Kevin Harvick: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s lack of success played ‘big part’ in stunted ‘growth of NASCAR’

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Kevin Harvick believes the popularity of 14-time most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. has played “a big part in stunting the growth of NASCAR” in recent years.

Harvick’s comments came Tuesday night on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hours” when the topic of fan attendance during Earnhardt’s farewell season was raised.

“I’ve been totally shocked by the vibe of Dale’s last year,” Harvick said. “I really thought it was going to be tons of fans showing up to the race track, buying crazy amounts of souvenirs and the souvenir sales aren’t up for the sales that he has in his last year so far. The crowds really haven’t changed. In my opinion, it’s been from his lack of performance. He hasn’t performed well in the race car.”

Earnhardt has failed to finish better than 12th in the last six races. Through 22 races he has only one top five (Texas). He also has nine finishes of 30th or worse.

But it’s Earnhardt’s overall record that drove Harvick’s comments about the health of the sport.

“It’s a funny situation when you talk about his last year and what you thought it would be,” Harvick said. “It’s the strangest situation that we have. In my opinion, this is where I think some of the growth in our sport has not reached the levels that it should’ve because our most popular driver hasn’t been our most successful driver. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the most popular driver (award) for however many years (14) in a row … But he hasn’t been anywhere close to being our most successful driver.”

Earnhardt’s reign as NASCAR’s most popular driver began in 2003, a season after Bill Elliott won the award for the 16th and final time. In Earnhardt’s Cup career, he has 26 wins and no championships. Since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, he has nine wins but none since 2015.

Harvick believes the popularity of an athlete should be directly tied to their success, citing LeBron James and Steph Curry in the NBA and Peyton Manning in the NFL. Harvick said it is “confusing” how that doesn’t seem to matter in NASCAR.

“(Earnhardt) hasn’t been anywhere close to being our most successful driver,” Harvick said. “For me I believe Dale Jr. has had a big part in stunting the growth of NASCAR because he’s got these legions of fans, this huge outreach of being able to reach these places none of us have the possibility to reach. But he’s won nine races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports and hasn’t been able to reach outside of that. I know those aren’t the most popular comments but those are real life facts that you look up and see on the stat sheet.”

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver said Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt’s teammate who has won seven championships, should be the most popular driver.

“It’s really confusing to me,” Harvick said. “In my opinion Jimmie Johnson should be our most popular guy because he’s won seven championships. You look at the souvenir sheet every week and he’s (ranked) three, four, five coming off a championship year of what he sells in souvenirs. That part to me is a little bit confusing.”

While Harvick said Earnhardt “deserves that fanfare” he is receiving in his final Cup season, he followed that up by saying: “Imagine how popular he would be if he had won two or three championships?

“His dad was popular because he became Dale Earnhardt because of the fact he won seven championships and he was out there grinding every week. That hasn’t happened.”

Dale Earnhardt Sr. only won Most Popular Driver once, in 2001 after he was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500.

Elliott’s 16 Most Popular Awards came despite only one championship but 44 wins in his Cup career. Only four of those wins came in his last nine seasons as a full-time driver.

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