(Originally appeared on Sept. 16, 2011 at WRALSportsFan.com)
When NASCAR chairman Brian France said two years ago that the sport needed Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win races – and that as Junior goes, so goes NASCAR – it understandably embarrassed the man who has been NASCAR's most popular driver the last eight years running.
But at the same time, France’s comments also illustrated just how much the sport needs Junior to excel and, more importantly, win.
France’s words proved almost prophetic. When Earnhardt stumbled to the two worst finishes of his Sprint Cup career – 25th in 2009 and 21st in 2010 – NASCAR continued to plunge downward in at-track attendance and TV ratings, down nearly 25 percent since 2008.
But things are different this year. NASCAR is back on the upswing. More people are attending races and more are sitting in front of their TV, tuning in on Sunday afternoons and Saturday evenings to Sprint Cup coverage.
Not coincidentally, Earnhardt is having his best season since 2008 – even though he's also still looking for his first win since that same season.
To round out that 2008 connection, Earnhardt managed to qualify for his first Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR's 10-race playoff, since that same year. The Chase begins Sunday in the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in suburban Chicago.
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