Danica Patrick's Daytona 500 pole signifies the end of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s reign as most popular driver

Tyler Barrick

The popularity of Danica Patrick is undeniable. We can’t help but see it during driver introductions or at merchandise trailers and if you look hard enough, you'll see it in the grassroots too.

Friday is traditionally my laundry day in New Smyrna Beach before heading down I-95 to cover the Camping World Truck Series race. New Smyrna Beach is fairly quaint, progressive town and its citizens are as blue collar as it comes.

With all due respect to men who do their own laundry, the establishment I frequent during Speedweeks was full of women, and to my surprise, they were all talking about Danica Patrick/

The more knowledgeable NASCAR fans directed the conversation, explaining Danica's rise to stardom and her graduation from the IndyCar Series. Those unfamiliar with stock car racing listened intently, promising to catch some of the race and talk about it next week.

It's a story that you wouldn't possibly believe unless you had seen it, much like her winning the Daytona 500 pole last Sunday in the first place.

This is important because this could signify the swift and immediate end of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 10-year reign as NASCAR's most popular driver. And like any sort of organize vote, this popularity contest could be decided on the all-important women's vote.

Be skeptical if you want but this is the same demographic that made Oprah Winfrey a billionaire and manages to keep all those daytime doctors and judges on syndication. Women have a considerable amount of sway on TV numbers and more importantly, mothers and daughters love Danica Patrick.

Oh they like Dale Earnhardt Jr. too. They like his southern drawl, the fuzzy face and shy disposition. But females, especially young girls, like Danica Patrick. And more importantly, they aspire to be just like her. It's a fact not lost on Patrick and crew chief Tony Gibson either.

The veteran wrenchman said during a Friday press conference that he's given out more lugnuts to young girls this week than he's given to anyone in his career. Danica's observation window in the garage is one of the most decorated in the sport – all from possible future NASCAR diehards.

What made Dale Earnhardt Sr. so popular during his era was his reliability. Earnhardt looked like NASCAR's southern fan base and spoke like them too. That's important to recognize because so many of today's drivers first strapped into a cockpit because of Earnhardt's legendary exploits. His greatness inspired them to their current success.

Danica, just like Earnhardt Sr., can have that same lifestyle appeal for young ladies who are still looking for someone to emulate.

And while merchandise sells isn't always the highest indication of success, Earnhardt Jr. has traditionally been the highest seller across all retailers over the last decade. Since winning the pole for Sunday's Daytona 500, Fanatics.com, a leading retailer of official merchandise announced that Danica had taken over the top NASCAR spot, passing the likes of Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.

It's a trend that will surely continue if she tastes any kind of success in NASCAR. While everyone is focused on the Daytona 500, Danica is without a doubt one of the favorites for Saturday's Nationwide Series event.

She's an expert tandem drafter and if she could steal a win in the Nationwide Series and continue progressing in the Cup Series, her popularity amongst NASCAR newcomers will skyrocket, pushing her to become NASCAR’s most marketable and popular star.

It's been a nice run for Dale Junior, but his tenure as most popular driver unofficially came to an end as soon as Danica Patrick captured the pole for Sunday’s Great American Race.

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