There are some among us who are still unable to watch Gordon Jump in “WKRP in Cincinnati” reruns without thinking of that hapless Maytag repairman, for example. And of course we have all known for years that nothing comes between Brooke Shields and her Calvins.
In an unusually fortuitous meeting of the minds -- and the heads that house them -- NASCAR has over time evolved into “the face” of corporate sponsorship. Statistics show unequivocally that you would be hard-pressed to find a more brand-loyal bunch than NASCAR fans.
But who, or what, is “the face” of NASCAR?
Well, one could take a strong case for Jimmie Johnson.
Unless you’re a fan of the last guy not named Jimmie Johnson to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title, it would probably require a couple minutes of concentration to come up with his name. (I’ll save you some time; it was Tony Stewart, in 2005.)
For the newest NASCAR fans, Johnson is the only champion they’ve ever known. His success in recent years has been so overwhelming that when his head pops out of that street drain in a popular Lowe’s TV commercial, fans of other drivers have been known to experience an irresistible urge to engage in an impromptu game of Whack-A-Mole.
His number five position in the driver standings headed into Bristol may seem dismal by JJ standards, but those who discount his potential to win a fifth consecutive championship simply have their heads firmly buried in the sand.
Surely Jimmie Johnson is the current face of NASCAR.
But what about Jeff Gordon?
I will never be swayed from my opinion that Gordon was a huge factor in opening the door for NASCAR to enter mainstream America’s sports consciousness. Handsome and articulate, he knocked ‘em dead on Madison Avenue, that smiling visage recommending the use of a cross-section of products ranging from Tag Hauer watches to tackle boxes.
To consider the four-time Cup Series champ’s No. 24 DuPont Chevy anything less than iconic would be an unforgivable disservice to his achievements, both in the sport and for the sport. The look of today’s NASCAR is the face of Jeff Gordon.
Well, maybe not. Gordon is already a legend and Johnson can’t seem to do anything other than win, but both are eclipsed in popularity by their Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The Earnhardt name is one that may not exactly transcend stock car racing, but surely personifies it. Even those who are completely out of the NASCAR loop recognize Dale Jr. He ranks fourth on Fortune magazine’s list of endorsement superstars. Last year, he was 11th on Sports Illustrated’s Fortunate 500 list. He moves more NASCAR merchandise than many of his competitors combined.
He has been the Hamburger Helper Most Popular Driver Award winner for the past seven years, and there is no reason to believe that will change anytime soon. Fans are euphoric when he is racing well, and despairing when he is not. He affects people.
When millions of fans think about NASCAR, the face in their heads more often than not is that of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Unless they are true blue, dyed-in-the-wool lifelong fans. To them NASCAR’s face may be found in Richard Petty’s smile, Darrell Waltrip’s vocal enthusiasm, or Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s mirrored sunglasses. Given the current state of things, it could even be the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut.
The face of 2010 could turn out to be Kevin Harvick, who has already clinched a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, has led the driver standings for the majority of the season, and was recently announced the new face of Budweiser. It might be Stewart, who has a history of late-season success, or Kyle Busch, who is just scary good behind the wheel.
The face of NASCAR attends races; it watches them on TV and listens to them on the radio. It shops at Office Depot and Home Depot. It buys Corvettes and eats Hamburger Helper. It wears dog tags and Tag Hauers. NASCAR’s image is not a portrait of one, but of many.
Want a closer look? Head to your mirror.
There you will find the true face of NASCAR, staring right back at you.
Cathy Elliott is a former P.R. representative for Darlington Raceway who currently covers NASCAR as a freelance writer.