For 15 years fans voted Dale Earnhardt Jr. the most popular driver in NASCAR. His impact on the sport was similar to that of Tiger Woods; for example, when he announced in December of 2016 that he would return to racing at the Daytona 500 after a long absence due to concussion symptoms, ticket sales immediately spiked.
The Dale Earnhardt Jr. effect was real, In large part because Dale Jr. himself was real. He never seemed corporate. Or packaged. Or the result of a branding campaign.
Or to even consider his personal brand. Disappointed? Showed it. Mad? Showed it. Happy? Showed it.
Fans loved him for that. While he gained early attention because of his famous father, without on-track success -- and off track relatability -- attention would have waned. No matter how talented, few children of famous parents even approach the same level of attention -- and even fewer carve out their own identities.
Junior did. Fans loved him. Sponsors loved him. (Sponsors still love him.) Instead of seeming like a paid spokesperson or (heaven forbid) an "influencer," you believed Junior drank Budweiser. Wore Wrangler jeans. Bought Nationwide insurance.
Which leads to Ross Chastain.
Ross's first race was in a borrowed truck that had been sitting outside long enough that during the race pine needles blew around inside. The next year his father bought a full, working race truck for Ross to race in a small local series. Then he moved up to Late Model racing and had some success... but a reality of racing is that finding the money to go racing often matters more than talent.
Ross's first break came when he was tapped to drive for Brad Kewelowski's truck team. He ran fairly well, but lost the ride at the end of the year.
His talent and work ethic caught the attention of one of the best teams in the garage, the Chip Ganassi Racing XFINITY Series team. CGR put him in their car for three races last year and he made the most of it. He led 90 laps at Darlington before an incident with Kevin Harvick put him in the wall (and caused him, whether intentionally or not, to hook Harvick seconds later.)
(Harvick hated the move. Fans loved it.)
Then he won the next race at Las Vegas, his first victory in any of the top NASCAR touring series, after leading 180 of 200 laps.
As he said moments after winning that race:
Holy cow. I'm just a watermelon farmer from Florida. I'm not supposed to do that. Man... that is a testament that anything in life is possible. No matter what happens, if I go back to the farm tomorrow ... which I'm going to do one day after racing's over... if I had to back tomorrow, I'll have no regrets.
And then he clawed his way to a second-place finish at Richmond after being forced to start at the rear of the field due to repairs made to his car after qualifying.
Which led to what seemed a fairly tale ending: CGR and DC Solar signed Ross to drive the #42 car for the 2019 season, which meant he had a top-flight ride worthy of contending for the series championship.
Until weeks later DC Solar's offices were raided and CGR had to fold the team due to the resulting lack of funding.
Which left Ross scrambling for rides.
Which is why he's been one of the busiest drivers in NASCAR this year, running nearly full-time in the Cup series, splitting time between Johnny Davis Motorsports and Kaulig Racing in the XFINITY series, and deciding mid-season to compete for the series championship in the Truck series for Niece Motorsports.
That decision meant needing to win one of a handful of races remaining in the regular season and score enough points to contend for the Truck series playoffs, putting him behind the ball behind the 8-ball.
So what did he do? Win the next race.
And then have that win disqualified due to a rules infraction.
So then he won the next race.
And then, last night, he won the Daytona XFINITY race. And said this:
I sat here as a kid. I watched these races every 4th of July as a kid. Never could come in the spring because we were culling watermelons.
These guys over here (pointing to his team) gave me a race car that could win at Daytona and we did it!
Real excitement. Real emotion.
Just like Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Which is why, at least in some ways, he could be the next Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Many businesses, big and small, hope that partnering with brand ambassadors will help publicize and market their brands. (That's especially true in racing.)
Unfortunately, those partnerships don't always go as planned. When I talked with then-Bodybuilding.com CEO Richard Jalichandra, he said, "The number one rule is authenticity. For an association to work, it has to be authentic. And even then it still might not work. For every celebrity association that seems to be a magic bullet... fifteen others have failed."
Authenticity matters on at least two levels: That the brand ambassador is perceived as authentic, and that the connection between the ambassador and the brand feels natural.
Ross's comes from a family of watermelon farmers. He goes back to the farm to work during the offseason. He will someday, when his racing career is over, likely return to the farm.
Racing is what he does. Farming is also what he does.
Hard work is what he does.
Many fans saw themselves in Dale Jr.: A real, relatable, jeans-wearing and beer-loving kid from across the way who made good.
Many fans see themselves in Ross: A real, relatable, hard-working kid who keeps getting up every time he gets knocked down.
Deep inside, that's who we all feel we are.
In racing, sponsorship can be as simple as just picking a famous driver or team and writing a check.
Smart brands try to do more, seeking to partner with drivers and teams that can help tell the brand's story and not just serve as rolling billboards. A successful brand ambassador relationship has to make sense in the mind of customers, because customers can instantly tell when a partnership feels artificial or forced.
Smart brands make sure the relationship is authentic, natural, and benefits both parties -- because when it does, you'll each work harder to advance each other's interests.
Which makes Ross the perfect choice for the right brand to partner with. A brand that helps people accomplish things not just with their minds, but with their hands, their backs... who believe in the power of mental and physical hard work.
And especially a brand smart enough to get in on the ground floor and build a long-term association.
Because authentic, long-term relationships result in long-term, loyal customers -- which is the lifeblood of every successful business.