Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s legacy in NASCAR is unlike that of anyone else in the garage. His name, his talent, his personality and his avid fan base with Junior Nation are rare and special in sports.
So, his departure from full-time racing after the 2017 season begs the question: Who will Junior Nation root for after Earnhardt’s gone?
But as Junior points out, there are plenty of drivers to cheer on when he hangs up his fire suit — and he gives us a top-10 list.
“This is a talented list. When you’re talking about these drivers … no one stands apart in talent,” Earnhardt Jr. said on his Dirty Mo Radio podcast on Tuesday afternoon.
So, here you go, Junior Nation: In no particular order of greatness, Earnhardt Jr.’s top picks (with commentary from Junior) to root for:
Ryan Blaney: “If you’re a fan of social media, you follow racing through social media, Ryan Blaney’s going to be your guy. He’s going to give you the most content, he’s going to run good … he’s going to go on the late shows, he’s going to be a guy that says ‘yes’ to all those things. So, if you like seeing your driver here and there doing things and him being interactive, social, that’s your guy.”
Austin Dillon: “He drives the No. 3 car. Bit of a goofball, good, outgoing attitude, outdoorsman, bit of a cowboy. He has a reputation that I think maybe appeals to some of the core NASCAR fans or some of the older NASCAR fans. He obviously drives for a really established old team with a great reputation … if you like the fact of a healthy Richard Childress Racing, he’s going to be part of that.”
Chase Elliott: “He has the last name, he has the talent. Very similar situation (to me) carrying on the legacy. I think his popularity — it’s already pretty big and I think it’s just going to continue to get bigger, especially when he starts clicking off some wins. He’s with HMS and a great team.”
Erik Jones: “Super fast, raw speed — he’s got it. Great talent … He’s wearing this mullet so he kind of knows how to pick on himself and doesn’t take himself too seriously. I think he has a great personality — I would encourage him to show that more. But when I’m around him at the race track, you do see a very, very focused, game-face kind of guy. But there is a side of him that’s kind of the opposite that I think he could probably show the fans more to give them an opportunity to get to know him. But I think there’s going to be great things for Erik Jones in his future.”
Kyle Larson: “He is dominating the series … he’s the modern-day A.J. Foyt, Tony Stewart … Kyle Larson is another incredibly skilled driver. Another guy with a great personality, really funny, family man. Squeaky clean, doesn’t get in trouble, races hard … there’s a little bit of chatter in the media of whether he’s aggressive enough, he’s finishing second a lot and why is he not winning more races … trust me, Kyle Larson has no problem putting the chrome horn to you. That guy there is one I personally would be inclined to consider to pull for.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: “Fun guy, good friend, great personality. He’s a hard racer. When he’s on the race track, he doesn’t race aggressive or silly or over his head, but he’ll run you hard. And now he’s in a pretty good situation where his cars have pretty good speed and now he’s having his best year to date in the series. He’d be a good guy that I think’s going to be around for a while and going to continue to get better.”
Daniel Suarez: “There’s one thing I like about Daniel Suarez being part of the series and being good and talented — NASCAR’s kind of always been an American sport with American drivers. We’ve had a couple guys come in (Juan Pablo) that are international talents. But we haven’t really broken through that barrier and became a global sport … And I think that’s the logical progression for NASCAR. At some point, you want it to become a sport that goes and races in Mexico, Brazil, Canada, even overseas. … So, having drivers that are born outside of America I think increases our ability to be an appealing sport globally. And Daniel is a great guy, I’ve had a lot of interaction with him trying to get to know him and he’s super nice, man. Really cool. He’s a guy that I personally pull for.”
Jimmie Johnson: “A veteran driver, obviously you’re going to be able to get a guy that’s winning races now — and championships. If you’ve become an admirer of what he’s accomplished — tying Cale Yarborough in wins; seven-time champion, tying my dad and Richard Petty. He’s all-American, great personality, family man, not afraid to get his hands dirty — just an all-around cool guy. So he’s an obvious choice for the good guy. And then …”
Kyle Busch: “He wears the black hat. He wins a lot of races, he creates a little controversy here and there. Not liked by everyone, but he does have an avid, core fan base. He does drive the candy car — a lot of young fans like Kyle Busch just because he drives the candy car. And I do like M&Ms myself. Kyle is going to keep it interesting, you’re going to be entertained.”
Martin Truex Jr.: “Martin Truex Jr. is a neat choice because it’s unorthodox; they are a team up in Denver, Colorado. For the longest time, if you weren’t in Charlotte you were an outsider … it was almost impressive that RCR was as good as they were way up in Welcome, North Carolina … No one ever took that team seriously, the Furniture Row team. Now, they’re one of the best teams in the sport, doing it all the way up there in Colorado … Martin Truex Jr. is an outdoorsman, avid hunter – a lot of race fans connect to that – incredible charitable work outside the race car. He is a ‘Jr.’ – came from a family of racers, great story there.”
Leave it to Junior to be unpredictable; he also includes a “dark horse” pick — as well as someone who No. 88 fans might naturally be drawn toward.
“If you want to start with a guy that’s not really established just yet — we’ve named a lot of people that are in pretty good position with teams and so forth,” Earnhardt said. “If you want to pick a guy that I think is just as talented as these guys but you want to work your way up with him — Chris Buescher. I think that Chris did an amazing job in the XFINITY Series — outran our cars with the Roush stuff, which nothing against the Roush cars, but I thought he did an amazing job. I think he really does a good job in the car he’s in now, it’s a brand new team, it’s not one of the more higher-funded operations and I think he gets quite a bit out of that race car … what I’m trying to do here is set you up with a guy that I think’s going to make it and you can go on that ride with him.
“And then there’s one driver that we haven’t mentioned — whoever drives the 88 car next year. You could pull for whoever gets in that car. I can’t wait — I’m excited for them to figure all that out … you can take these 10 drivers or whatever’s behind Door No. 3.”
Or, in this case, No. 88.