Brooklyn — It never would have worked had Dale Earnhardt Jr. not been so genuine.
That is the importance of being Earnhardt.
In a world of shtick, rickety values and unbridled ego masquerading as gallantry, Junior is real.
It came in handy.
The lot fate dealt him when his father was killed at Daytona might have blown up in his face, and in the faces of some of the rich men and big companies who run NASCAR, had Earnhardt revealed the slightest pretense or smug intention.
Instead, for a decade-and-a-half leading up to his last race at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday, Earnhardt provided dead reckoning for the course of NASCAR.
Unpretentious honesty made him the fans’ choice as most popular driver for 14 consecutive seasons, despite not being the most successful or most talented driver.
His 26 career wins are 29th, all-time.
He is seventh among active drivers behind Jimmie Johnson (83), Kyle Busch (39), Matt Kenseth (38), Kevin Harvick (36) and Denny Hamlin (29).
But Junior being Junior mattered more than whether he won a lot, and that is remarkable in sports today.
Johnson has seven cup championships, and his trailer park to racing royalty life is pure American Dream. Compared to Earnhardt, who was to the manor born after his father and both grandfathers had successful NASCAR careers, Johnson’s life has unfolded as an up-by-his-bootstraps saga.
Tony Stewart retired recently with three championships, and his reputation as an irascible, lunch-bucket guy who would do anything just to get involved in a good race, anywhere, provided the ideal profile for stock car racing.
Jeff Gordon battled Earnhardt’s father in one of the great, head-to-head rivalries in the sport and garnered popularity. But Gordon failed to achieve the sort of transcendent role the younger Earnhardt long ago assumed, with a natural ease.
When Earnhardt finished second in the 2001 Daytona 500, in which his father died when his car struck the retaining wall, the expectations of most NASCAR fans, and even sports fans beyond racing, fell on the 26 year-old son.
Dale Earnhardt, a seven-time champion, strode around NASCAR as a great American hero.
It would have been easy for Junior to stumble under the great load.
But fans soon found they could turn to him to find the opposite of what alienates them in the modern era, spoiled multi-millionaire athletes whose unsound sense of entitlement and exceptionalism is delusional.
Fans search for “someone like us” and a straight-shooter possessed of some humility found Earnhardt amid the accumulated ruins of athletes gone bad, utter arrogance and the sense that all of the money creates someone quite different from “the common man.”
He could be counted on for acting the same amid disappointment, and providing frank and candid answers to difficult questions.
Another DNF (did not finish) at Pocono earlier this season, when he threw the shifter into third instead of fifth lead to no excuses about the newly installed shifter. Instead, Earnhardt let viewers know he pretty much felt like they feel when they go to work and mess up.
No day job
Ultimately, Junior being Junior meant more than not being the most prolific winner.
Fans even voted him “most popular” after he missed 18 of 36 races in 2016.
Some drivers do not quite get it.
In an interview with NASCAR Radio this week, Harvick said he thought Earnhardt had held NASCAR back.
“I think the popularity of our sport has not reached the level that it could because our more popular driver is not our best driver,” Harvick said.
“I believe Dale Jr. has had a big part in kind of stunting the growth of NASCAR, because he’s got this huge legion of fans that’s impossible for us to reach, but he’s only won nine races in 11 years.”
But the fact that Johnson, Stewart, Gordon and Harvick himself never assembled Earnhardt’s following is evidence of Junior’s great strength, and the best attribute NASCAR has had for almost 20 years.
It also is a refreshing reminder that, indeed, it really is not always the winning that matters.
“I wish I could run better on the track” Earnhardt said Friday. “I know that would make things a lot easier to enjoy.”
“We still have a few races to come up with something. We’ve got to find some speed.”
Then, after praising Harvick for his work with his team JR Motorsports in some recent seasons in the Xfinity series, Earnhardt looked back at the major challenge of his career.
“I watched a lot of guys come in behind their dads and struggle,” he said. “And a lot of guys came in behind their dads and made it.
“And, you know, my dad put up some pretty steep numbers, and so I knew that that was going to be a challenge, trying to feel enough self-worth and doing well enough to satisfy me.”
Amid evermore candor, Earnhardt said his original hope in 1997 was to race well enough not to have to get a regular job for a living.
“You know, Í was a screw-off when I was a teenager,” Earnhardt said. “I was late to work every day, and I didn’t put in the effort.
“I just didn’t have my head on straight. So, I shouldn’t have amounted to much.
“I didn’t come here to be the most popular guy,” he said. “I didn’t come here to win seven championships.
“I wanted to be able to do it. I didn’t want to have to work.
“I just wanted to make a living doing it, and it’s turned out to be much, much more than that.”
9:30 a.m., NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, qualifying
1 p.m. NASCAR Camping World Truck Series LTi Printing 200, FS1
3 p.m., Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Pure Michigan 400, NBCSN