So what makes the guy in second place, the guy who finished out of the top 10 last year (11, ironically), the hottest commodity in the fastest growing sport in the country? Good question.
It's not, as some people still insinuate, that he's riding on the coattails of his father's popularity. Admittedly, the name didn't hurt and certainly he inherited a lot of brokenhearted fans, but nepotism doesn't explain the many fans he's actually brought to NASCAR since that fateful February day in 2001. It doesn't explain people like my friend Leslie, who, on the night she was celebrating getting her PhD in feminist literature, shocked everyone present by admitting that there's just something about Junior. She's never watched a single race. She saw him in an interview after his father died and was taken with how "genuine and classy" he was. The looks on the faces of her indie rock, navel-gazing pals were priceless.
But he's not, as many drooling fans assert with frightening conviction and regularity all over the "net, drop dead gorgeous. He's really kind of odd looking with his devilish eyebrows and lopsided grin.
No, the secret to Junior's je ne sais quoi (or "freedom flair") is something even more intangible and unfair than God-given ability or the mystique of royalty -- he's just really freakin' charming. His sense of humor, inexplicable sex appeal, style, and odd mixture of sincerity and bravado have made him NASCAR's most successful crossover act. But unlike Shania, Junior hasn't alienated his core crowd while reaching beyond it. And unless he's a better actor than his recent appearance on FX channel's horrendous Fast Lane implies, it seems like he's not even trying. He's just doing his thing.
And now, 11 races into the 2003 Winston Cup season, he's finally driving to match the hype.
A mere 20 points behind Kenseth going into the Coca Cola 600 in Charlotte, Junior, for the first time in his still young career in the big league, truly looks like a contender. What's most notable about his second place standing is that it's a result of something that has eluded him since entering the Winston Cup series in 2000: consistency. The ability to do well on short tracks, old tracks, new tracks and flat tracks as well as super speedways is what wins championships. That means that his six top five finishes (and eight top 10s) are ultimately more valuable than his controversial, record setting, edge-of-your-seat win at Talladega in April.
Of course, it's still early in the season and, purely by the numbers, his performance doesn't look all that different from last year's strong start. It was after his hard crash in California in 2002 that he began to struggle. What does seem to have changed is his ability to stay focused in spite of maddening setbacks and still doggedly make the best of tough situations (i.e., the Auto Club 500 in California). He's more aggressive when he needs to be (Talladega) and more patient and cautious when necessary (Richmond). He's had to start in the back three times because of engine changes after qualifying. He's been bumped out of contention by wrecking cars (Martinsville). He's lost position because of pit crew mistakes (California) or car malfunctions (Daytona). Unlike in years past, though, he's managed to keep his head about him and that's what makes him finally look like a major threat.