Sunday's race at Homestead will finish Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s final full season in NASCAR (he's left the door open for running future races). The legacy he leaves behind is one of the biggest fan favorites in series history, and one of the top drivers to never win a championship.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Career Notes
- 26 career NASCAR Cup Series wins
- 2-time Daytona 500 champion, 1 of 11 drivers to win race twice
- 2-time NASCAR XFINITY Series champion (1998-99)
- 14-time MENCS Most Popular Driver (won last 14 seasons)
According to the 2016 ESPN Sports Poll, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was by far the most popular driver among NASCAR fans in 2016 with more than 18% of them naming him as their favorite driver. Of the top 9 drivers on this list, only 2 will be active next season in Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch (Danica Patrick does not yet have a ride lined up for 2017).
In 2016, Earnhardt Jr. ranked as the 17th-most popular athlete (active or retired) and the only NASCAR driver in the top 40.
Favorite NASCAR Driver - Among NASCAR Fans 12+, According to ESPN's 2016 Sports Poll
Final Season a Disappointment
Earnhardt is going out with one of the worst seasons of his Cup Series career. His only top-5 finish came in April (a 5th-place finish at Texas), and we're past the 2-year anniversary of his last Cup Series win.
After a career resurgence in 2014-15, Earnhardt Jr. struggled his final 2 seasons in NASCAR.
He Still Might Go Out a Winner
Junior might be winless this year, but he still might go out a winner. In Saturday's XFINITY Series finale, Earnhardt Jr.'s JR Motorsports has 3 of the 4 cars running for a Championship. If 1 of those 3 drivers wins the championship, they'll join Chase Elliott (2014) as JR Motorsports drivers to win an NXS championship.
Byron's 2017 evokes memories of when Chase Elliott was driving for JR Motorsports. Elliott won the title at 18 years old as a rookie in 2014, and narrowly missed making the Championship 4 this season in the Cup Series at 21 years old.
Byron will be moving to the Cup Series next season in place of Kasey Kahne. Alex Bowman will be replacing Earnhardt in the No. 88 car. After Jeff Gordon retired from full-time competition following the 2015 season, it's given us a whole new Hendrick Motorsports.
Alex Bowman will be getting the call to replace Junior in the 88 car next year. Bowman drove 10 races in place of Junior when he was injured in 2016, won the pole at Phoenix and led 194 laps before finishing 6th.
--- ESPN Research & Stats ---