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.

Honest opinion on the Denny Hamlin/Chase Elliott incident at Phoenix

My Twitter mentions have been on fire since last night, when I dared mention there wasn’t much difference between what Denny Hamlin did at Martinsville and what Chase Elliott did at Phoenix.

Many of you are absolutely incredulous over this take, questioning my sanity/judgment and openly accusing me of somehow being a Hamlin Fanboi.

I understand why people might think the situations are different: Hamlin appeared to completely wipe out Elliott at Martinsville, while Elliott gave Hamlin a couple warning shots before running him into the Phoenix wall (some of you dispute Elliott even did that, which means we’re just not going to agree on this one).

But here’s where I’m coming from on this:

— In a format where making it to the final race is all that matters, Hamlin took away Elliott’s chance at Martinsville. It doesn’t matter all that much whether Elliott got moved up the track, got spun or got outright crashed in that situation, because the result was essentially the same — a shot at Homestead was denied. By the way, Elliott has gotten a completely free pass for doing the same thing to Brad Keselowski at Martinsville; his execution may have been better than Hamlin’s because Keselowski didn’t wreck, but the thought was the same: I’m going to move him out of the way.

In a format where making it to the final race is all that matters, Elliott took away Hamlin’s chance at Phoenix. Hamlin didn’t wreck the moment Elliott forced him into the wall, but the contact resulted in a tire rub that was like a time bomb that exploded a few laps later. Some of you argued Hamlin should have just pitted — so it’s somehow his fault — but pitting under green in that situation would have ended Hamlin’s chances just like the wreck did. Either way, once Elliott drove Hamlin into the wall, it was Game Over for Hamlin. Elliott couldn’t have calculated what the end result would be in that situation, but his thought was the same: I’m going to move him out of the way.

I truly believe drivers don’t know what’s going to happen after they make contact — whether it’s going to cut someone’s tire or spin them or what. For example: Hamlin wasn’t trying to outright crash Elliott at Martinsville (what would he gain from that?!); he was trying to do the same thing Elliott did moments earlier to Keselowski. But the combination of Elliott getting on the brakes and Hamlin trying to move him at the same time resulted in a spin.

Again, most of you feel differently about that. We’re not going to be able to come to an agreement if so.

But no matter how you view it, I don’t know why people would want to argue Elliott didn’t get his revenge on Sunday. He totally did! Fans clamored for Elliott to do something in retaliation, and he delivered.

“A wise man once told me that he’ll race guys how they race him with a smile on his face, so that’s what I did today,” Elliott said. “I raced him how he raced me, and that’s the way I saw it.”

But now many of you are saying it was different because he didn’t straight up crash Hamlin in the moment, whereas Hamlin did that to Elliott at Martinsville.

Whaaaaat? The outcome was the same!

Hamlin denied Elliott’s chance to make Homestead three weeks ago, and Elliott got his payback when Hamlin was in position at Phoenix.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s Round 3 elimination race at Phoenix Raceway…

1. That’s why we follow NASCAR

There are times throughout these long NASCAR seasons where we might question our passion for this crazy sport. There can be infuriating decisions, ho-hum races or feelings of discouragement when politics or economic realities creep into what should be an escape from reality.

But days like Sunday? Those are the races that keep us all coming back.

The final stage at Phoenix had so many emotions and so much drama that it almost didn’t even seem real at times.

You had Chase Elliott tapping Martinsville foe Denny Hamlin and eventually putting him in the wall, which led to a cut tire that ended Hamlin’s championship race hopes (which had seemed near-certain just moments earlier).

Then there was Elliott making a bold move to the front, putting himself in position for what appeared to be both a stirring first career victory and a championship berth.

And then, after all of that, there was Matt Kenseth — in likely the second-to-last race of his career — somehow tracking Elliott down despite not having clean air and making a pass for what was probably his final career win.

At the same time, that sequence of events improbably put Brad Keselowski into the championship race despite not having the kind of weekend that normally would advance a driver out of Round 3.

So no matter which side you were on (Elliott fan? Kenseth fan? Ford fan? Somewere in between?), you likely felt some level of both elation and disappointment as waves of excitement rolled through the final laps.

That’s the kind of emotional payoff that makes spending three hours of your Sunday in front of the TV all worth it.  It’s a wacky sport at times, and there can be intense frustrations that come with it.

But when NASCAR is good, it’s really good.

2. A popular win

Obviously, an Elliott victory would have been absolutely massive for NASCAR. The stands might have about fallen down with cheers had the young driver ended up winning the race and moving to Homestead. The marketing department would have had to work overtime all week to hype up a young star going for his first title in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last race.

But to see Kenseth win? For the sold-out Phoenix crowd, that might have been the next best thing out of the available options (Earnhardt wasn’t in contention, though he did finish 10th).

The image of Kenseth standing on top of his car, looking to the heavens and then pumping his fist like he won the championship is an image that will stay with everyone long after Kenseth’s career ends. It’s a great final shot for his Hall of Fame highlight reel someday.

It was also somewhat of a cathartic moment — not just for Kenseth fans, but longtime followers of the sport. Like Kenseth himself, many fans have felt pushed out of NASCAR as the sport completely cycles. There’s a different racing format, a different championship format, different rules and now different drivers.

So the idea of Kenseth not being able to exit with what seemed like a proper sendoff? Well, that just wasn’t very satisfying to longtime fans who have continued to stick around.

At least Earnhardt has had a full year to say goodbye and soak up the appreciation — or #Appreci88ion — from the tracks and his supporters.

Kenseth hasn’t. And though it can be argued he wouldn’t have wanted the fanfare anyway, he deserved some sort of ending that would help cushion the blow.

Sunday was it.

Those new guys who have come along and pushed drivers like Kenseth out of the sport? Well, Kenseth tracked one of them down — despite being more than double his age — and made a winning pass late in a crucial race. Some of the young drivers did end up in victory lane at Phoenix, but it was just to shake Kenseth’s hand.

So let the record show the oldest full-time Cup driver could still get it done as his career came to a close. Beating the next generation in the process had to be a pretty satisfying moment for the old guard.

3. What’s next for NASCAR

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing over what will happen after Earnhardt retires next week. Whose sport will this be?

The focus has been so much on the Young Guns that everyone seems to have overlooked the likely reality: The upcoming years will be dominated by drivers who are already regular winners in the Cup Series.

It’s not Elliott or Blaney or Kyle Larson or Erik Jones who are going to fill the shoes of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and Earnhardt in the immediate future; they’re not winning enough races to pull that off yet.

The torch has already been passed, and all you have to do is look to three-quarters of the championship field to see where it went.

Drivers in their 30s are ready to feast. Martin Truex Jr. is 37 and could easily race for five to eight more years. Brad Keselowski (33) and Kyle Busch (32) are in the prime of their careers with perhaps a dozen years left. Denny Hamlin is still only 36.

The younger drivers will get there eventually, and certainly the glimpses of speed this season are promising.

But until they figure out how to beat the older drivers in crunch time situations, they aren’t going to be able to truly take over the sport.

4. Championship preview

If you asked me to name the three grittiest, most cutthroat racers in NASCAR, I’d say Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Keselowski. Three former champions and drivers who can capitalize on any sniff of an opportunity to win.

Well, guess what? They’re racing each other for the title and going up against a driver in Truex who has had the most speed all year long.

This is an incredible championship field, to be honest. I’m really excited and anxious to see what happens and how this plays out.

Obviously, the two Fords are going to be at a speed disadvantage to the Toyotas. It’s been a Toyota season — and particularly a Truex season on the 1.5-mile tracks.

But crazy things happen in these races (remember when the fourth-best car of the title contenders won last year?), so it’s really anybody’s race.

That said, I’m going with Busch. The primary reason is I picked him before the start of the playoffs and it would be dumb to switch picks now, but I also think his combination of speed and otherwordly talent could come in handy on a late-race restart that might decide the title.

Between the championship race itself and the final races for Earnhardt, Kenseth and perhaps Danica Patrick, Homestead is going to be a truly memorable day.

I can’t wait.

5. What about Hendrick?

Before we go, let’s put a cap on Hendrick Motorsports’ season.

First of all, Elliott is going to be just fine.

Don’t worry that he’s not closing out races yet. He will figure it out in time, and then the wins and championships will come.

These playoffs have been an incredible stretch for Elliott, and he established himself as a fan favorite during that time. He’s finished second in almost half of the playoff races, emerged as the Good Guy in the Martinsville situation (even though he moved Keselowski), was labeled the People’s Champ at Texas and got his revenge at Phoenix.

Elliott will be the Most Popular Driver after Earnhardt leaves. And really, he was the best Hendrick car all season.

And that’s why I’m not as sure about Jimmie Johnson.

There’s no question Johnson is still an elite driver. But the 48 team looked off for most of the year — Johnson has the worst average finish of his career — despite winning three times early in the season.

And when you think about it, last year wasn’t very good for the 48 team, either — until he came out of nowhere to win the title, which masked many issues.

Johnson never finished a season with fewer than 20 top-10 finishes until last year, when he had 16. This year? He has 11.

The 48 team is headed the wrong direction.

Meanwhile, Johnson is 42 years old and will be the oldest full-time driver once Kenseth and Earnhardt retire.

So if the 48 is going to get back to its winning ways, how much time does it really have before Johnson, Chad Knaus — or both — move on to the rest of their lives.

In some ways, that sets up 2018 as a defining season for the 48 team’s future.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Texas Motor Speedway playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway…

1. Didn’t see that coming

It’s not like Kevin Harvick was an upset winner at Texas, but his victory Sunday was definitely a surprise.

Did you expect him to win? I didn’t.

First of all, Harvick had never gone to victory lane at Texas. So there’s that.

But who would have legitimately picked Harvick to win at a 1.5-mile track when those races have been completely dominated by Martin Truex Jr. lately? It’s not like Harvick or his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates had a bunch of wins since moving to Ford, either; the only victories for SHR this season had been Harvick’s road course win at Sonoma and Kurt Busch’s restrictor-plate win in the Daytona 500.

So when Harvick tracked down Truex and passed him like it was nothing? Wow! That was both a show of power and an unexpected outcome — although crew chief Rodney Childers noted the team has been bringing more speed over the last month.

“I feel like we should have won more races this year,” Childers said. “It’s disappointing. I don’t like to lose. It’s been a hard year. So to finally get one back into victory lane, to feel like we have something we can race with the last four or five weeks, (that) has been impressive to me.”

Maybe everyone wasn’t paying enough attention as the No. 4 team crept back toward winning again. Guilty as charged here.

But either way, Harvick and Childers have served notice they’re back and are capable of winning another title.

After all, you never want to let the hard-nosed Harvick get a whiff of potential victory if you’re one of his competitors.

2. Truex vulnerable?

Almost immediately after the race, Martin Truex Jr. — unprompted — tried to get in front of the potential storyline that his team had somehow lost momentum by finally failing to win a 1.5-mile track race.

“People are going to say, ‘Well, I think the balance of power (has shifted)’ and ‘Did Harvick steal our confidence by beating us at the end?'” he said. “All that Voodoo stuff I’m sure will be brought up.

“The bottom line is our last run we weren’t as good as we needed to be. We got beat, but we still did what we needed to do. … To think we came up eight laps short…is pretty good.”

It’s true Truex has been dominant on 1.5-milers (he’d won four in a row and six overall this season), but his playoffs have been a bit odd compared to the regular season. Where Truex won 18 stages in 26 regular-season races, he’s won just one stage in the eight playoff races.

That’s a bit misleading considering he has three wins in the playoffs, but it still could be a sign the team isn’t unloading as fast off the truck as it was earlier in the year.

Yes, Truex will still be the favorite going into Homestead no matter what. But Harvick tracking him down and passing him late in a playoff race on a 1.5-miler shows the 78 team is certainly beatable in the right circumstances.

3. Last One In

In theory, there are five drivers fighting for one spot at Phoenix. Personally, I think it’s more like two.

Brad Keselowski currently holds the final playoff spot by 19 points over Denny Hamlin. I think the race will come down to those two.

Sure, Ryan Blaney is within range — he’s only 22 points behind Keselowski. But although the Wood Brothers Racing driver has two top-10s in three Phoenix starts, I don’t see him outrunning the other two drivers by enough points to make it.

Then there’s Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott, but it’s hard to imagine either of them winning outright — which will be a must next week.

So the battle is likely between Keselowski and Hamlin. And even though he’s behind, I’ll give the edge to Hamlin.

Here’s why: If you recall, Toyota drivers dominated the two New Hampshire races this summer — those drivers led 589 of 601 laps at NHMS this year — and that track is a 1-mile flat oval that is the most similar to Phoenix.

With stage points playing such a factor in the standings these days, I can envision Hamlin running in the top three and chipping away at Keselowski’s lead before the halfway point — then outrunning him in better equipment at the finish.

Nothing against Keselowski, but it just seems like the better bet is the team that has consistently shown more speed.

4. The Levy Was Dry

Barring a Johnson or Elliott victory at Phoenix, Chevrolet is headed toward being shut out from Homestead for the first time in the existence of the new format.

Chevy had two entries among the final four the first two years of the championship race, then had one entry last year. Toyota has had at least one driver every season — and will now have at least two for the second straight year — and Ford missed 2015 but had one in the other two seasons.

Even though we know Hendrick Motorsports has been down this season, it’s still jarring to think of no Chevrolets running for the title — especially since many people viewed Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson as a lock to make it.

A lot of people are banking on the new Camaro changing Chevrolet’s fortunes next year, but I’m not sure it will be that simple.

 

5. Daydreaming

Hey, remember last week at Martinsville when the race was totally awesome and featured thrilling battles for the entire 3.5-hour event?

And remember how energized everyone seemed after so much excitement and drama that showcased the best of what this playoff format has to offer?

And remember how the race was so good that we talked about it for the like whole week?

Yeah.

Me too.

Matt DiBenedetto gives his Martinsville take from ‘total race fan’ perspective

Matt DiBenedetto was out of the Martinsville race last week after just 187 laps, so he watched the dramatic finish as a fan, he said Saturday during a media session.

“That was the most exciting race I’ve ever watched,” DiBenedetto said.

But the GoFas Racing driver couldn’t help but wonder what he would have done in a similar situation as Denny Hamlin or Chase Elliott.

DiBenedetto said he didn’t have a problem with what Hamlin did because “it wasn’t intentional” and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was trying to do a big bump-and-run that went bad.

He certainly wouldn’t have apologized in Hamlin’s situation.

“There’s no way in hell I would apologize for that,” DiBenedetto said. “You don’t want to wreck anyone, but that’s the situation you’re forced into. Winning is everything and finishing second doesn’t matter.

“I’d do everything in the world. I’d move my grandmother out of the way on the last lap to have a chance at winning the championship. I’d be like, ‘I hate I wrecked him. I didn’t want to do that. But yeah, I was trying to move him out of the way. We’re racing at Martinsville and I want to go to the championship.'”

On the other hand, even though he said Hamlin didn’t have anything to apologize for, DiBenedetto said he likely would have gotten physical out of pure anger with the situation.

“From Chase’s standpoint…I would be so angry, just out of passion and caring that I would probably lose my mind,” he said. “From an outsider’s perspective, props to him for being so calm, but as a fan, I wanted to see him get out and just be so angry that I don’t care if he shoved him. I was heated just watching it.

“Not that Denny did anything wrong, but if it were me, I probably would have gotten physical in some sort of way — just because I wouldn’t have been able to help it. Your guys work so hard all day every single day for you to have a shot at winning. For it to be taken away, I’d be mad.”

DiBenedetto smiled.

 

“But that’s my take as a total race fan,” he said.

 

Chase Elliott fails to make qualifying attempt at Texas

Chase Elliott’s car went through NASCAR’s laser inspection platform for a third time with just minutes remaining in the first round of qualifying. He was so sure his car had passed, Elliott immediately put on his HANS device and helmet and prepared to get in the car.

But as his team started backing up the car toward the garage instead of pushing it toward pit road, Elliott realized he wasn’t going to get to qualify on Friday. He slowly unbuckled his helmet and followed the car toward his team’s garage stall.

Elliott, 26 points below the cutoff line with two races to go, will now start 34th Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

“As you all know, I think qualifying well is important for stage points, so I think it puts even more emphasis for us on having to go compete for a win,” Elliott told a small group of reporters afterward. “It keeps it simple. Jimmie (Johnson) did it in the spring (after starting from the back), and if we get our car driving good (Saturday) afternoon, it’s definitely doable.”

Elliott was puzzled as to why teams seem to struggle with inspection at Texas. His No. 24 was one of seven cars that did not make a lap — Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano were other notables — and Elliott also had to start from the back in the spring race.

The 24 team, knowing how important qualifying was, apparently took a big swing at fixing the area in question after its first failed inspection attempt. Team members, including crew chief Alan Gustafson, appeared surprised and frustrated when it did not pass on the second attempt.

“You’re kidding me,” Gustafson said.

And when the car came through a third time, the team seemed absolutely certain it would get Elliott on the track with a minute or so remaining in qualifying.

Instead, the car didn’t pass yet again.

“We got caught ‘cheating’ when we were trying to pass,” Elliott said. “I don’t know why that was. We were fixing our area of failure in a way larger area than what we failed by. I don’t know why we couldn’t get the (laser) to produce the green light.”

Highlights from Friday press conferences at Texas

A quick roundup of the media center happenings Friday at Texas Motor Speedway…

Chase is still pissed

Chase Elliott, who has been declared as the “People’s Champion” by Texas Motor Speedway, made it clear he is still upset with Denny Hamlin following their incident at Martinsville last week.

“Definitely not happy about it and I don’t think a whole lot has changed,” he said. “But no, I am not going to answer your questions about whether I am going to get him back or not. Don’t even ask, because you are not going to hear it from me. Just don’t go there.”

OK then!

But Elliott did answer some questions about the incident, saying he’s not out of the playoff picture on points despite being in a 26-point deficit to the cutoff position, that the fan support after Martinsville was “definitely unexpected” and the People’s Champ banner was “definitely strange.”

Elliott also said he hasn’t paid any attention to the Martinsville fallout this week, only turning on the TV to watch Netflix and refreshing his Twitter so he could see college football news, because “as you all know, the Georgia Bulldogs are ranked No. 1 right now in the country.”

“I was more consumed with that than this other stuff,” he said.

Blaney on Harvick: NBD

Ryan Blaney shrugged off the post-Martinsville discussion with Kevin Harvick that included jabs at the end of the conversation.

“We weren’t happy with each other,” Blaney said. “Both of us had our conversations and what we were upset about. I felt like we handled it fine. It was a stern talking-to (from Harvick).

“I have a lot of respect for Kevin. He helped me a lot when I got started a couple of years ago. It is just Martinsville racing, pretty much. We had a talk and I think we are fine. I am sure we are over it. Those (jabs) were just to reassure that we were good.”

Dale Jr. got a horse (kind of)

You knew Eddie Gossage was going to go big on the Dale Jr. retirement gifts, and he definitely did by riding a horse into the media center.

But the horse wasn’t actually a gift — it was to signify the track is sponsoring a therapy horse in Earnhardt’s honor.

As far as actual gifts, Gossage gave Earnhardt the top of the scoring pylon from his first Texas win, lit up with a No. 8. That was a pretty badass present, actually.

And to finish off the gifts, he gave the Earnhardts a custom-made baby stroller in the shape of a pink car.

Bubba — and NASCAR — get a sponsor

NASCAR had been working to help Richard Petty Motorsports find sponsorship, and a deal with mortgage brand Click n’ Close was apparently the result of those efforts.

RPM announced it will have three races of sponsorship from Click n’ Close, and NASCAR announced the brand will become the “Official Mortgage Provider of NASCAR.”

Anyway, Click n’ Close will sponsor RPM’s No. 43 car for the Daytona 500, as well as a Phoenix and Texas race next season. So although RPM has a ways to go to fill out the car with sponsorship, at least it’s now three races closer.

As a side note: The car was unveiled as a Ford, but Ford put out a statement before the news conference saying it has not received a commitment from RPM to return to the manufacturer next season.

Jimmie Johnson isn’t worried

Despite having the worst season of his career — at least in terms of average finish (15.5) — Johnson says he can make it to Homestead after entering Texas three points below the cutoff.

“I do feel good about getting in,” he said. “I think we are all just so used to momentum and we haven’t had that extremely high positive momentum, race-winning momentum on our side just yet. One thing I know about our team is when we get hot — and we can get hot quick — great things can happen.”

Also…

In news that didn’t take place inside the media center, Team Penske announced Miller Lite is reducing its sponsorship of the No. 2 car from 24 races to 11 next season.

That’s a big yikes, considering Miller has been such a longtime and loyal sponsor.

But Discount Tire will step up to fill the void on Keselowski’s car next season, sponsoring 10 races — including the Daytona 500 and Homestead.