For the eighth consecutive year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was awarded the National Motorsports Press Association Hamburger Helper Most Popular driver and for the eighth consecutive year Earnhardt’s loyal legion of fans celebrated giving their beloved “Junebug” another MPD award.
And along with that, there were plenty of naysayers who were saying that Earnhardt didn’t deserve the award.
Let’s be honest. Earnhardt hasn’t had a great season. The driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet finished 21st in points, only had three top 5s all season and had an average finish of 19th. In fact, Earnhardt only has five top 5 finishes in the past two seasons and hasn’t won a race since June 2008.
Meanwhile, Earnhardt’s teammate Jimmie Johnson went on to win six races and his fifth consecutive championship.
Based on these lackluster statistics, many race fans decide to criticize and say how “ridiculous” it is that a driver outside the top 20 in the standings managed to win the award once again.
Why? After all, aren’t NASCAR fans known as the most loyal fans in the world? Doesn’t it say a lot about our sport that even through struggles and a slump fans are going to stick with their favorite drivers?
Not every driver was consistently winning races when they won their awards for MPD. Bill Elliott won the Most Popular Driver Award 16 times between 1984 and 2002 and in seven of those years he went winless. Darrell Waltrip won back-to-back MPD awards and one of those years he went winless and finished 20th in points.
The MPD award is not about who is performing the best in any given season. If that were the case, Jimmie Johnson should have been given the award the last five seasons. Kyle Busch should have had some say in it. While both drivers were in the top 10 vote-getters in the final results, Earnhardt just simply had more fans giving him votes.
You don’t have to like Earnhardt, but you have to respect the fact that his fans are willing to stick by him even in a slump that seems to have no end in sight. Even those that like to accuse Earnhardt fans of being bandwagon jumpers who are only sticking with him because of his last names lose credibility when they see the loyalty behind that group of people year in and year out.
A huge shake-up at HMS might change the performance of Earnhardt and his No. 88 team. Earnhardt’s crew chief Lance McGrew moved over to help Earnhardt’s teammate Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon’s crew chief Steve Letarte will be his replacement. Also, the No. 88 team will be sharing a shop with the No. 48 team next season which allows the team to work with Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec who have combined to win the last six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships.
I can’t say I played a part in Earnhardt winning the award but to Jr. Nation: Congratulations! Keep sticking with him because he has nowhere to go but up!