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.

News Analysis: Kasey Kahne to drive Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 car

What happened: Leavine Family Racing, which currently fields the No. 95 car with Michael McDowell, announced Kasey Kahne will take over as its full-time driver in 2018. Kahne and Hendrick announced last month they would part ways after this year, but Kahne was ultimately able to remain in the Cup Series with another team.

What it means: Though his new home is certainly a downgrade from powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, this is a good move for both Kahne and family-run Leavine (pronounced “leh-VINE”). Kahne is only 37 and has some prime years ahead of him, and this will allow him to race in an environment without the pressure that comes with being part of Hendrick. At the same time, Leavine’s performance has been improving over the years — McDowell has been the best car in the Richard Childress Racing alliance at numerous races this year — and figures to only get better with an 18-time race winner in the seat. In addition, Leavine should be able to build a sponsorship program around a driver whose loyal fan base has continued to support him through several miserable seasons at Hendrick.

News value (scale of 1-10): Five. This move was expected for awhile, so it’s not a surprise. It also involves a team that isn’t well known to many fans, though Kahne’s part of the announcement makes it notable enough to get a decent amount of media coverage.

Three questions: Will lowered expectations actually allow Kahne to improve his results (McDowell’s average finish is only one spot behind Kahne this season)? Why did Leavine remain part of the RCR alliance instead of working a deal with Hendrick? Will McDowell be able to remain in NASCAR in some form?

News Analysis: Reports say William Byron to drive Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 car

What happened: William Byron, age 19, will be named as the driver of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 car starting in 2018, according to (in order of reporting) SportsBusiness Journal, SBNation.com and Motorsport.com. The team has not officially announced the move (and I haven’t personally confirmed it, but I don’t doubt those who have). Byron, who grew up playing NASCAR video games but did not start racing until five years ago, will replace Kasey Kahne, whose departure from Hendrick was announced Monday. The racing prodigy is currently a rookie in the Xfinity Series, where he is second in points with three wins for JR Motorsports — this following his seven wins last season for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series.

What it means: The face of Hendrick Motorsports has been dramatically altered in the last few years. Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne (combined 137 Cup victories) have been replaced with Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and Byron (combined zero Cup victories), who have an average age of 21.3. Byron will now be a full-time Cup driver after just one year each in Trucks and Xfinity — and that seems like an awfully quick move, similar to the rapid ascents of Joey Logano and Kyle Larson. Byron is unquestionably talented, but it would have been nice to see him run another full season of Xfinity before getting promoted to Cup — something even Jimmie Johnson indicated last month. “At his age, I just don’t want to be in too big of a hurry to move him up,” Johnson told a small group of reporters at New Hampshire. “If you look back at past history, like a Joey Logano scenario, it just takes time. I feel so lucky I didn’t get my Cup start until I was 25. … I think I was just in a better place than the position some of these young guys are put in. They’re super talented, it’s just a lot of pressure to put on those guys.”

News value (scale of 1-10): Eight. Even if Byron was the likely replacement after the team said Kahne was out, it’s still quite noteworthy that Hendrick continues to use young and relatively inexperienced drivers to fill its seasons considering veteran drivers like Matt Kenseth are on the free agent market. It wasn’t long ago that Hendrick was the most sought-after destination for established drivers who had already won many races. Now the seats are being snatched up by drivers who are unproven at the Cup level. Dale Earnhardt Jr. shed some light on why this might be the case for Silly Season in general, and it makes sense again in this scenario.

Three questions: Can Byron continue to immediately adapt and win at the next level, as he has done in each series along the way up the ladder? Since it turned out OK for Logano and Larson in the long run, what are the real risks of moving him up too soon? Who will replace Byron at JRM now that he will be vacating a championship-caliber seat in the Xfinity Series?

Related: Here are my 12 Questions interviews with Byron from 2016 and from 2017.

 

News Analysis: Kasey Kahne out at Hendrick Motorsports

What happened: Kasey Kahne will not return to Hendrick Motorsports in 2018, the team announced Monday morning. Though Kahne had a contract with Hendrick through next year, the team chose to release the Brickyard 400 winner and go with a yet-to-be-determined driver for the No. 5 car next season. Kahne is now a free agent and can sign with another team for 2018.

What it means: This is the inevitable divorce of a marriage that had been on the rocks for some time. When Kahne arrived at Hendrick, both he and the team had sky-high hopes. The driver, who once won six races in a season, even spent a year at Red Bull waiting for Mark Martin to vacate the No. 5. But despite two wins in each of his first two seasons at Hendrick, Kahne never found his footing there. He had just three top-five finishes in each of the last three years and missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. And as it turned out, his recent Indianapolis win and subsequent playoff berth this season wasn’t enough to save his job at Hendrick. But you know what? That’s not a bad thing. Kahne has long needed a fresh start with a team that believes in him — and vice versa — to give him a chance to regularly win again in the Cup Series. It’s been hard to watch Kahne struggle so much in the last few years, but perhaps this means there are brighter days ahead. After all, he’s only 37 and drivers don’t seem to start declining until their early 40s. Kahne is still capable of racking up a few wins per season if he finds the right team.

News value (scale of 1-10): Five. Fitting, right? But seriously, this lands as about average news because it’s something most people anticipated but is still noteworthy when it actually went down. If Kahne’s replacement had been named in the same announcement, it would have been much higher on the scale.

Three questions: Does this mean William Byron will be in the No. 5 next year, or will Hendrick look to a veteran like Matt Kenseth to fill the seat? What are the chances Kahne could end up in another top ride, such as the vacancy at Stewart-Haas Racing or Furniture Row Racing? Will this decision being made public alleviate any pressure on Kahne and allow him to make a run in the playoffs?

The Top Five: Breaking down the Brickyard 400

Five thoughts following Sunday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway…

1. Saving Kahne

A few hours before the race, Rick Hendrick sat in the media center for a news conference and deflected questions about Kasey Kahne’s future. It wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence for the driver of the No. 5 car.

A potential replacement for Kahne — William Byron — had kissed the bricks a day earlier. Kahne, meanwhile, hadn’t won in nearly three years and entered Sunday 22nd in the series standings. His future didn’t exactly seem bright.

But after catching a lucky break on pit road and inheriting the race lead, Kahne found himself racing for his career — and delivered.

By excelling on two key restarts — one in which he held it wide open in the middle of a three-wide battle with Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski; another in which he out-dueled race leader Keselowski in overtime — Kahne reminded everyone of his talent.

After all, the guy has now won 18 career Cup races (ninth among active drivers), so that ability is there somewhere. It’s just been buried under a lack of confidence in himself and his team, a snowball effect that’s only gotten worse in the last couple years.

There’s no doubt he’s been mired in a terrible situation and could use a change of scenery despite having a contract through next season. But where could he land if he does part ways with Hendrick?

Well, winning the Brickyard and getting himself into the playoffs will do wonders for his prospects. He remains a popular driver despite his struggles, and now he won’t be an afterthought when it comes to top candidates to fill an open seat.

2. Follow the rules

NASCAR has an overtime rule, the point of which is to try and give fans a finish under green. But it appeared officials basically used the rule to make sure the race finished under yellow — and thus ended — on Sunday.

That’s the second time in a month this has happened, and it’s a disturbing trend in my view.

Darkness was quickly falling and there had been multiple big wrecks and long red flags. So when Denny Hamlin and others crashed on the backstretch, NASCAR waited to put out the caution until Kahne had crossed the overtime line (thus making it an official attempt).

Here’s a picture of what I’m talking about:

In this screenshot, you can see the wreck has started to take place (actually for a couple seconds at this point) and there’s still quite a ways before Kahne reaches the overtime line (the white line at the bottom).

NASCAR could have called a caution there, but they would have had to clean the track and might not have gotten the race restarted before it got dark (maybe, maybe not). So Kahne might have won anyway.

But here’s the thing: That’s not the rule! Whether it was dark or not shouldn’t have mattered at all. If it was dark, then let THAT end the race (like a rain-shortened event) instead of using the overtime line to do it.

NASCAR’s explanation for not calling the caution is it officiates the end of the race differently in hopes of getting a finish. That logic doesn’t hold, though, because it wasn’t the end of the race.

If it was the white flag lap, then sure. I get it and we’ve seen that plenty of times. But just like in the Daytona Xfinity race (where there was pressure to get it over with and move on with a doubleheader race day), the overtime line shouldn’t be used as an out.

At this point, I’ve come full circle and given up on any kind of overtime rule. Just forget the whole thing and go back to finishing races at the scheduled distance if the rule isn’t going to be used as intended.

3. Rowdy restart

Much ado was made of the restart when Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. collided while racing for the lead, moments after Busch had nixed a deal the drivers had kept all race.

Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn were miffed Busch wanted to race for it after Truex had played the good Toyota teammate in the first two segments. That may have played into how hard Truex raced Busch into the corner, but it was also likely because both drivers knew it might have been their final chance to get the lead (even though there was still more than one-quarter of the race remaining).

For that very reason, Busch didn’t even want to wait until the restart in question. On the prior caution (the break after Stage 2), he was in the midst of a conversation with crew chief Adam Stevens about what to do when NBC suddenly interrupted to talk to Stevens. The driver and crew chief never had a chance to address the issue again until the next restart — when Busch called off the agreement.

So even though scrapping the deal ultimately resulted in a crash, Busch shook his head when I asked if he had any regrets.

 

“Dude, hindsight is 20/20,” Busch said. “Do I regret it? No, because you race for the win. You’re supposed to race hard. If I would have done the (deal), he gets a three-second gap on me…he wins the race (and) I’m going to be thinking about it then, right? So you do what you’ve gotta do.”

4. Matt D. does it again

Did you notice? Matt DiBenedetto, who is sort of the ultimate underdog with his GoFAS Racing No. 32 car, scored an eighth-place finish after surviving all the insanity on Sunday.

Incredibly, DiBenedetto is one of four drivers — Kahne, Joey Logano and AJ Allmendinger are the others — to score top-10 finishes in both the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 this year.

“My crew chief, Gene Nead, always tells me before every race: ‘Stand on the gas and hope for the best,'” DiBenedetto said. “That’s pretty much what I did today. Just hoped we were in the right position, hoped it was our day and it was our day. That was pretty intense.”

DiBenedetto said he didn’t simply survive the race and cruise to a finish. He got “clobbered” in Turn 3 at one point — he didn’t even know who — and “made the greatest save of my life.”

Not bad for a team with only 15 employees.

5. Late start

I’m going to be totally honest with you: I was on the verge of tears at one point during the rain delay on Sunday.

Spending my own money to get to races this year has really provided some additional perspective on what fans who travel from out of state go through each weekend.

Back when I was at USA Today, a rained-out race meant a lost day at home (which sucked). But at least I didn’t have to spend my own money to pay an airline change fee or extra day of rental car/hotel/etc. That was on the company’s dime.

Now, though, that money is coming out of my pocket. And though my amazing supporters through Patreon have put me in a great position to get to races this season, spending extra money just isn’t in the budget. So I’m pretty sure I would have had to go home instead of changing my flight to attend a postponed race.

Because of that, it was incredibly frustrating when there was no rain at 1 p.m. (when NASCAR races traditionally start) and the skies were dry until 3 p.m. NASCAR could have gotten a couple stages in during that time, which would have meant an official race.

And while a shortened race wouldn’t have been ideal, it would have been a lot better for fans who spent their hard-earned money to travel there without flexibility in their plans.

Luckily for everyone, the race eventually finished on Sunday. But there was about an hour there where another big storm cell had formed and was heading right for the track — and if it had hit, that would have meant a Monday race. I was seriously sweating that scenario.

At some point, NASCAR isn’t going to be so fortunate. A late start time in the name of better TV ratings will force a postponement when the race could have gotten in had it started earlier — and a lot of fans will have to either eat their tickets or spend money to change their plans.

And when that happens, they’ll have every right to be pissed.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Sonoma race

Five thoughts on Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway…

1. Harvick’s legend grows

It’s hard to be known as one of the greats while competing in the Jimmie Johnson Era, because many of the wins and championships end up getting hogged by the No. 48 team.

But let’s not overlook what Kevin Harvick continues to do at age 41.

After winning for the first time this season, the versatile driver now has victories at every Cup track but Pocono, Texas and Kentucky. Sunday was his 36th career win — which is fourth among active drivers — and he has the second-most wins to Johnson this decade.

At the same time, Harvick has switched teams and now manufacturers during his run — which can sometimes make for a setback in performance. In fact, it probably should have cost him much more speed than it did this season — but everyone took it for granted Harvick and Childers would be winners again soon after changing to Ford.

Internally, though, Stewart-Haas had a lot of work to reach victory lane again on a non-plate track.

“I can say this now, but I had mixed emotions about how the year was going to go just because of the fact that we had a lot on our plate to switch over,” Harvick said. “… One day, I think everybody will actually learn all the details of all the things that it took to get to this particular point. But it’s a huge undertaking.”

The cars have been fast again, though, and for the most part Harvick hasn’t missed a beat. That could set the No. 4 up as a title threat again when the fall rolls around.

2. Clean and green

After a controversial debris caution last week at Michigan, the final stage of the Sonoma race was caution-free — this despite several spins and off-course cars.

It seems crazy to think there could be 55 laps without a caution at Sonoma — where drivers are sliding all over the place and running into one another — but that’s exactly what happened.

No one was complaining about the lack of a debris caution, though. Several competitors found it refreshing, including Brad Keselowski — who praised NASCAR’s “restraint” on Twitter with a thumbs up emoji.

“Good for NASCAR, man,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had addressed the topic on his podcast. “I think they heard the voices last week. There were some opportunities for sure for them to throw some yellows without much of a gripe from anyone, and they let it play out. That’s a race in my book.”

Tony Stewart, one of the vocal critics about the caution at Michigan, praised NASCAR for essentially swallowing the whistle.

“It’s so easy for cars to go off track here and it happened all day long,” Stewart said. “A couple cars even spun out and kept going. So there was a lot of opportunity where we could have gotten that debris caution or whatever during the race, but it was nice to see the race actually got to play out.”

Stewart chided the Joe Gibbs Racing cars for trying to get NASCAR to throw a debris caution after pitting, calling it “gamesmanship” on their part.

“They’re smart; they know how to play the game,” Stewart said of JGR calling for the caution. “I’m glad NASCAR didn’t bite on that one today.”

3. Strategy race

One of the great things about Sonoma — and there are many — is even if the race goes green for an entire half of the event, that doesn’t mean it’s boring.

In addition to the curbs and esses and hills and hairpin turn, the strategy makes the race enjoyable. Unpredictable is a positive thing in racing, and Sonoma certainly fits that description. It’s why only one active driver — Kyle Busch — has more than one win here.

The stages only added to the strategy this year. Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers said he agonized over it in the nights leading up to the race.

“It’s been trying to figure out what’s the right thing to do, how many tires do we have laying in the pits, when should we pit, when should we not, do we go after the playoff points in the first stage or do we not or do we pit early,” he said.

That certainly enhances the viewing experience, because it jumbles the field and creates different leaders (there were a race record 10 on Sunday, along with a record 13 lead changs) with all the various strategies.

“I had no earthly idea what was going on,” Jimmie Johnson said. “I passed so many cars. I don’t even know what strategy won. It was very difficult to know what was going on from inside the car. I would assume that caused a lot of great viewing and entertainment that was fun to watch, but I had no clue what was going on out there.”

4. Hang up on the ringers

For all the talk about road ringers, the Cup regulars shined once again. These heavy, bulky stock cars are very difficult to drive and require some level of mastery that someone parachuting into the series can’t match.

Every driver in the top 10 — Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Earnhardt, Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Jamie McMurray — was someone you would expect to see run in that spot on any NASCAR track.

The highest-finishing driver who might be a surprise was Michael McDowell, who finished 14th — but he’s 26th in points and drives these cars every week (and won an Xfinity road race). A driver with a road racing background can definitely shine more than an oval (like AJ Allmendinger) — but not unless they are used to the cars.

The ringer results on Sunday weren’t all that impressive. Road racer Billy Johnson — fresh off Le Mans — finished 22nd in the No. 43 car. Boris Said finished 29th, Alon Day was 32nd, Kevin O’Connell 33rd, Tommy Regan 34th and Josh Bilicki 36th.

Granted, those drivers weren’t in great equipment — but it still shows a racer with Cup experience would be a better bet for road course substitute duty than a driver who hasn’t had much stock car seat time.

5. More bad luck for Kahne

With all the SAFER barriers at tracks these days, it’s a bit of a shock when a car has a hard hit with a concrete wall. But that’s what happened to Kasey Kahne on the last lap of the Sonoma race following contact with Kevin O’Connell — who was two laps down.

I caught up with Kahne after the race when he visited his team — and destroyed car — in the garage. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Denny Hamlin also arrived to check on Kahne and survey the damage.

“No. 15 (O’Connell), we were going down the frontstretch taking the white flag and he turned left and went to my (inside),” Kahne told me. “Then I was going to his right and like right before we got to the corner, he just turned right into me and just shot me into the wall.

“It was weird what he was doing. I hope something broke on his car, but I’m not sure it did.”

Kahne acknowledged he was shaken after the hit but said he started to feel better following the ambulance ride to the track’s medical center.

“My right shoulder and right side took all the impact,” he said. “I feel good now, but I’ll be sore tomorrow. That was a pretty good shot.”

It’s just more misfortune for Kahne, who seems to have something go wrong for him every week. He ended up finishing 24th after the crash, but before that he had fresh tires late in the race and enough speed to pass eventual winner Harvick and unlap himself.

Kahne is 21st in the standings — 122 behind Clint Bowyer, who is the current cutoff on points thanks to the variety of different winners this season.

Kasey Kahne explains his last-lap crash to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Denny Hamlin after the Sonoma race. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

12 Questions with Kasey Kahne

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Kasey Kahne of Hendrick Motorsports. I spoke to Kahne at Texas Motor Speedway.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

When I was younger, it was both, because my dad always was on me to learn about the cars and work on the cars. But from the first time I got on a four-wheeler, a car or whatever, I felt like I knew what I was doing — and that was nice. So I’d say I had a little bit of ability driving, but I’ve always had to work at it. Today, I’d say I work way harder than (use) ability, it feel likes at times, so it’s just tough. Racing’s tough. It’s always changing, so you can’t just drive. You have to be aware of a lot of other things if you want to go fast.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have all retired in the last couple years. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

Carl may come back; you’ll never know. But the other guys are doing other things that they’re enjoying, so that’s pretty cool. I feel like I probably have some of their fans — we probably have fans that are more of a Tony Stewart fan than my fan but they probably still like me a little bit because of our backgrounds. Same with Jeff Gordon, and then being Jeff’s teammate.

Those guys have always been my favorite drivers growing up because I enjoyed the way that they got to NASCAR and then what they’ve done along the way and in NASCAR and how dominant they were at times. So those have been some of favorites.

But I think just doing some of the same things and having some of the same passions for racing would maybe be able to get some of those fans on our side.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

The hardest part of my job away from the racetrack right now is probably the schedule. I’m trying to get everything in thoroughly and do a good job at the things I need to do racing-wise (and) sponsor-wise each week, making sure everybody’s happy.

And then there’s also doing my things that I enjoy that I feel helps me in the car — which is working out and putting in the time and effort of reading the notes and trying to be prepared, watching the videos and things to be prepared for when you get to the next track. And then working all that together with taking care of my son, Tanner.

So, doing all those things together, scheduling and giving each one of them plenty of time and then having the most time going to Tanner would probably be one of the tougher things we do.

It looks like Tanner is a really happy kid on social media and I enjoy following him. Is he loving life?

He’s loving life, and it’s crazy because he’s super happy. He probably gets a lot of that from his mom (Sam Sheets) because she’s really happy. He’s excited, he’s happy, he’s a mover right now and he has tons of energy.

We’ll hang out (and) he’ll stay up all night if I let him. But as soon as it’s time for bed and I tell him, he knows because it’s later than when he usually stays up. At night, I say, “Hey, are you ready for bed, bud?” It takes him a second, but then he heads to his bedroom, so that’s pretty good for a 17-month-old that has a ton of energy and is a really happy little boy.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Yeah. I’ve never really minded that. I’ve always (signed) autographs or taken a picture. Sometimes like right in the middle of eating your main meal is probably not the right time; for one, you’re hungry, so that’s why you’re there and you can’t wait to get down whatever’s in front of you.

And for two, in my opinion, eating food and shaking hands is kind of dirty in a way.

That is gross.

That’s kind of gross. That’s what gets me.

But prior to a meal and as soon as you’re done, whether you’re having a drink or sitting there relaxing or leaving a restaurant, those times are really good times and it’s nice to do a picture or sign something if you run into a fan.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I screwed up and forgot to ask this question and didn’t realize it until after the interview. My bad!

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

It’s actually Dale Jr. Yesterday we were going back and forth. Jimmie was also on there and Chase, but Dale was doing most of the texting. We were just working on team stuff over the weekend.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

I think our job can definitely be entertaining. I think there’s times when it can be, but other times maybe not so much. I wouldn’t say that an actual driver is a whole lot of an entertainer. But I think maybe the sport and what we have going on at certain tracks can definitely be entertaining for sure.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

I hate using it. I used it more when I was younger, and it’s truthfully pretty dumb when you use it. I feel bad the next week. I probably used it once this year and was mad because (of) whatever happened. Then you kind of feel like, “Man, why did you do that? What good did you get out of it? What point did you get across?” It was nothing. You probably just made the other guy mad and you (feel) the same. I got flipped off plenty of times, but I try not to do it too much anymore. I’ve kind of grown out of that.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Absolutely. You know that just kind of builds up. A lot of it, the list kind of goes away and you forget about it and as soon as that person either does you wrong or does you good again, it comes right back and you instantly remember. As quick as it’s happening, you remember the past — good or bad.

You don’t think about the list daily, but if you have another deal with that guy, it comes back and you remember every single time you had a problem and why and what and so on. That list is never-ending on both ends.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

Probably Blake Shelton. And that was with Clint (Bowyer). We were at the Super Bowl and we had Blake Shelton. Clint and Blake are good friends, I think. So having dinner with those guys, with Blake, that was a blast. Good times.

That had to be a pretty fun dinner.

It was a very fun dinner, very entertaining at that point.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

I always just wish I was a little bit happier. I enjoy racing and I’m really happy with Tanner, but there’s a lot times throughout the week where I’m just kind of getting through the day, you know? It’d be nice to just walk around a little happier daily.

12. Speaking of getting through the day, you post workout videos, and that was something Clint Bowyer was interested in asking about. So, he wants to know: Why do you post workout videos on social media?

I don’t know why he cares so much about this. He’s had this talk with me already. He’s texted me. (Laughs) I think he thinks I’m trying to be like Danica or something, is what he was saying.

But I just think it’s just working hard and enjoying. I enjoy working out. I really do. I love it. And when you’re sweating and working hard, you want to show some of your fans that you’re getting after it. You’re doing things to try and improve yourself and be better. I think Clint knows that.

That’s probably what it is, because he doesn’t work out, so he’s probably like, “Man, you’re making me look bad. Stop posting these workout videos!”

That is definitely what it is. But, truthfully, every time I see Clint go run, and he’ll do it like twice a year, he’ll just take off out of the bus garage and then he comes back 20 minutes later and he did two and a half or three miles. And he doesn’t honestly look bad for not running that often, so he can probably do whatever he wanted and get in good shape in a hurry, I’d imagine. But he’s in good race shape, so that’s really all that matters.

The next interview I’m doing is with Daniel Suarez. Do you have a question for him?

I like Daniel a lot. We all know it’s a big step, what he’s doing this year. He’s working hard to do it right and do a good job with it, so that’s really cool.

I’m guessing he lives in North Carolina, close to Gibbs maybe? I really don’t know, but how does he enjoy living wherever he lives? Does he enjoy it as much as where he grew up (in Mexico)? I’m from Enumclaw (Wash.) and I live in North Carolina now and I loved where I grew up, and I really enjoy where I live now. I just want to get his opinion because his (situation) is from a lot further away than Enumclaw.

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