RICHMOND, Va. — For 14 years, NASCAR’s largest fan base belonged to Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Now the namesake son of racing icon and seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt has announced he’s retiring at the end of the season. That’s left his fans – many having adopted him as their favorite driver when his father died in a crash at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500 – wondering where to place their allegiance next season.
At Richmond International Raceway – part of NASCAR’s top series almost since moonshine running spawned the racing series – many Earnhardt fans are letting their reverence for the sport’s history be their guide.
“Chase Elliott,” said Fred Kimmel, 69, who made the 9½-hour trip from Boaz, Ala. to be at Richmond this weekend. “He’s a real good rookie and he’s learning. In a couple years, he’s going to be pretty good at it.”
Dale Jenkins of Suffolk, Va., picked Elliott, too, but with a caveat.
“I’m kind of hoping that Jeffrey Earnhardt steps up really,” he said. “We were talking to him earlier and he said that’s a big shoe to fill, but if he gets the right team behind him and gets the right people, he can do it.”
Dale Jr.’s nephew will be in Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race, too, but he will start 35th.
For Kimmel and Jenkins, it’s all about history. The younger Elliott is the son of 1988 series champion Bill Elliott, who drove in 828 races over 37 seasons and three times finished second in the season standings.
Kimmel switched his allegiance to Dale Jr. when his father died.
“I’ve been a Dale Earnhardt fan all my life, since I was a little kid, so I stayed with the family,” he said.
That’s also how Rob Frantz of Emmittsburg, Tenn., wound up a Dale Jr. fan.
“He inherited me after about a year of contemplating what to do,” Frantz said, speaking of Dale Sr.’s death.
Now, he said he’ll swap his Dale Jr. drink cozy for one that supports young hotshot Kyle Larson. The somewhat cocky Chip Ganassi Racing driver in his second season leads the points race after eight events.
“He’s a young talent and I’m looking for somebody that’s going to be good for us,” Frantz said, adding that he thinks fans will stop worrying about the sport when they see there is plenty of young talent to appreciate.