NASCAR driver popularity in the Dale Jr. Era

Since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Most Popular Driver award 15 straight times, there’s no dispute which driver was the most liked by fans in the last decade and a half.

But who were the other popular drivers during that time? Well, we actually know the answer to that question because the National Motorsports Press Association (which administers the award) has released a top 10 of the voting each year since Earnhardt first won it in 2003.

Only seven of the current 10 most popular drivers will return next season — Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. That’s in alphabetical order, because the NMPA no longer releases the order of the final voting (they used to not only release the order, but also the vote totals).

Who will the other three be? It seems fairly wide open at the moment.

That’s because only two active drivers — Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski — have ever made the top 10 in the past and failed to make it this year.

All other active drivers — including the likes of Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer — have never appeared on the top 10 list.

At the bottom of this post, I’ve compiled a spreadsheet of all the data dating back to 2003. But first, a few observations:

What happened to Harvick? This is the biggest mystery from the voting. Harvick was the third-most popular driver in 2003 and 2004, then dropped to the bottom half of the list over the next decade — but was still in the top 10 for every year from 2003-13. But he has now missed the top 10 in three of the last four years (starting with the year he won the championship, oddly enough). Perhaps it’s because he’s been more affected than anyone with old-school fans abandoning the sport (assuming his fan base early on had a large portion of Dale Sr. fans after he took over that ride in 2001). What are some other theories?

— Truex on the rise. Martin Truex Jr. never made the top 10 in voting until the past two seasons — this despite being a full-time driver since 2006.

— New faces emerge. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson both made the top 10 in voting for the first time this season. Chase Elliott has made it in each of his first two years.

— Streak continues. Of the remaining active drivers, who has the longest streak of making the list? It’s a tie between Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne, who have both appeared every year since 2004. But while Johnson has typically been in the bottom half of the voting when the order has been revealed, Kahne is usually toward the top (and got as high as second in 2013).

— That 2014 list! Seven of the 10 drivers from 2014 are no longer in the sport full time. Of course, that’s a bit misleading since Josh Wise made the top 10 that year based on the Reddit push. But the other six drivers (Earnhardt, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart) took up a combined 68 spots in the top 10 over 15 years — and that’s going to be hard to replace.

Here’s the spreadsheet I compiled if you want to look at the raw data. “Yes” signifies they appeared in the top 10 that year; in years when the NMPA released the order, the driver’s position in the top 10 is noted.

15 Replies to “NASCAR driver popularity in the Dale Jr. Era”

  1. I think a lot of it has to do with realizing that you are wasting your time voting as Dale Jr was going to win, so for those of us that have been around the sport longer we don’t bother with it (Harvick fan here). I think Chase Elliott will take over as his father won so many years in a row. Somehow some of these fan groups figure out how to produce large numbers of votes. I would be interested in souvenir sales might be a better indicating of fans than the MPD vote (although I’m sure Dale Jr would top that too) I’m referring more to the top 10 list comparisons???

    1. I agree with your take on the voting but souvenir sales wouldn’t work either, I think. I’m a huge fan but I rarely buy souvenirs.

  2. It’s more about which fanbases were mobilized, or feel motivated to hammer the voting. Josh Wise being able to crack the list a few years ago says it all. Take Ryan Blaney for example, no offense to him, but I find it impossible to believe he has more fans than Kevin Harvick.

    1. It would seem that Blaney could easily be that popular. His podcast got over a million downloads before the end of its first season. That and jr constantly endorses the work he does to get out there. Kid’s alright in my book, he’s already gotten apparel revenue from me – and I’ve been a Gordon/Johnson fan my whole life.

  3. I think Harvick switching to Ford was a factor in him losing votes. I agree that Chase will take over the #1 slot until he starts winning too much with his juggernaut team. Jeff Gordon and Jimmy Johnson lost votes because they won often and were with Hendrick. Jr. was with the same team, but he didn’t win too much… and, his heritage and great personality were a huge factor.

  4. Harvick just isn’t the “Happy Harvick” he used to be at the beginning of his career. He is a smartass during most interviews and he has begun to talk a lot of crap about other drivers off the track. For example the comments he made about Dale Jr on his podcast. Those comments upset a lot of people in the sport and a lot of NASCAR fans (not just Jr fans). Even if their favorite driver may be someone else, most people respect Dale Jr. for his character and as an ambassador of the sport. For Harvick to say NASCAR would’ve been better off had it not been for Jr is just ridiculous and it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. It certainly did nothing for his popularity. I miss Happy Harvick. I liked him. Not so much now.

  5. Popularity is a fickle commodity. I’m not sure that you can accurately measure that metric, but I guess we’re trying……

    Harvick’s drop from the list seems to coincide with his move to Stewart Haas which , for one thing, was change, which many folks have issues with. Then he started dominating events, which is another negative for some folks. Then SHR switched manufacturers, and yes, you will alienate fans when you do that, and yes- you may gain some others.

    Then Harvick has gone from “Happy” to “Prickly” in his demeanor over this same time period. I even thought this as the awards ceremony happened last week because I thought he was being even a bit cordial in the media. It seemed a bit atypical from his sometimes acrid comments on his team and otherwise wooden appearance in interviews. Besides that, he is in that annoying “three inch tall” oil add. (Only half joking)

    I think it shows that we like “personalities” more than we like safe, corporate speak drivers who tow the line instead of crossing over it like Ky Busch, or Tony Stewart. We like genuine shows of emotion, like when we saw Chase Elliot clearly mouthing the words, “But you wrecked me!”, and then stirred the crowd up immediately afterward. We like it when drivers are down to earth and “real” like Martin Truex Jr when he showed his emotions, both when he cried and laughed, at the awards ceremony. We like it when the young guns stick up for themselves when the veterans push them around, (Blaney and Harvick’s “talk” after Martinsville) Give us more of that, drivers, and your stock will rise on the most popular drivers list.

    1. Yeah, i think you nailed it Ted. We want personality, honesty, sincere, non corporate speaking driver’s, willing to stand up for themselves, Genuine guys you never have to worry about if they are speaking the truth, but not afraid to speak their mind, and excuse me, but, having some Balls. Not afraid to laugh, or not hold back the tears if your emotions warrant them. Thanks like that. Sorry to say but, Like Dale Jr. And i also agree with the comments about Harvick. I’ve always been a Dale jr. fan, but, if he wasn’t in it, I had no problem cheering for kev., but never again. He has changed so much, and not for the better. You want votes, or just to have fans, again i hate to say it but, Be more like a Dale Jr. and you will do well. Just look what being HIMSELF, has done for that man. I will be a Dale jr. fan for the rest of my life, cause he will live far longer than i will. God bless you Dale, and thank you young man, for all you do for soooo many people. You ARE the man. Love ya kiddo

  6. Hey 👋🏻 Jeff, Are you bored yet? 😉 As for my most popular vote, I’m gonna have to change out my avi and user handle, I guess, before the 2018 season starts. Go Chase Elliott 😍

  7. Honestly, I agree with the thought that most of us figured Jr winning was a foregone conclusion, so we just didn’t bother. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t bothered voting in Cup MPD in probably 5 years at least for that very reason.

  8. Many Harvick fans were Sr fans, and when you forget/ignore that and shoot your mouth off about the laters son (who happens to have half the people in every grandstand for a fan base), you’re gonna pay a price in popularity. It’s pretty simple…Know your audience!

  9. People always act like there is some mystery to this voting process. BS! It is the same as every other election – whoever gets out the vote gets the win! Bill Elliott had a terrific grassroots voting machine (not controlled by his fan club as often alleged, but by fans who wanted to give him the award Every. Single. Year. Whether. He. Won. Races. Or. Not.). People forget that Bill even beat Dale Jr. in 2002 after tussling with the NMPA over whether to put his name back on the ballot after he took it off in 2001.

    Then Bill forced his name off for good and the Dale Jr. grassroots movement took over. Now, all the elements are in place to bring the award back to Dawsonville, since the same fans who loved Bill also love Chase, plus Chase is a huge draw among teenage girls and some leftovers from other departed HMS drivers.

    Ask any winning or losing candidate for any office from POTUS to MPD – the formula is the same. Get your people to vote early and vote often. Invest them with a level of commitment that goes beyond voting “when I remember,” to voting as often as the rules allow and the fact is, NMPA rules allow and encourage multiple voting. To the most dedicated fan base goes the spoils!

  10. I was an avid fan from 1989-2004 attending over 30 races. I went to my last race in 2010. I watched my last NASCAR race on TV at Homestead this year. I’m totally done with NASCAR, switching my interest to F1 next year. Apart from Truex whom I really admire, I think this era’s drivers and the prevailing culture in NASCAR are so far removed from the sport that I grew up watching and loving. There’s a huge void in the sport; can’t quite put my finger on it but it’s just not as compelling and genuine as it once was.

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