Food city 500: Dale Earnhardt Jr.: NASCAR is bigger than me

 He may overwhelmingly be NASCAR’s most popular driver, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. says the sport is bigger than any one person.

There is a common belief that as Dale Earnhardt Jr. goes so does NASCAR, which leads to an increase in television ratings.

Although a lot of pressure on the shoulders of one individual, it’s a responsibility Earnhardt gladly accepts. But he’s quick to downplay his importance and the notion that he may be bigger than the sport itself.

“Something could happen this weekend between two different drivers that reach far beyond what I could do, and that will be great,” Earnhardt said Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway. “That’s how the sport survives. It definitely doesn’t live and breathe on everything that I’ve got going on.

dalejr_small Food city 500: Dale Earnhardt Jr.: NASCAR is bigger than me

“(NASCAR) definitely doesn’t live and breathe on everything that I’ve got going on. It would be perfectly fine without me, but I’m glad to be a part of it.”-Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“It would be perfectly fine without me, but I’m glad to be a part of it.”

While Earnhardt has been voted Most Popular Driver 11 consecutive years, his popularity hasn’t matched his on-track production, as he is still looking for his first Sprint Cup championship. But off to the best start of his career with a win and a pair of runner-up finishes, Earnhardt has an excellent chance to change that this season.

Yet as Earnhardt has excelled through the early part of the season, his success hasn’t necessarily been transcendent across television screens. The ratings for the Daytona 500 dropped 43 percent from a year ago, which was partly due to a six-hour-plus rain delay. The following week’s race at Phoenix saw a 3 percent drop, and last Sunday’s race fell 4 percent from a year ago, according to SportsMediaWatch.com.

“I can’t concern myself with how much I move the needle,” Earnhardt said. “… It’s relevant to me, of course, but not important to me. I want the sport to be healthy. And I want to do things that help the sport and make an impact on the sport.” 

Earnhardt points toward his teammate Jimmie Johnson as someone who is better positioned to make a greater impact over the long-term than himself due to his six Cup championships.

That opinion, however, is in contrast to many who fault Johnson’s pervasive dominance as the reason for NASCAR’s decline popularity.

“Just as unfair as it is for people to say that I have hurt the sport with my success, I think it’s a little unfair to put that all on [Earnhardt] that this sport depends on his success,” Johnson said. “The sport is bigger than him, it’s bigger than me and it’s bigger than any one person.”

But if there were just one driver who carry the sport and capture the interest of the casual fan, Johnson said it would be Earnhardt.

“There is no doubt that Junior can move the needle,” Johnson said. “I’m happy to see his success right now. I think one of the effects of it and a positive effect of him running well is the interest it brings in the sport.”