season has been uniquely trying for Junior Nation. After some struggling years since his last Cup win at Michigan on June 15, 2008, Earnhardt Jr. has run well most of this season.
Two races ago, he sat third in the season points standings, though disappointing finishes on the road course at Infineon (41st) and last weekend at Daytona (19th) have dropped him to seventh.
Yet, as well as he has run, Junior still hasn't won.
When Earnhardt Jr. had the lead on the last lap at Charlotte, N.C., in the Coca-Cola 600, "I was jumping up and down, buddy," Adair County's Nelson says.
Which only made it more painful for the Nation when Junior ran out of fuel.
"You can't put in the paper what I said," says Simpson.
Diane Roberts of Georgetown, Tenn., says the plight of Junior Nation is that no matter how well Earnhardt Jr. runs, "it just seems like something always ruins his day. It's frustrating."
And yet, Junior Nation stays true.
"If he never wins another race, I'll never bail on my boy," says Nelson.
Adds Allshouse: "It's not just about Junior. He's a symbol of family, of the whole NASCAR deal, a direct tie to his dad and the good ol' days of NASCAR."
So even after 110 races of disappointment, the never-say-die Junior Nation says 111 in Kentucky is the one that will be different.
Sitting outside an RV with a sign that said "Dale Jr. fans parking only," Nate Boggs, 16, of Manchester, Ohio, had a prediction.
"He's going to win Saturday, and then you are going to see a party hearty," Boggs said.
After 110 races of torment, the Junior Nation could use a party.