There’s no replacing Junior, but young NASCAR stars eager to fill void – Indianapolis Star
IndyStar Motor Sports Insider Jim Ayello talks about NASCAR decision’s to reschedule the Brickyard 400.
INDIANAPOLIS — For the legions of Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans in Indianapolis wondering which driver to cheer for once their beloved “Junior” steps away from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Austin Dillon has a suggestion: “How about Austin Dillon?”
“I’m right here,” Dillon said with a laugh ahead of this weekend’s Brickyard 400. “I’m trying to get as many of those fans as we can get on the Austin Dillon side of things. There are a lot of people looking for new drivers right now.”
Dillon, the 27-year old driver of Richard Childress’ historic No. 3 car and currently 11th in Cup standings, knows that Earnhardt’s looming retirement, combined with the recent retirements of legends Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, creates a major opportunity for young drivers such as himself to snag a bigger piece of the spotlight in Indianapolis and across NASCAR nation.
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But Dillon, and NASCAR’s other young stars, are also quick to point out there is no replacing an icon like Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It will be impossible for any one of them to fill the void left by the man with 2.2 million Twitter followers, and the driver voted NASCAR’s most popular 14 years running.
Earnhardt has too deeply ingrained himself in the hearts of his legions of fans to be easily replaced. The son of a legend, they have watched him emerge from his father’s prodigious shadow and into one of the most beloved drivers in the history of the sport. While never as successful on track as “Daddy” — as he still lovingly refers to him — Earnhardt became equally treasured for being the good ol’ boy from North Carolina with that charming drawl who never grew too big for his britches. He never let the stardom, the brand that “Junior” became, take away from his everyman presence — the driver every fan wants to have a beer with.
Earnhardt, who has long served as both NASCAR’s connection to the past and as its pilot into the future, will leave a legacy far too great for any one driver to replace. He’s more than just a fan favorite, Dillon said. “He’s a hero of the sport. And it’s never good when you lose one of those.”
But while replacing Earnhardt — along with Stewart and Gordon — is impossible, the demise of NASCAR has been overstated, Dillon said. The sport is in good shape with a host of young drivers ready and eager to soak up a portion of the spotlight Earnhardt will leave behind.
“All we’ve known is racing with Dale,” said David Ragan, driver of the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Car. “He’s been a huge star since I started in this series 10 year ago. It will be really different to not have him on track and not around as much. With Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Kyle Larson, there are a lot of young kids in their 20s who are doing really good.”
Winners of the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It’s a great time to be a young driver in NASCAR, added Elliott, who has intimate knowledge of what it’s like to try to replace a legend. Last season, the 21-year-old took over for Gordon in the famed No. 24 car.
So he speaks from experience when he says that legends leaving provide “a big opportunity for guys like me who are coming up right now. It’s a good time to be working your way up the ranks if you have the right opportunity and the right chance.”
Elliott, Dillon and Ragan were quick to point out that Earnhardt will still be around in some capacity next season. He has already committed to driving in the Xfinity Series and has talked about returning for the Daytona 500, among other Cup races.
He won’t abandon NASCAR at a time when it needs him most. He’ll continue to be a face of the sport, to promote NASCAR and it’s rising stars and to mentor those drivers who will help carry NASCAR into the future.
Of course, all of that will come in due time. This weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the spotlight will be on Earnhardt the driver — not the mentor — as he bids farewell to his Indy fans. While the Brickyard has never been too kind to Earnhardt — he has finished in the top five just once in 16 starts there — expect the IMS faithful to shower him in adulation and give him the farewell he deserves.
Follow IndyStar reporter Jim Ayello on Twitter and Instagram: @jimayello.
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