By Jay Busbee
There's often a wide gulf in sports between marketability and victory. The New York Yankees haven't won a World Series since Bill Clinton was president, and yet they remain one of the most popular teams in sports. LeBron James has won exactly as many championships as you have, and yet he's one of the most marketable athletes on the planet. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. is suffering through his worst season in years, perhaps ever, and yet he remains atop NASCAR's list of most popular drivers.
NASCAR.com's SuperStore ranks its best-sellers this way:
For the reason why Junior's at the top of that list, you need look no farther than the bottom of it. Earnhardt is carrying on his father's name, and he has the kind of aw-shucks Everyman demeanor that makes him an appealingly blank slate. Much like Brett Favre, with whom he shares a current Wrangler ad, Earnhardt appears to act the way we think we would if we were in his shoes -- humble, laid-back, cool and casual.
Thing is, he's not rocking that style in victory lane. While Earnhardt's travails are well-known among the NASCAR faithful, he's now raising eyebrows outside the sport. CNBC's Darren Rovell pulls no punches in his critique of Junior: "With the exception of maybe Anna Kournikova, there has never been an athlete in the history of sports who has been so popular over such a long period of time with such little success," Rovell says. "Earnhardt, who recently turned 35, is clearly running out of time to live up to his last name. But at least his last name is making a living for him."
But for a huge part of Earnhardt's fanbase, the losing is actually a badge of honor. Sticking with him through these tough times -- no matter how long they last -- has become a matter of respect and pride.
Let's be honest -- barring a miraculous turnaround, Earnhardt will never come close to equaling his father's record on the track. But by being the kinder, gentler face of NASCAR off it, he's got influence far beyond what The Intimidator ever dreamed. He's got the diehards and the casual viewers, and that's a major victory in itself.