Here’s how to pick a NASCAR favorite
Long-billed as the “The Great American Race,” the Daytona 500 attracts eyeballs from tens of thousands of people — some of whom may be catching their very first NASCAR race.
So, maybe it’s time for an introduction. With a nod to my FOXSports.com soccer colleague who used this method to help American fans adopt an English Premier League team — here’s a fun guide to match NASCAR drivers with more "household" sports personalities.
If you can appreciate the New York Yankees standing among sports franchises and thriving as the perennial top-dog, then five-time Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson is your driver.
Like the dynastic Yankees, Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports team has been NASCAR’s most dominant organization in the modern era with a huge payroll, maximum exposure and the results to show for it all — 13 team titles and a historic run of five consecutive championships for Johnson between 2006-2010.
You have to have thick skin, however, because like the Yankees, Johnson has as many people who begrudge him the great success as those that relish it with him. And while Johnson’s “manager” Chad Knaus is no Billy Martin, the two share a similar passion and focus that means pushing the limits, even if it means being benched by NASCAR.
Ultimately the trophies speak for themselves.
Johnson’s teammate Jeff Gordon is NASCAR’s version of the Dallas Cowboys. Like “America’s Team” he hasn’t won the “big one” in a while, but each year the four-time champ shows enough promise to convince fans and the media he can muster another title run.
As the Cowboys have endured a revolving door of head coaches, Gordon’s titles and wins (85 — third most all-time) have come despite a long list of crew chiefs.
Another byproduct of success shared by Gordon and the Cowboys is a massive, diverse and loyal fan base. Travel anywhere in the world and you’re likely to encounter a Dallas Cowboys fan and it’s the same for Gordon, who’s been recognized even in Africa.
At 40, Gordon’s out to prove himself as relevant today as he — and the Cowboys — were in the 1990s, with victories and championships still in the future.
Carl the shark
If it does your heart good to cheer for the guy who always seems to fall just painstakingly short of glory, you probably find yourself cheering on golfer Greg Norman — and would similarly like NASCAR driver Carl Edwards.
Norman, nicknamed “The Shark” and Edwards, who is shark-like on track, are likeable guys who everyone wants to see finally get the big win. And boy do they come close.
Edwards seemed to have the upper-hand on his first Cup championship last season only to lose the trophy in a tiebreaker decided in the final race. Had just one of his seven runner-up finishes in 2012 been a win, the title would have been his. He starts the 2012 season a favorite every time he climbs in a race car. Now to finish the job.
Like baseball’s iconic Chicago Cubs, NASCAR’s favorite son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t had the recent huge success to explain his wild popularity. But that has never stopped the unwavering adoration of fans who hold out hope that every week could be “the week” that Junior gets back in victory lane.
Earnhardt Jr. earned his first playoff berth in three years in 2011, giving the faithful just enough reassurance that maybe this will be the year he resurges — and rewards the masses that believe in him most.
If you’re a fan of the gritty, hard-nosed just-get-it-done success of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, then you’ll appreciate NASCAR’s workhorse champion Tony Stewart.
The reigning Sprint Cup Series champ Stewart would be the first to tell you his style may not always be pretty, but with three Cup titles, fresh off the most amazing playoff push in Chase history, you can’t argue with his success or his method. He’s the working-man’s athlete and his no-apologies, I’m gonna-do-it-my-way approach has made him a guaranteed Hall of Famer like so many players that made the Steelers franchise legendary.
Like the iconic American tennis star John McEnroe, NASCAR’s Kyle Busch’s young career has been defined as much by his frequent temper tantrums as his immense racing talent. As with the feisty McEnroe, Busch’s ultra-competitive attitude crosses the line and has been very polarizing to fans and fellow competitors. But you can’t deny his success or potential. Like McEnroe played, Busch is either going to drive brilliantly or go down big. And it’s must-see TV either way.
Old man Martin
For you 40 and 50-somethings that get a kick out seeing a veteran still hand it to the youth, we give you Mark Martin, the George Blanda of NASCAR. Blanda is the only NFL player to compete over a four-decade span and was still booting the ball at 48-years old — kicking a 41-yard field goal in the 1976 AFC Championship Game.
Like Blanda — who switched positions from quarterback to kicker to preserve his body and prolong his career — Martin, 53, is scaling back from fulltime competition this season to a part-time job with Michael Waltrip Racing.
He proved in 2009 — at the age of 50 — that he can still contend with anyone, winning five races, a series best seven pole positions and finishing runner-up in the championship
And finally, the easiest translation for American sports fans: Defending Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, 21, is NASCAR’s version of Tim Tebow. They are young, handsome and have succeeded against the odds and in despite of critics. They are both driven by a strong Christian faith and are outspoken in their beliefs and proud throwbacks to a time when being polite and motivated was as important as being supremely talented.
Like Tebow’s string of fourth-quarter rallies for the Denver Broncos this past fall, Bayne’s win in last year’s Daytona 500 — in only his second Sprint Cup Series start — was one of the most dramatic moments and shocking finishes in NASCAR history, drawing the attention and appreciation of race fans and non-fans alike.