Gordon wins, but Junior rules in NASCAR

May 6, 2003 6:31 AM

After 11 races on the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup season, it’s apparent that this is Dale Earnhardt Jr’s League.

The heir has finally taken over the throne of NASCAR royalty and may be the most popular driver in NASCAR history. The unusual thing about Junior’s unquestioned popularity is that there isn’t anyone out there that dislikes or disrespects him ”” a highly unusual combination in the world of NASCAR where fans passionately hold lifelong opinions as their own personal gospel.

Due to the nature of the sport, drivers always come under fire at some point and fans hold them accountable to those actions forever. That’s where they form their opinions.

Ask someone why they don’t like Jeff Gordon and many will recant a race from his wild rookie year of 1993 where he spun someone out or they’ll say they didn’t like how he left Bill Davis for Rick Hendrick. Nobody will ever tell you anything negative about Junior.

Richard Petty was the King, but the fan base during the era he ran compares to that of the Craftsman Truck Series now and there were plenty of people taking shots at him when he was King. Even Junior’s fellow drivers have put him onto another plateau.

The respect is visible on and off the track like no other driver before him. Junior has this aura surrounding him and is a legend in progress. The only sports celebrity that comes to mind that had such a unified respect among the sports fans and his peers might be Joe DiMaggio.

Like DiMaggio, Junior has captured a whole new audience for his sport and grew the market. Joe D made baseball fans out of several Italian-American immigrants while Junior has captured everyone from the Blink 182 skateboard crowd to Wall Street executives.

So where did this respect come from and how did he earn it? Junior has been very successful this season, but he hasn’t won a championship and only has eight wins during his four seasons. So, you can throw out the bandwagon theory that is prevalent in all other sports. He was popular as a rookie, being the son of seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, and already had a built-in following.

Everything seemed to change on that 2001 season opening day at Daytona when Dale Sr. passed away. The fans who disliked Dale Sr realized how much he meant to the sport and also felt and shared the pain with Junior from afar.

Currently, Junior is second in the points standings only 20 behind leader Matt Kenseth. He has eight Top 10 finishes in his last nine races and has the longest current streak in NASCAR with 35 straight races with no DNF’s (did not finish).

. The next major test for him will be the June 22 road course race at Sonoma. Odds on Junior to win that title range from 6-5 to 3-1 at Las Vegas Sports Books.

Indy 500 practice

Last Sunday was the first day of Indy 500 practice with Scott Sharp (10-1) leading the way with the top time in his Kelley racing Toyota. The top three times during the practice were all run by Toyotas. The fastest Honda was Dan Wheldon (25-1) from the Andretti-Green team followed by Indy 500 favorite Michael Andretti (7-1).

Two-time defending champion Helio Castro-Neves (10-1) was second fastest. Currently, Station Casinos has Toyota a -160 favorite to win over Honda. The Palms and Stations are the only books that currently have their odds out.

Quiet racing week

The only bettable racing action this week will be the Busch Series event at Gateway International Raceway outside of St Louis. The following week will be The Winston at Charlotte Motor Speedway, always one of the more exciting races of the season because it’s a non-points race by invitation only.