Can Danica Patrick dethrone Dale Earnhardt Jr. as NASCAR's most popular driver?

Tyler Barrick

After winning the Nationwide Series' most popular driver award on Monday night, there's a chance Patrick could use her massive Twitter following to beat Junior Nation when she moves to the Sprint Cup Series next year.

As of this writing, Danica Patrick had more than 671,000 Twitter followers – more than any other NASCAR driver. Nelson Piquet Jr. had 347,000, which is fourth overall and more than even Brad Keselowski.

Not surprisingly, Patrick and Piquet Jr. were named as the most popular drivers in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series, respectively, on Monday night at the season-ending banquet in Miami.

The award was the result of a fan vote, which is conducted online.

Did Patrick and Piquet Jr. win because of their Twitter followings, or perhaps because their popularity is reflected in the number of followers they have?

That's unclear. In Piquet Jr.'s case, he was a frequent campaigner for the award via his Twitter account – in two different languages – and promised giveaways if he won. Patrick made several posts about it, but they were infrequent (she hadn't mentioned it since Oct. 4 before tweeting about it last week).

We mention all that as a setup to this question: When Patrick comes to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series on a full-time basis next year, can she take down perennial winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the sport's top star?

We're not talking about replacing Earnhardt Jr. in the hearts of NASCAR fans. That will never happen. This is strictly a question about the online contest headed by the National Motorsports Press Association.

Fans, who can vote one time per day from each e-mail address, have been installing Earnhardt Jr. as the most popular driver for the last nine years – probably 10 after the award is unveiled in Las Vegas next week.

But what happens if Patrick arrives in Cup next season and decides to use her Twitter following to campaign for votes? Even if only one-third of her followers are active (just for argument's sake), that's still more than 200,000 people who might take the few seconds it takes to cast a vote.

Last year, there were only 1.5 million votes cast in the entire contest for the year. We don't know the total number for Earnhardt Jr., but let's just say it was one million. If that's the case, a well-planned Twitter campaign for the award with a following like Patrick's could potentially make a huge impact on the race.

Junior Nation is unfailingly loyal and there are a core of fans who never forget to vote daily, even reminding each other on message boards and e-mail chains to keep it up.

But without Earnhardt Jr. on Twitter to remind his fans, Patrick could potentially swoop in and steal the show.

Will it matter if she struggles? She finished 10th in the Nationwide standings this year – behind Mike Bliss and Brian Scott – and never had a top-five finish. Yet she still was the most popular driver anyway.

Clearly, all that matters is she has a big following and her fans are responsive enough to vote.

That's not to say Earnhardt Jr. is going down in 2013. But Patrick could very well be a formidable opponent in the most popular driver race.

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