Charismatic personalities and raw talent are taking the sport to new heights
By Brendan O’Meara
In 2003, Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned the title of NASCAR’s most popular driver. That’s largely due to him inheriting his late father’s fan base, but on top of that he’s a talented driver and easy to root for.
But there are a number of other drivers who, while not in Junior’s tier of popularity, garner a significant amount of fan support around the country.
Take Kevin Harvick, the defending Sprint Cup champion. He drives the No. 4 Jimmy John’s and Budweiser Chevrolet. There aren’t many brands more popular than Budweiser in this country. The fact that Budweiser chose Harvick to sponsor them speaks volumes to the visibility it hopes it can get (Budweiser was Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s long-time sponsor before he moved over to the Hendrick Motorsports garage).
You can’t talk about NASCAR’s most popular drivers without mentioning Danica Patrick. Her GoDaddy commercials and her gender make her one of the most visible drivers on the tour. And s e doesn’t hold back. She’s funny and incisive when on camera, and exciting driver to watch too.
She has six top 10s in her career and her average finish has improved in each of her four years on the Sprint Cup circuit (28.3, 26.1, 23.7, 21.9). Her lone pole came at the 2013 Daytona 500, her first full year on the Sprint Cup circuit.
Brad Keselowski has the most crossover appeal of any driver today with his appearances on the television show Sullivan & Son and movie Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! This isn’t a driver in search of attention because he can’t win on the track. He’s the 2012 Sprint Cup champ and in 2014 he led all drivers with six wins on the year.
And making his 2016 full-season debut and thus replacing Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 car for Hendrick Motorsports is Chase Elliott. He competed in four races in this year’s Sprint Cup and is the reigning Xfinity Series champion.
His father, Bill Elliott, was NASCAR’s most popular driver 16 times from 1984 to 2002. Chase has the pedigree and the resources on his side to be one of the best drivers on the entire circuit. Given how popular Gordon was and is, Chase has big shoes to fill, but seems entirely capable of making that happen.
As for teams, Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) boasts the retiring Gordon, six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, 12-time consecutive most popular driver Earnhardt…and Kasey Kahne. That makes HMS the most popular team, by default, but Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) isn’t too far behind.
As an aside, the current HMS has a combined 16 wins at Dover International Speedway. (Johnson has 10 wins, Gordon has five and Junior has one).
JGR added Carl Edwards, NASCAR’s boy scout, as its fourth driver, joining Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.
Team Penske, winner of 11 races in 2014, sends out Keselowski and Joey Logano every week and is always in contention. It won the Daytona 500 this year with Logano’s No. 22 Ford making Team Penske one of the most powerful—and popular teams—in the Sprint Cup.
The Sprint Cup returns to Dover International Speedway Oct. 2 to 4 for the Challenger Round. Purchase your ticket package today!.