There is a strong buzz within NASCAR three weeks into the season. This buzz comes largely due to the on-track success of the NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Through the season's first three races, Dale Jr. has finished no worse than second in each event. He is one of just five drivers in the history of NASCAR to do so, joining Jimmie Johnson, Richard Petty, Dale Jarrett and Cale Yarborough. Of those drivers, Johnson, Yarborough and Petty went on to win the season championship when starting the season with three finishes of no worse than second.
Regardless of who a fan's favorite driver is, any time NASCAR's most popular driver is a factor race weekend to win on a regular basis, it is great for the sport.
With more media attention paid to stock car racing, more eyes are watching. When events occur, such as Dale Jr. being on the cover of Sports Illustrated, it's a tremendous boost for NASCAR fans and everyone who is involved in the sport.
And then there's the social media angle.
Dale Jr. has joined Twitter!
He's not only on the popular social networking site, but has been very engaging and active with fans, which would lead a casual observer to think that Dale Jr. has been tweeting for the past four years.
Earnhardt Jr. sent out more than 130 tweets within five days of sending his first tweet, a "selfie" from victory lane following his Daytona 500 victory. He currently has more than 574,000 followers.
One of Earnhardt Jr.'s teammates at Hendrick Motorsports, Jimmie Johnson had been trying to convince him to join Twitter for quite some time.
"I, among many others have pushed him to do it," Johnson said last week. "There's been a lot of people on social media, even the people who run Twitter have come to me to put pressure on him over the years and it just was something he wasn't interested in. As sharp as he is, as much time as he spends in the digital world, I knew when he got involved, he would love it."
Any time that the sport's most popular driver is in a position where so many people are watching, it is nothing but a positive for the sport.
A lot of fans have been talking about Dale Jr.'s big win at Daytona to begin the year. It would be hard to blame diehard fans of the No. 88 car for not starting to talk about NASCAR Sprint Cup championship aspirations.
Some fans are excited about Earnhardt Jr.'s early-season success, and others are not. But the bottom line is that fans are talking about the sport and doing so with great enthusiasm. They are showing the rest of the sporting world their intense passion for their drivers, and that is one of the best things about NASCAR fans!
While it may be easy to dismiss Earnhardt Jr.'s Daytona 500 win as a fluke in addition to his subsequent second-place finishes, it's most certainly not the case. Signs of his early success this year can be traced back to the end of last year. In the final 10 races of 2013, Earnhardt Jr. placed in the top five a total of five times and scored eight top-ten finishes.
"Right there at the end of the year we were running so well. To be able to be as fast as we were at Homestead, to finish the season off with such a strong car, almost get a win there, did wonders for our confidence. It obviously showed how we were able to take off at the beginning of the year, get the win," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We have a great situation here to have something unique. The team is in a perfect position really to capitalize on our final year with (crew chief) Steve Letarte."
In fact, in his last 12 overall races in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Earnhardt Jr. has a better average finish than the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson.
If a driver runs near the front on a regular basis, odds are that at some point, wins will come. The law of averages appears to be catching up for Dale Jr., and that is something that obviously excites the group of racing fans known as "Junior Nation."
While it remains to be seen how much of a title contender Earnhardt Jr. will be as the season goes on, there is no disputing the fact that his early-season success has infused energy into NASCAR. That, race fans, is a great thing for the sport.