It’s been four years and 143 races since Dale Earnhardt Jr. visited Victory Lane, but NASCAR’s most popular driver finally ended his losing streak during the June 16 Sprint Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway and the sport and its tracks are already seeing an impact on their sales.
Michigan track president Roger Curtis recently told Sporting News that the ticket office has seen a 22 percent increase in ticket sales over last year for the upcoming August race. TV ratings for Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 on TNT were up 15 percent, the highest overnight rating of any race this season.
With nearly 1.4 million likes on Facebook, as the sport’s nine-time most popular driver and offspring to legend Dale Earnhardt Sr., Earnhardt Jr. undoubtedly brings tons of attention to the sport. A photo posted of the No. 88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew/The Dark Knight Rises Chevrolet in Victory Lane received over 95,000 likes on Facebook and over 9,000 comments as of Wednesday, nearly two weeks after the win.
VP of licensing for JR Motorsports Joe Mattes told Sporting News that merchandise sales on the NASCAR.com Superstore were up 500 percent from a year ago. Earnhardt products typically make up 25 percent of all sales for the online store, but on the Monday after Earnhardt’s win, sales of the driver’s merchandise made up 78 percent of the site’s business.
While tracks are already seeing a climb in ticket sales, according to Sammie Lukaskiewicz, senior director of communications for MIS, the effect that Earnhardt Jr.’s win will have on sales is more of a trickle effect rather than a direct impact.
“Dale Jr.’s win at Michigan International Speedway has had an effect on ticket sales for a few reasons,” said Lukaskiewicz in an email to TicketNews. “Not only is he an extremely popular driver, but his win created a buzz resulting in increased exposure for MIS and increased interest in people wanting to give us a try.”
MIS was one of a couple tracks this year to repave their track surface, which always creates interest with fans and media members eager to see what effect the change will have on the cars and the drivers’ performance. The previous week at Pocono drivers were hitting speeds in excess of 200 mph and MIS proved to be no different. The two-mile track was paved for the first time since 1995 and produced record speeds during a Thursday test session. According to Autoweek, three drivers including Earnhardt Jr. were able to maintain speeds above the record for 10-lap runs.
The Friday night before the Quicken Loans 400 a tire switch was announced for Sunday’s race — a move that threw many teams for a loop since the switch was not in effect during Saturday’s qualifying session. With excitement in the air, Sunday’s race drew an estimated crowd of 82,000 and all were there to witness Earnhardt Jr.’s much anticipated victory.
“We’ll see if that (ticket sales increase) sustains, if that keeps going,” Curtis told Sporting News. “There’s a tremendous amount of excitement around this. We had a perfect mix of speed and competition — and Junior, of course, winning on top of that is really going to help.”
The question remains whether Earnhardt Jr. can keep up the momentum — with 16 races completed this season, he already has more top-five finishes than his entire 2011 season and is currently third in the point standings, just 14 points behind leader Matt Kenseth. Although winless last season, it was the first time Earnhardt made the Chase field since 2008. While it may seem like Earnhardt might be headed toward his first Championship, the driver will need more wins under his belt in order to keep up the excitement and the ticket sales.
“Nobody pays any attention to second place in sports,” Wheeler said to Sporting News. “We can finagle that and pat it on the head and wrap it up in pretty bows, but the fact is that second place is second place. It’s when you win that creates the stir.”
So far this season Earnhardt Jr. has two second-place finishes (Daytona and Richmond), two third-place finishes (Auto Club and Martinsville), and one fourth-place (Dover), not to mention a handful of other top-10s — nearly half of these tracks have another race on the schedule this year. If the driver is able to secure another win, this season will not only be the best thus for Earnhardt Jr., but it will also be a good year for the sport and its tracks; however, the question is whether his next win will generate the same buzz as the last.
“Typically my stats in the summer and our ability to get points in the summer has not been very good so this year I’ve got new feelings…I’m thinking about things in a different way that I’ve never thought before so we’re excited about going back to Pocono, going back to Michigan, this could be the best summer I’ve ever had in the sport,” said Earnhardt Jr. in an interview on HendrickMotorsports.com. “It’s already quickly becoming the best season I’ve ever had as far as average finishes and top 10s and what have you so I’m just hoping we can keep it going.”