When it comes to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s next victory, eager anticipation turned into desperate angst a long time ago.
The 141-race winless streak that dates back four years has led to a groundswell of concern that starts in the grandstands and reaches to the highest penthouses at NASCAR.
There are a multitude of reasons why the most popular driver in the sport hasn’t won a race in a long time. Luck, preparation, strategy and ability all must align perfectly on a race day, and for so much of Earnhardt’s long winless streak, one piece is generally missing each week.
Now that he’s ranked fourth in the Sprint Cup standings with nine top-10s in 12 starts heading into Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway, he seems close enough to stir new optimism. It’s an expectation that consumes the entire garage area.
And it’s a question nobody, especially Earnhardt, can escape.
“I know that Dale Jr. is obviously extremely popular and has been voted the most popular driver for many years,” Matt Kenseth said. “I think whenever the most popular driver has success and can win races and do those things, obviously, it gets the fan base energized. He’s had a great season. He’s been knocking on the door to get some wins. He’s right up there in the points, so I don’t think it’s going to be long.”
Most of the drivers quietly want Earnhardt to win soon, if for no other reason than to put an end to the persistent questions. They also know it’s good for business.
“I know a lot of people are concerned about the fans and maybe driving different thoughts in ticket sales or merchandise sales; whatever it might be; viewership,” Jimmie Johnson said. “But for me, it’s really about the racing.”
Despite his losing streak, Earnhardt continues to be the highest-paid driver in the sport. He sells more souvenirs and has an allegiance of fans who prove their faith with the wallets.
“We do have a great fan base and a loyal fan base that I think watches the races regardless of how we’re running,” Earnhardt said.
Some drivers jokingly talk as if they are in the sport to prop up the son of seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt.
Brad Keselowski couldn’t help but joke about Earnhardt winning a segment at the Sprint All-Star race two weeks ago at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“That was great, right?” he said. “We’re just trying to help out Dale.”
Until Earnhardt wins again, the questions and eager anticipation won’t end.