First it was Jeff Gordon who left NASCAR fans clamoring for more star power. Then it was Tony Stewart who took his rabid fan base and left the sport. Earlier this year, Carl Edwards shocked the NASCAR community when he did the same despite nearly winning a championship last season.But nothing compares to the blow the sport was dealt on Monday morning. Nothing compares to the void of losing Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award winner for 14 straight seasons and an icon in the sport of auto racing.Why is Earnhardt NASCAR’s most popular driver? If you said his last name, you’re missing the point. Earnhardt has been one of the most thoughtful, personable drivers to his fans. He’s also been genuine to every person he encounters, including a 24-year-old reporter covering his first Chase in Charlotte four years ago.On Tuesday afternoon, he proved that yet again.”The fan support that I received straight out of the gate was in large part because of my famous last name, but throughout the ups and downs that occured to me, the fans stuck it out,”Earnhardt Jr. said. “And the new ones that joined us, they were there because of the person I was and not who they wanted me to be.”Last year, ESPN released the “World Fame 100″ that took a look at the most famous athletes in the world. Of those, only five were NASCAR drivers, none of which landed inside the top 50. Earnhardt, as you can imagine, was at the top of that short list at No. 57 with Jimmie Johnson just behind him at No. 58.One of the others on that list was Stewart, who is now of the track entirely, while Kyle Busch barely squeaked in at No. 94. Danica Patrick, despite her lack of results, registered at 63. Of the current top drivers on the list from last year, only three will remain in the sport next season, with Johnson entering the final stretch of his illustrious career at 41 years old.”There will never be another Dale Jr.,” Rick Hendrick said. “I am very appreciative of what you mean to me and our company. … Without a shadow of a doubt the hardest thing to do was to tell you, you mean so much to me.”In a sport already struggling with an identity crisis as it is, losing Earnhardt on top of the star power it’s already seen step away in recent years would seem like nearly a death blow, right? That depends on how NASCAR chooses to market itself over the next several months with more eyeballs on Junior than ever.NASCAR has a wealth of emerging stars, with one of the biggest already in the Hendrick Motorsports camp. Chase Elliott has the talent, looks and marketability to carry the sport into the future and has already proved he’s capable of emerging from both his father’s (Bill Elliott) and predecessor’s (Gordon) shadow in the No. 24 machine.Aside from Elliott, look no further than the current points leader in Kyle Larson to carry the torch for a younger audience of NASCAR fans. Chip Ganassi Racing has shown huge leaps over the last two years with Larson and the fan base is growing for the humble young driver from California.When asked who he would look to carry NASCAR into the future, Junior named both Larson and his teammate Elliott, but also added that “There are probably a dozen guys I am excited about.” Hendrick also noted that “I’ve never seen as much talent in NASCAR.”But will fans gravitate toward Larson, Elliott or even Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones the way they did with Earnhardt when he was coming up? Can any of the young drivers bridge the gap the way Junior did for generations of older fans heartbroken by the loss of their hero in 2001.NASCAR certainly has the notable drivers to carry the banner for a new generation, but it needs to act fast before Earnhardt exits. Now is a crucial time to persuade its fan base that there are drivers Junior fans can latch onto after he calls it quits prior to the 2018 season.The marketability is there. The teams are there. The talent is certainly there. But will the fans still be there without an Earnhardt on the track for the first time since 1975? That remains to be seen.
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