Okay, I'm curious. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I paid very close attention to the apparel that people wore and the gear they carried. I was expecting to see mostly Dale Earnhardt Junior, because he's the most popular driver, and Tony Stewart, because he's from near by Columbus, Indiana.
It turned out not to be that way at all. If shirts and hats and jackets and tattoos and can coolers, etc. are an accurate indication of driver popularity, then Jeff Gordon was the overwhelming fan favorite at Indy. I'd estimate that we saw Jeff's face and number twice as much as everyone else put together. I was also gratified to see that Jimmie ranked right up there with Tony and Dale Jr. He might even have had a slight advantage but because my prejudice might have boosted his numbers somewhat, I'll say those three were pretty close to even.
There were only a handful of people advertising their support for any other driver - half a dozen for Kyle Busch, a sprinkling for Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards. Nothing for Mark Martin (I watched for him especially).
It was also pretty obvious where the most desirable stuff was being sold in the rain-softened souvenir hauler lot by the giant mud holes in front of Jeff, Jimmie, Tony and Dale.
These choices were echoed by the cheers for the drivers as they walked from the garage to the track. A veritable roar for Jeff Gordon, loud shouts for Tony, Jimmie and Dale. A respectful acknowledgment for the rest. (Except for poor Kyle. I'm not a big Kyle Busch fan but it seems to me that when you have a man trapped into running a gauntlet, booing him is tacky and petty).
Okay, so those were the results of my informal survey at the track. Fast forward to the next day. The Brickyard 400. In the pre-race shows, I heard from the announcers and reporters that the crowd was rooting for their hometown hero, Tony Stewart. Hmm, I thought, really? Because that's sure not what was reflected in what I saw. Tony certainly had his share of supporters but the numbers didn't begin to compare with Jeff Gordon fans. And Jimmie and Dale Junior equalled him at least.
Then those last 24 laps, the battle between Jimmie and Mark Martin for the lead. Now the reporters were convinced that "the crowd is cheering for the sentimental favorite, Mark Martin!" One announcer in a post-race show even said so to Jimmie - "the fans wanted Mark to win, he was the sentimental favorite". Jimmie, being Jimmie, answered politely. I don't remember exactly what he said. If it had been me, I might have been tempted to ask - "do you have figures to back that up or is it just what you want to believe?"
I never saw one Mark Martin thing on qualification day. Maybe Mark Martin fans aren't into buying gear or appearing at the track until race day. Whatever, they weren't in evidence when I was there but according to the media, they must have appeared en masse on Sunday.
I think its more likely that the NASCAR media, like the political media, have their favored story lines and they spin the truth to fit their memes. They thought the spectators should support "the hometown hero" and they thought the fans should cheer "the sentimental favorite" so they stroked reality to make it come out right.