How NASCAR will deal without Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the track

NASCAR lost its 15-time most popular driver last year when Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired. How will it replace him? Chris Graythen/Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. has gone out of his way, whenever talking about his retirement from full-time NASCAR Cup Series racing, to say that his departure won't leave a void in the sport, that NASCAR has plenty of young drivers to excite fans.

Earnhardt probably sees that as his responsibility -- to project a confidence in the sport. And he truly does like the crop of young drivers coming up.

But a sport that loses a 15-time most popular driver is a sport in transition -- television viewership was down 10 percent from 2016 to 2017 -- even if Earnhardt remains a co-owner in the Xfinity Series and part of the NBC broadcast team.

"He has made an obviously big contribution on and off the track for a long time," NASCAR Chairman Brian France said at the end of the 2017 season. "So while we're going to miss him for obvious reasons, he's not going to be that far away, being an owner and working with NBC.

"He's going to be glued to the sport, and that's a good thing for us."

That is true, but while he will give the command to start engines on Sunday for the Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox), Earnhardt isn't out there racing, and that gives the sport an inherently different look than when he drove the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 car.

Junior's fans

"It may be a little bit harder with Dale not being around, but this sport will still go on and be OK," Earnhardt's friend and racer Brad Keselowski said. "I think Dale has some great fans. I think a portion of Dale's fans were straight-up Dale fans, and I think a portion of Dale's fans were NASCAR fans that just went to Dale.

"So I think the NASCAR fans that just went to Dale will definitely stick around, and I think the fans that were just straight-up Dale fans will leave, and that's just part of the ebbs and flow of every year."

Junior's fans, who could be why several tracks saw an uptick in attendance late last season during his retirement tour, will have to choose someone else to follow. They got a sense of what life would be like without him on the track when he missed the final 18 races of 2016 because of a concussion.

"Junior being out for a significant amount of time [in 2016] helped the process a little bit," his fellow NBC analyst and former driver Jeff Burton said. "Fans were smart enough to realize, 'Hey, he's had head injuries. What is the long-term future in regard to how much longer is he going to race?'

"All that created a transition zone, where fans can say, 'Who am I going to pull for?' It's also at a time when young drivers are coming in. It's hard to pull for your rival. You could still say Chase Elliott is his teammate. I don't think they are going to switch and pull for Kevin Harvick because he raced against him for so long."

The replacements

Elliott is the driver many have pegged as the potential replacement driver for Junior fans, as the son of 16-time most popular driver Bill Elliott.

"The sport is a sport because there's a lot of different names and faces that make for it," Elliott said. "There's guys that people like, and there's guys that people don't like. That's what makes the sport -- not just one person that everybody likes.

"As much as you may think, not everybody liked Dale. That's just the facts. Most people did. The majority did. But a lot of other people have other drivers, too. It's not just about one person."

Harvick said an Elliott win -- he is winless in 77 races -- will help the sport.

"When he wins the first time, you're going to see things that you hadn't seen in a long time from fan reaction and just enthusiasm about the sport," Harvick said. "When that happens, it's going to be good for all of us."

Elliott is not trying to concern himself with it.

"I'm living on this side of it," Elliott said. "I'm living in reality. The reality is I'm 0-[for]-78 [sic], whatever it is ... I need to go and do my job better, try to win some races. Whatever happens, happens."

All the attention

Elliott is one of three drivers not named Earnhardt whose diecasts made Lionel's top-selling list for 2017. Granted, it was Earnhardt's final season, but the three top-selling diecasts of 2017 were Earnhardt cars. Three more of Earnhardt's were in the top 10.

The other four: two of Elliott, one of Ryan Blaney and one of Kyle Busch.

That said, Earnhardt was not among the top 10 most-mentioned drivers during 2017 NASCAR telecasts. Martin Truex Jr. led that list, according to Joyce Julius & Associates, with 69 interviews and 4,462 mentions. He also won the title.

The rest of the top 10 in mentions: Busch, Kyle Larson, Harvick, Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Elliott, Joey Logano and Blaney.

In the offseason, Danica Patrick had the most media mentions, as she made announcements about her 2018 plans and her breakup with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (who was third). Truex was second. Young drivers made up only three of the top 10, with Larson sixth, Elliott eighth and Blaney ninth.

Johnson, Earnhardt's former teammate, realized just how glued to the sport Earnhardt is even when he's not at the track.

"I haven't felt his departure yet," he said. "Maybe [there is] less of a crowd by the 88 car. But I talked to him more last weekend than I did when he was here on a traditional weekend.

"He had a lot of opinions, how it looked, how out of control they looked on TV. He definitely wanted to know what was going on."

Off the track

Several tracks are upgrading their facilities, but those plans just coincide with Earnhardt's decision, track executives say. Many of the changes include taking out some seats and replacing them with social-oriented areas where people can stand and watch the race or just talk.

"It's something we should have been doing anyway, and I don't think this is the end of it," said Atlanta Motor Speedway President Ed Clark, whose company is putting a bar area in the grandstands by where restarts take place. "I think you will see more facilities to have more locations like this. Now people want to wander around. They want to see the event from different sight lines and different locations."

It is up to the drivers to replace Earnhardt as a fan favorite.

"If you are a Dale Jr. fan, you like racing," Burton said. "People aren't Dale Jr. fans who don't like racing. If you're a Dale Jr. fan, you're still going to watch racing.

"You're not going to just say, 'I hate racing.' Ultimately, you're going to ease into somebody, or [you're in] a transition period -- you started to pick somebody."