Clint Bowyer, winner of the first race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup on Sunday in New Hampshire, could be just the answer.
With the 2001 death of the legendary Dale Earnhardt, fans have been looking for someone just like them to pull for at the races. Earnhardt's legion of fans shifted their devotion to The Intimidator's son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Initially, he did not disappoint. He's posted 18 career NASCAR Sprint Cup wins. There are drivers in various halls of fame with fewer career wins.
But Junior hasn't won since 2008. And that year he scored only the single victory. Driving for the potent Hendrick Motorsports Team, more is expected of Earnhardt. Many have become disenchanted with his carefree attitude, a 180-degree difference from the all-consumed nature of his Dad.
It is unfair to compare him -- or any driver -- to his uber-successful racing dad. Just ask Kyle Petty, whose father answers to the name "King," as in "Richard Petty ... the King of Stock Car Racing." Kyle Petty told me that he told to the younger Earnhardt to tune out all the folks making comparisons. He told him he would go crazy trying to match his father's seven championships and 83 career wins. Petty's father is the only other seven-time NASCAR champion and the all-time wins leader in the sport with 200 career victories. Nobody, not Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip or any of the other greats, could match both those marks.
But comparison is an inevitable reality. And when you are the highest-paid, most popular driver in the sport, the burden is heavy.
So while Earnhardt Jr. struggles, the TV ratings and live attendance at the races have suffered. Many in the sport see a direct correlation to both Earnhardt Jr.'s performance and non-Dale Earnardt-like attitude and lifestyle. The elder Earnhardt would win the race by "rattling the cage" of a fellow competitor, call out drivers as "candy asses" from victory lane, kiss the trophy queen and still be out at his chicken ranch on his bulldozer by 6 a.m. the next morning. Just like me (if only I drove race cars and bulldozers).
Which takes us back to Clint Bowyer.
Winning races like he did Sunday raises his profile. And perhaps more than any other driver, Bowyer has some of the elder Earnhardt's qualities. He doesn't appear to be one of these privileged, smooth, polished, NASCAR-issue drivers. He comes across as a guy who climbed the ranks of the Saturday night short tracks back home and through hard work, effort and talent caught the eye of team owner Richard Childress. Childress, of course, was the guy Earnhardt drove for to all those victories and six championships. Maybe he, too, saw some of Earnhardt in Bowyer.
When Earnhardt burst on the scene winning the 1979 Rookie of the Year title before winning the 1980 NASCAR title, he was as rough as a Texas dirt road. Bowyer isn't nearly that rough, but he'll occasionally drop a cuss word and look out of place off the track in the spotlight -- just like Dale Sr. But he also exudes an "I can't believe I'm here" attitude missing from so many drivers today. That -- and his ability on the race track -- are endearing qualities. Qualities that the sport can build on as we go down the road.
America's original blue-collar sport needs a blue-collar hero. It really hasn't had one since that fateful crash in 2001.
Winning more races more often for Bowyer will be a big help to that end. Earnhardt Jr. tried but wasn't able to sustain the winning ways. Certainly he has the talent and is having a much better year than he did in 2009. He can get back to his winning ways.
But Bowyer could be just the answer.