Don’t expect Dale Earnhardt Jr. to lose NASCAR’s “most popular driver” title anytime soon. His rock-star status became obvious once again Thursday afternoon at Texas Motor Speedway.
Earnhardt couldn’t even walk 50 yards to his hauler without being hounded by fans, who took full advantage of an “all-access” day put on by TMS. Earnhardt did the best he could to accommodate his loyal followers, and left them with another favorable impression.
“He’s just easy to like … or should I say love?” said Marsha Dougharty, a Lumberton resident who proudly showed off a replica car that Earnhardt signed for her.
“He’s just such a humble person, and he’s very genuine. I’m a big fan.”
Earnhardt remains the top draw in the sport, and his popularity remains at an all-time high. And this weekend fans will be treated to two races by Earnhardt, who is running the No. 88 Goody’s Chevrolet in Friday’s Xfinity race and then Saturday’s Sprint Cup race.
Having Goody’s as a lead sponsor in the Xfinity race carries particular significance for Earnhardt; it’s a first in their three-year partnership.
“It never really occurred to me that they could do a car, so that’s a bit of a bonus for sure,” Earnhardt said. “Kevin [Harvick] always does well in this car [with two Xfinity wins this year], so you feel good and confident that you can go out there and run well for Goody’s.”
Earnhardt also likes his chances in the Cup race Saturday.
The season has gotten off to a promising start for Earnhardt, who has finished sixth or better in four of the first six races. Bad luck has cost him in the other two races, including a 43rd at Phoenix and a 36th at Martinsville.
But Earnhardt and his team have consistently had speed every week, something that is always important at Texas’ 1.5-mile oval.
Earnhardt has a strong history at the track, winning his first Cup race at TMS in 2000 and his average finish has been 14.6 in 25 career races. He had a sixth-place run last November.
In the 2014 spring race, however, he had an unfortunate wreck after hitting a slicker-than-usual infield.
“I thought after we won here [in 2000], we’d come here every time and run great,” Earnhardt said. “But that’s not the case. Sometimes you show up and the car … you just ain’t got it figured out. Still, the last couple of trips here have been pretty good for us.”
His fans are well aware of all his highs and lows, of course.
“When he ran into that wall last year, we were like, ‘Oh, Dale,’” Dougharty said. “But this year he’s going to get his revenge at Texas. He’s gonna win.”
There would be few complaints should that happen. It would essentially assure Earnhardt a spot in the Chase field and give him another shot to win that elusive championship.
That’s the only thing really missing from Earnhardt’s résumé. He’s won 23 career races, including two Daytona 500s, and has 130 top-fives — 26th all-time.
But a championship hasn’t happened for Earnhardt, who turned 40 last October. His best finish was third in 2003, and he was eliminated in the Contender Round last year when the field was cut from 12 to 8.
“This format definitely makes winning more important and it gets really serious in the later rounds, because you know the odds are going up for everyone to get eliminated,” Earnhardt said. “I’ve checked a lot of boxes in my career, and a championship would pretty much be the icing on the cake.”
If that happens, his popularity would grow even more. If that’s possible.
Drew Davison, 817-390-7760
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s weekend
Earnhardt has double duty this weekend, running in the Xfinity and Sprint Cup races. His history at Texas Motor Speedway:
Xfinity, No. 88 Goody’s Chevrolet
Cup, No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet