McCullough: Reflections on Dale Jr.’s win

Published 9:01 pm Wednesday, February 26, 2014

As Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line this past Sunday, almost 200,000 people were cheering and jumping for joy. Members of “Jr. Nation” around the world celebrated, but I sat silently in my recliner.

Before I get deep in this column, I want to go ahead and clear some air.

I am not a fan of Dale Jr. Never have been, never will be.

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But I am a fan of NASCAR, and have followed the sport closely since I was a small tyke. While I may not be a fan of his, I understand what Earnhardt Jr.’s win does for the sport. The win brought NASCAR to the mainstream, something the powers that be in the expensive suits long for.

Sunday’s race was marred by a six-hour rain delay, and the TV ratings suffered because of it. But the social media mentions of “NASCAR,” “Dale Jr,” or “Daytona 500” skyrocketed as the laps wound down.

Race day saw over 737,000 social mentions, with almost half coming inside the last half of the event as Junior made his late-race charge.

Junior is by far NASCAR’s most popular driver, his 11 straight fan-voted Most Popular Driver awards prove it. Every sport is healthier when its most popular entity is near the top of the charts.

You know Bud Selig smiles when the Yankees are winning, Roger Goodell and the NFL brass like it when the Cowboys are winning and the NBA executives can’t help but get excited when the Lakers are doing well, college football is better, whether SEC fans want to admit it or not, when Notre Dame is good.

NASCAR is the same way.

Anytime the most popular person/team in a given sport is near the top, the entire sport prospers. Over the past few days, Dale Jr. has jetted all over the country making appearances on ESPN, The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and nearly every major-market print publication in the United States.

While Jr. is the face of the exposure, the entire sport prospers. More casual fans are taking notice, and will possibly latch on to the sport since “someone they know” is now the main attraction. Outside of the hardcore race fans, I doubt names like Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin or Kurt Busch get much talk, but Jr. transcends the sport. News about him jumps off the sports page and on to the front page.

While I won’t be wearing anything emblazoned with an 88 this May when I make my first of two yearly trips to Talladega Superspeedway, I have to tip my hat to Jr. I’m not a fan, but I understand how he helps the sport I love. Once the casual fan is hooked, the sport can grow. Dale Jr is the perfect bait and cast to land that trophy fish.

Ryan McCullough is a sports writer for The Messenger. Contact him at