Earnhardt Jr. still a winner with fans

by Monte Dutton

At the moment, there is no direct correlation between popularity and performance at NASCAR’s level.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won a fan vote to become the Sprint Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver for the eighth year in a row, finished a mere 21st in the point standings. The season wasn’t without its high points: Earnhardt had a pole, three top-five finishes and eight top 10s. He failed, however, to make the Chase for the second time in as many years and a fourth time in the past six.

The third-generation driver — father Dale won seven championships and grandfather Ralph was a legendary short-track champion — has won just one Cup race in the last four seasons.

“My fan base has stayed strong,” said Earnhardt Jr. “It’s become an important honor each year for me, and I’m glad that fans still feel their support for me. I appreciate their dedication and loyalty.”

Believe it or not, Earnhardt isn’t the all-time leader in Most Popular Driver awards. Bill Elliott, still active at age 55, won the award 10 years in a row and 16 times overall before “withdrawing from consideration” after claiming the award for the 16 th time in 2002.

The latest attempt to get Earnhardt back “up to speed” is a change of crew chiefs. Three of the four drivers at Hendrick Motorsports will be matched with different crew chiefs. Steve Letarte, formerly with Jeff Gordon, will now direct Earnhardt’s efforts. Lance McGrew moves to Mark Martin’s team, and Alan Gustafson will now work with Gordon.

For obvious reasons, the pairing of fivetime champion Jimmie Johnson with Chad Knaus will remain intact.

Earnhardt’s star has dimmed since he finished third in the 2003 standings and won a career-best six races the following year. He hasn’t won more than a single race in any season since. His career victory total, 18, ranks him in a tie for 38 th place all-time.

Since moving from what was then Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Earnhardt has won only once, at Michigan International Speedway on June 15, 2008. His winless streak is now 93 races.

Monte Dutton has covered motorsports for The Gaston (NC) Gazette since 1993. He was named writer of the year by the National Motorsports Press Association in 2008. His blog NASCAR This Week ( features all of his reporting on racing, roots music and life on the road. E-mail Monte at ‘© 2011 King Features Syndicate

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is NASCAR’s most popular driver — again. (Photo: Getty Images)