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While NASCAR actually experienced a surge in popularity in the immediate aftermath of Earnhardt’s death, Walton believes the sport lost something it still hasn’t replaced.

“With the economy, they know they’ve lost a lot of fans,” Walton said. “They’re trying to get the fans back in, and he was a big market draw for them.”

And no one driver has risen up to fully replace him.

“Jimmie Johnson’s won the championships, but he doesn’t have the fan following,” Walton said. “They tried to get a couple of rivalries going. But until last year, NASCAR kept trying to (say), ‘Be nice, guys, be nice.’ You didn’t have that bumping and banging like back Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace.”

Walton now roots for Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart, and wants NASCAR drivers to mix it up more often.

“Oh, yeah, it’s part of the sport,” Walton said. “Be out there, be the driver, be people. Don’t be cookie-cutter. It’s not a modeling session.”

Other Earnhardt fans have had trouble finding a new driver to root for.

Baker has been a NASCAR fan since the mid-80s and still watches nearly every week _ but he still hasn’t found a new favorite, at least not one who grabbed his attention the way Earnhardt did.

“I don’t really have anyone in particular,” Baker said. “I like Junior and (Kevin) Harvick. Junior, he’s had a rough last couple years since he’s been with Hendrick, but hopefully things will turn around.”

Most fans of Earnhardt Sr. gravitated toward Earnhardt Jr. _ but not all of them stayed.

Earnhardt had a messy parting of ways with his stepmother, Teresa, who took charge of the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team in the wake of Earnhardt Sr.’s death. Earnhardt eventually went to Hendrick Motorsports, but has struggled on the track in recent years.

“I was a die-hard Junior fan, but I don’t support Hendrick Motorsports,” Scheckel said. “Just because they’re not NASCAR to me. They’re making it more of a white-collar sport, taking away from what NASCAR’s all about, a blue-collar, working man’s sport.”

Scheckel now roots for Harvick, the driver who replaced Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing.

“I went to Kevin because I like his personality, I like the way he races,” Scheckel said. “He’s a gritty driver, and I enjoy the way he puts on a show.”

Baker was surprised that Earnhardt left DEI, the team his father built.

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