Dale Earnhardt Jr's victory in Sunday's Quicken Loans 400 at the Michigan International Speedway seems to have divided NASCAR Nation into two clear sides. One, which course includes his massive fan base, is somewhere between over-the-moon thrilled and just happy to have seen him get the win. The other, meanwhile, ranges anywhere from disappointment to rage that his long 143-race winless drought is over.
I initially found myself in the latter category, and not just because my driver ran second. It is rare that I cheer for Earnhardt Jr's on-track success. Nearly anyone else in the top-10 could have been holding down that runner-up spot and I would have been rooting for them to chase the No. 88 Chevy down.
Then I saw the look on his face in victory lane and the joy and relief in the man's eyes and couldn't help but feel pleased for him. As a person, Earnhardt is very easy to like. He is very funny, thoughtful, and just seems like a good fellow. A lot of people who root for Junior say a big part of the allure is that he's the type of individual they could picture themselves kicking back and having a beer with him. Well, I don't drink alcohol, but give me a Coca-Cola and I can see myself right there with them. Seeing him succeed momentarily brought a smile to my face.
No, no, no, I thought. I can't be happy about this. It doesn't matter how good of a person he is and how deserving he is to be standing there in victory lane. A win for him means a win for them, and that is not a good thing.
"Them," of course, is that one sect of Junior Nation that gives the rest of his fans - and the rest of NASCAR fans, for that matter - a bad name. Everyone knows exactly which Earnhardt fans I'm talking about. Why on earth would we want to see them have something to celebrate? Yes, every driver has his annoying, insufferable partisans (just as every driver has their great race fans you love to know, Earnhardt included), but the sheer number of Junior fans that fall into that category make him stick out.
There are other fan bases and fan-types that get on the rest of our nerves. Teenage girls - the ones that don't know an axle from a tailpipe, think that the track bar is where all the drivers head for Happy Hour, and throw out the statbook and on-track performance and base which driver is the best and which drivers suck on their looks - are the most common targets of my animosity. Unfortunately they largely seem confined to two drivers, Kasey Kahne and Joey Logano.
It's odd rooting against success for one of Tony Stewart's dirt-racing buddies and his successor in the Home Depot No. 20 car after I'd bled orange for 10 years, but there I am.
In any professional sport, the fans are representatives for their favorite team. How they handle themselves reflects back on the team, good or bad. The New York Yankees are baseball's most-storied franchise, but fans that don't love them often hate them because of the reputation of their fans. On the flip-side, Atlanta Braves fans like yours truly are generally regarded as showing warm Southern hospitality and only serves to strengthen the team's classy image.
Stock car racing is different from any other sport, however. Unlike Major League Baseball, which is divided into 30 different franchises, the Sprint Cup Series is one big family of people. All of the drivers, crew members, officials, media, etc. are like distant relatives, as are the fans of our favorite drivers and every other driver. When you look at it that way, it's easy to say, "By-golly, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a good guy and I hope he wins some races" or "That Kasey Kahne sure can wheel a race car, what a talent!" or something along those lines.
It's funny how one of those certain Junior fans or one of those Kahne-loving teenage girls can spoil all that by the generous act of opening their mouth and giving away their ignorance. The drivers go from being flesh-and-blood people you relate to and want to see succeed to just being participants in your sport of choice whom you want to do poorly to shut their loudmouth fans up.
When you follow the sport closely and interact with other fans at the race track, at your workplace or school, in the supermarket, or on social media, it can be a struggle to separate the driver from his fans. You think about the Kyle Busch fan who did this or the Jimmie Johnson fan who did that or the Greg Biffle fan who did you ten kinds of wrong and your anger transfers to their driver.
It's like the baseball team analogy, hating the Yankees or Cubs because of their fans' obnoxious ways or hating the Diamondbacks or Pirates because one of their fans did you wrong. Unlike that analogy, however, instead of rooting against the franchise - the thing itself, not the people that construct it - you're rooting against a person.
I personally have resolved to attempt - keyword, attempt - to start viewing drivers as they are without the outside influence of someone who just happens to root for them.
With that being said, congratulations Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a long-overdue victory. Welcome back, and here's to many more.