Mark Story

With Dale Jr. on TV, his fan base tries to figure out who to root for

Dale Earnhardt Jr. knocked Jimmie Johnson off the pole for the 2013 Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway with a qualifying speed of 183.636 mph. Saturday night was the first Cup Series race in Sparta in which Earnhardt Jr. did not compete.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. knocked Jimmie Johnson off the pole for the 2013 Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway with a qualifying speed of 183.636 mph. Saturday night was the first Cup Series race in Sparta in which Earnhardt Jr. did not compete. AP

In the seven Quaker State 400s Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove in at Kentucky Speedway, he never came close to winning.

However, in the grandstands, Dale Jr. was always dominant in Sparta.

From 2011 to 2017, when the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series ran in the Commonwealth, fans wearing Junior shirts and hats appeared to outnumber the fans of all other drivers combined.

That did not make Kentucky Speedway unusual. The “Junior Nation” was far and away NASCAR’s largest fan base.

Dale Jr. and Jeff Gordon at Kentucky
Jeff Gordon, center left, visited Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Kentucky Speedway garage area before the inaugural Quaker State 400 in 2011. The retirement in recent years of Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon removed the two Cup Series stars with the largest fan followings. David Perry Herald-Leader file photo

So when Earnhardt Jr. retired from racing after the 2017 season, it meant that one of the most massive followings in all of American sports suddenly found itself a “free-agent fan base.”

For his fans, who can replace Dale Jr. as their favorite?

Before the eighth running of the Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart on Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway, we asked Dale Jr. fans which driver now had their allegiance.

Not shockingly, no one driver has yet seemed to claim the affections of the “Junior Nation.”

Some Dale Jr. fans appear to have transferred their allegiance to another driver with a similar pedigree.

Just as Earnhardt Jr. was the son of a NASCAR icon, so to is Chase Elliott, whose father is former Cup Series star Bill Elliott.

“I’m going with Chase Elliott,” said Jeff Workman of Muses Mills in Fleming County. “I always liked his Dad, and (Chase) seems to be a pretty good guy, too.”

People wearing the No. 9 shirts/hats of Elliott appeared to be one of the largest fan bases in the stands Saturday.

Other Junior Nation members are staying loyal to the No. 88 car that Earnhardt Jr. vacated at retirement. It is now driven by Alex Bowman.

Brett and Rex Lower of Hendersonville, Tenn., “are staying with the 88,” Brett said. “We can’t go against the 88.”

That is the same conclusion Kim Lasko of Cincinnati has arrived at. “All my gear is 88,” she explained.

Dale Jr.’s last ride in the 88
Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove the No. 88 car for the final time at Homestead-Miami Speedway for last season’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series finale before retiring from full-time driving. The massive “Junior Nation” entered 2018 as “fan-base free agents.” David Santiago

A large part of Dale Jr.’s fan base was inherited, of course, from his hard-charging father. The original Dale Earnhardt won seven Cup Series championships before his career ended in a fatal accident on the final turn of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

When this year’s season-opening Daytona 500 rolled around, Dalton DuVall, a college student from Flatwoods in Greenup County, decided to go with his gut in picking a new driver to root for.

He found himself pulling for Austin Dillon, who now drives a car that bears the No. 3 that Dale Earnhardt the elder made famous.

Dillon reinforced DuVall’s decision to back him by winning the Daytona 500.

“Yeah, I picked Austin Dillon and he won the race,” DuVall said. “He’s been my driver ever since.”

Another logical choice for Dale Jr. fans to transfer their backing is to reigning Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr.

Truex Jr. entered NASCAR’s highest levels driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. He remains close friends with Dale Jr. Plus, if you root for Truex Jr., you are still pulling for a “Junior.”

“I do like Truex,” said Sonny Visga of Port Huron, Mich. “I like Truex a lot, I’m really partial to him.”

For other Earnhardt Jr.’s fans, what they want in a new favorite is not a tangible connection to Dale Jr. but youth and promise.

That’s in part because they do not want to have to “break up” with their new driver anytime soon.

Sandra Lothringer of Dilley, Texas, has settled on Ryan Blaney, 24, as her replacement favorite.

“He’s young. So he will be around awhile,” she explained. “Besides, he’s got a great sense of humor. I go for personality in a driver, and Ryan is just so likable.”

Val Visga also sees the benefit of youth in adopting Erik Jones, 22, as her new driver. The fact that Jones is from Byron, Mich., is a bonus.

“I’m partial to the drivers from Michigan,” the Port Huron, Mich., resident said.

With Earnhardt Jr. working as a race analyst for NBC broadcasts of NASCAR, he is still involved in the sport.

Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger said fans in Sparta on Saturday might have had a better chance to see Dale Jr. moving around the track with NBC’s TV crew than they did when he was driving.

Alas, for some of the “Junior Nation,” the fact that Earnhardt Jr. is no longer driving is not enough reason to switch favorite drivers.

Leilani Mann of Gulfport, Miss., said she is not switching.

“I’m going to stick with Junior,” she said. “I’m going to stay a fan of his. He is going to be my favorite driver forever.”

Mark Story: 859-231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory