Dale Jr.: The next Tiger...or A-Rod on wheels?
NASCAR's most popular driver has a chance to lift his sport and his endorsement potential to the next level. But it would help if he won more races.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Expectations have never been higher for a driver with a 62-race winless streak than they are for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Sunday's Daytona 500.
And it's not just his legion of fans who believe he'll take the checkered flag at NASCAR's top race and go on to his first championship season. He'll be carrying the hopes of his sponsors and the entire sport in the car with him.
NASCAR is counting on the driver who is by far the sport's most popular to finally become one of the most successful.
Nearly one in three NASCAR fans consider Dale Jr. -- as he's most commonly known -- to be their favorite driver. That's despite the fact that he has rarely been in contention for the sport's annual Cup title.
Dale Jr.'s popularity was helped by the reputation of his dad, seven-time Cup champion Dale Sr. Many of Dale Sr.'s fan switched to Dale Jr. after he was killed at Daytona in 2001. Dale Jr.'s young rebel image helped him build on his father's popularity and bring in his own fan base.
This has led to an estimated $22 million a year in endorsements for Dale Jr. from sponsors such as Anheuser-Busch (BUD, Fortune 500) and DirecTV (DTV, Fortune 500). A new deal with PepsiCo's (PEP, Fortune 500) Mountain Dew Amp and the Army National Guard, which are replacing Budweiser as his primary sponsors, will be even more lucrative.
But despite 17 career wins, including a Daytona 500 victory in 2004, he's still well behind many less popular drivers in terms of on-track success.
Last year, Dale Jr. finished 16th in the Cup standings, which means he didn't qualify for the Chase for the Cup, NASCAR's 10-race playoff-like competition at the end of the season, for the second time in three years. His best finish in the Cup standings in his career was third-place in 2003.
Would Michael Jordan be as much of an icon if his Chicago Bulls never won a championship? Would Tiger Woods be as famous as he is if he struggled to make the cut at most tournaments? Dale Jr. is a rarity in sports: he is his sports' most popular athlete but is far from being its most dominant.
Some have suggested that Dale Jr. was handicapped by driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. -- the team his father started and owned -- since it was far from one of the sports' richest.
It's worth noting that when Dale Sr. was winning seven Cups in the 1980's and early 1990's, the sport had a far more level financial playing field.
But Dale Jr. announced last year he was leaving his father's old team, which is now run by Dale Jr.'s stepmother. This year, he is racing for Hendrick Motorsports, which is like the New York Yankees of NASCAR.
The deep-pocketed team has a headquarters the size of about 10 football fields and 550 employees, 60 of whom are engineers. These resources have helped Hendrick drivers to win half of the Cup races last year and seven championships since 1995.
A-Rod on wheels?
But now that Dale Jr. is racing for the sports's richest team, there will be more pressure on him to win, said Mike Bartelli, head of the motor sports practice for Millsport, a sports marketing and sponsorship firm.
"There will be no excuses," said Bartelli. "He'll have as good an opportunity to win every Sunday."
Bartelli added that Dale Jr. risks becoming the "A-Rod of NASCAR", referring to Alex Rodriguez, the star third baseman for the New York Yankees, who despite great individual success has become a lightning rod for the Yankees' playoff failures since he joined the team in 2004.
Of course, A-Rod, despite never winning a World Series, is still among baseball's most marketable players.
And football star Peyton Manning was Madison Avenue's go-to guy even before he finally shed his "can't win the big game" by leading his Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl win in 2007.
Bartelli conceded that even if Dale Jr. doesn't start winning more, he won't see his sponsors flee. Dale Jr.'s name recognition among sports fans is just a hair below that of Tiger and Jordan.
But Dale Jr.'s endorsement profile could jump to an even higher level if he starts to grab more checkered flags and a series of championships. You'll be more likely to see spots with him outside of NASCAR programming, which is when most commercials with drivers air.
"If he's dominant on the track, he's going to rival Tiger and Jordan," said Ken Unger, a sports business consultant who works extensively in motor sports.
NASCAR also can win big
Success for Dale Jr. will also be very important to NASCAR itself, which has seen its financial growth downshift to a lower gear in recent years after a decade of having the pedal to the metal.
With NASCAR's most popular driver not on top of the standings, that has dampened television ratings. If this trend continues, some say this could put a crimp into sponsorship dollars. And no major sport depends more on sponsors than NASCAR.
"One of the things you hear as a possible cause of NASCAR's ratings woes is Dale Jr.'s lack of success on the track," said Bartelli.
The early take on whether those hopes will be realized are pretty good. Dale Jr. won both the races leading up to Daytona, basically pre-season contests that don't count towards the point total that determines Cup standings.
By contrast, this Sunday's race counts -- a lot.
If Dale Jr. wins the Daytona 500 and emerges as a contender for his sport's annual championship, you'll probably see more commercials featuring him. And NASCAR will likely get back on track as the fastest growing sport in the nation once again.