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.

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.

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.

News Analysis: Ryan Blaney to Penske, Paul Menard to Wood Brothers

What happened: Team Penske will bring back its third Cup Series team — the No. 12 car — in a move to get driver Ryan Blaney under the same roof as Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Meanwhile, Paul Menard — who currently drives for Richard Childress Racing — will bring his Menards sponsorship to Wood Brothers Racing’s No. 21 car, where he will replace Blaney. Childress said it will announce its driver lineup for 2018 at a future date.

What it means: Although Blaney drove for the Wood Brothers, he was basically a Team Penske development driver — similar to the Erik Jones situation with Furniture Row Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing. So although Blaney was a potential Silly Season target, Penske wasn’t about to let him get away — thus the creation of a third team. Menard is a downgrade for the No. 21 car, but he brings 22 races worth of Menards sponsorship, which is something the Wood Brothers team can’t exactly pass up. Although the move may seem odd on the surface, Menards is sponsoring Simon Pagenaud’s IndyCar entry for 10 races this season and already has a relationship with Penske. Given the Wood Brothers are a Penske affiliate, this only strengthens that bond and is a healthy move for both parties. And obviously, Menard will have a consistently faster car in the No. 21 than he currently has in the No. 27.

News value (scale of 1-10): Six. Several elements make this situation notable — a new Cup car, an up-and-coming driver and a veteran switching teams. But since this move was anticipated for awhile, the lack of surprise takes a few points off the news value.

Three questions: Will RCR now contract to two cars or will it be able to find sponsorship to keep a third team? Where will Team Penske get its charter for the No. 12 car? Is there any way the typically great-looking No. 21 car will not be painful on the eyes with bright Menards sponsorship on it?

 

12 Questions with Ryan Blaney

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Ryan Blaney from Wood Brothers Racing. Blaney is currently 13th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings and is in the playoffs thanks to his victory last month at Pocono Raceway. We spoke a couple hours before the Sonoma race.

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

I think it’s both. I feel like to get good at something, you have to work at it. You might be born with some of it, but I don’t think you can’t work at it and be great in any sport, whether that’s motorsports or basketball, football — you always have to practice and work at it.

There’s really great talented athletes out there in all forms of sports, but if they don’t try and get better, I don’t think they’ll be able to perform in the big leagues. You always have to keep working at it. I think that goes kind of hand in hand.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

I’ve been asked that a handful of times — like a campaign speech as to why fans should switch drivers. I don’t know if that’s really my choice. If you like me, you do. If not, you don’t. Whether it’s the way I drive or personality off the track, you either like me or you don’t, so I don’t really have a speech, I guess. I just think go with what you think. If you want to be a fan, then great. If not, that’s fine with me, too. I don’t really have a big speech for that.

Fair enough. It’s sort of like one of those things where you can’t really convince somebody to like something. If you like vanilla and somebody else likes chocolate, you can’t be like, “No, you should like this!”

It’s personal opinion, and that’s with anything, whether it’s religion or government or political view. I mean, it’s anything. So I can’t convince you to like me; it’s either you do or you don’t.

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

I think the hardest part is actually driving the cars. We do a lot of preparation before the races, trying to get ready of how we’re going to drive the racetrack or whatever, but actually trying to compete on race day, that’s one of the hardest parts, is trying to beat everybody else.

But the hardest thing other than that just preparing for each race weekend and trying to figure out how you’re going to be faster than everybody else before you even get to the racetrack. So that’s pretty tough.

I’m sure some people will say sponsor appearances and things like that, but honestly, that’s really nothing. That allows us to go race, so I don’t mind doing any of that stuff. But I think the work we do during the week (is harder). Granted, we don’t do tons of work during the week, just setting the cars up — our guys, they bust their butts to do that — but the little things we do to try and prepare us for the weekend, I think that’s pretty tough outside the driving aspect.

You’re known as a guy who doesn’t say no to sponsor stuff or when NASCAR asks you to go do something. Why doesn’t that seem to bother you?

I feel like it helps the sport. I’ll say no to a few things, but I’ll say yes to a lot more and the majority of it (because) we’re trying to grow the sport and we’re trying to get new fans. All of those things are kind of (helping) to go in that direction. So I don’t mind doing it. I think it’s good not only for the sport but for your team and for your own personal gain as well. I just enjoy doing it, whether it’s traveling or doing things around home. It’s nice to go around and meet people.

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

So I actually had this happen. I will sign anything that you have or take a picture with you or anything if I’m out to eat or something, but either before my food comes or after I’m done. Like if my plate has just gotten sat down and I’m about to go in and you come up wanting an autograph, I’m like, “Come on.” Or if I’m mid-eat, I’ll probably still do it, but I’ll kind of have an attitude while I’m doing it.

But yeah, either before our food comes or after we’re done eating. I’m an aggressive eater, so while I’m actually consuming material, I kind of like to be left alone. But I’ll do anything you want, but it just depends if I’m in a good mood or not while I’m doing it.

So did the recent person come up to you mid-bite?

Mid-bite, yeah. Like two bites in, putting that second piece of food in my mouth, and (the person) comes up like, “I hate to bother you.” Well, then don’t! If you hate to do it, then don’t do it. Can you wait, please? I mean, I did it, but yeah — me and my food are in a tight relationship, so just wait until I’m done with that.

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

I honestly think the story that doesn’t get enough (coverage) is everybody working on the race cars. I would love to see a feature — it may be hard to do because you’d have to go in the race shop — of like what a week or two of preparation is, turning around cars. Like the Michigan to Sonoma turnaround is so quick, you’d be amazed at how hard these guys work to try and get everything situated. You know, we’ll get back super late (after Sonoma) and they’ll be back in the shop Monday morning getting our Daytona stuff ready. So they bust their tails and I would love for the media and for TV to see that side of them a little more and for the fans, too.

We have a very little role in it — they’re the ones who are able to make it possible for us. I haven’t really seen a feature like that before, not that I know of. Maybe there has been one, but I think that’d be really cool to show everybody.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

I texted Dale (Jr.) last night. I had a question for him about his music and stuff. He has a band that he really likes, and I was trying to think of the band name. I had to ask him. I can’t remember the name, either, by the way.

That’s why it’s in text form. You can just go look back at it.

Exactly. I prefer calls nowadays, but texts are so nice because you have history — that could be a bad thing, too — but I think it’s like a reference. It’s like notes, but you’re not even taking notes. So that’s pretty nice. But yeah, Dale was the last person I texted. I had to ask for some help.

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

Yeah. Oh, for sure. I think any sport, the athletes are entertainers. It’s our job as well, and our goal is to go try and win, but all these sports, they’re entertainment sports. That’s what fans come to the racetrack or a ballgame for: To be entertained and to like watching people do their thing and be amazed at what we can do.

I definitely feel like NASCAR is an entertainment sport for sure. (It’s) not strictly an entertainment sport, but fans want to come to the racetrack to be entertained. We’re not gonna put on a soap opera out here, but to some degree, it’s for the fans.

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

(Laughs) I will shoot you the middle finger. I will shoot you the bird if you piss me off. I’ve gotten a little more relaxed about it, but as a kid, you wanna shoot everybody the bird. But yeah, I will if I feel like I got used up or something like that.

I’ve toned back on it, but there’s so many that go around, you can’t take it to heart. It’s just a little gesture that you do, because you can’t talk to the person right then, you kind of let them know that you didn’t appreciate what you did. And yeah, it’s pretty open. It’s a pretty open policy. A lot of drivers do it and I think it’s pretty good.

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?

Oh yeah. That’s a really good question because everyone always talks about people on their bad list and what people did them wrong. They always keep that in their memory. But you do keep the good memories in mind as well. If someone does cut you a break, maybe let you in at a speedway or gives you a break on a restart or something like that, you remember that and utilize that if the situation comes up later in the race or the week after. You like to repay the favor. You’ve got to be generous out here. So yeah, you definitely keep a memory bank of that stuff too.

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

I don’t know. Like Roger Penske maybe. I mean, Roger is a pretty famous person, I think. Roger or Dale, maybe. I think Roger might beat Dale out a little bit; just a touch. Roger’s been around for a long time. I got asked, “Who’s the most famous person in your phone?” and that’s probably Roger, too.

Dale doesn’t have his name on the side of trucks driving down the freeway like Roger does.

That is true as well, and Dale doesn’t own pretty much half of Detroit, or Michigan, pretty much. So that’s why Roger has Dale beat just a little bit.

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

Personally, I feel like I’ve gotten a little bit better at it, but I’m just like my dad in this aspect, which I hate: When the helmet goes on, I get very emotional sometimes. I can get upset pretty easily. And that’s not good for anybody. You can see that on (FS1’s) Radioactive, they like to call me on the Radio Sweetheart all the time — which is not cool, Race Hub.

Yeah, I’m a pretty level guy outside the car, and then, I don’t know, I get upset easily inside the race car. I don’t know if that’s me being passionate about something or what. That’s something that I’d like to improve. I’ve improved on it over the past handful of years since I got in it. It keeps getting better and better every year, I think, but that’s something I’d like to improve: Just being a little more calm on the radio and levelheaded. I think that would be nothing but good for myself and for the whole team.

12. The last interview was with Todd Gilliland. He wanted to know: What did you learn in the K&N race at Sonoma, if that’s any comparison to what you’ll do today.

We’ll find out if it carries over (Blaney ended up finishing ninth in the Cup race). The K&N race was nice too, and their cars are way different, their tires are way different, so that’s kind of rough to kind of carry over to this side. I messed with some line stuff (in K&N). My tires kind of got worn out to maybe help with this Cup car, but they are widely different. But I thought it helped out a little bit.

And then race etiquette, you kind of find out where passing points are a little more and how to set yourself up off a certain corner to have a chance of passing this one. So those two parts were pretty good.

I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with. Do you have a general question that I might be able to ask a future driver?

I think you did this last time.

I didn’t have a person prepared for you? Because I knew you could handle the off-the-cuff random question.

OK…”Who shot first?”

Who shot first? Like an Alexander Hamilton type of thing?

No, like Han Solo and Greedo.

Oh, I see. It’s a Star Wars reference.

So who shot first, and see if they know what the reference is.

What’s the right answer?

I don’t know.

Do you have a theory?

No. (Laughing) I want you to write every little thought and word that they say into the next one.

Like all the likes, umms, the stumbles?

Yeah. I want every single piece. Anything they say into this microphone from this question, you have to type and put in in your story.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Pocono race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway…

1. Blaney breaks through

When young Cup drivers face numerous challenges in a single race, they often fail to win. That’s because a lack of experience or poise typically trips them up at some point; even if they overcome one problem, the next does them in.

But at Pocono, Ryan Blaney had to survive three tough moments to score his first career Cup victory.

First of all, Blaney couldn’t talk to his team on the radio all day because his helmet microphone wasn’t working. The team worked out a series of hand signals as a substitute, and it made communication about changes to the car very difficult.

Jon Wood, through the Wood Brothers Racing Twitter account, tweeted late in the race: “If you could listen in for just like 20 seconds, you’d agree it’s just flat-out amazing that we are even on the lead lap at this point.”

After enduring that stress, Blaney found himself starting fourth on the final restart — and the first driver on four new tires. But although he was faster at that point, Blaney had to deal with extremely aggressive blocking from Kyle Busch, which could have easily ended in a wreck for one or both of the drivers. Blaney stayed patient, raced Busch cleanly and made the pass.

After that, he had Kevin Harvick approaching quickly. Harvick stayed on his back bumper in the final laps, waiting to pounce if Blaney made the slightest mistake.

“The way I passed people all day was waiting for him to slip up off the bottom, and he never slipped off the bottom,” Harvick said. “Ryan did a good job of not slipping a wheel with the amount of laps that he had left.”

Blaney drove flawlessly at the end — and throughout the race. He truly earned the win.

2. Silver lining for Dale Jr.?

Pocono was the low point of the season so far for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his fans. Earnhardt missed a pair of shifts this weekend that resulted in blown engines — and offered no excuses for the mistakes.

Though fans were eager for a reason to blame crew chief Greg Ives or the team (surely the shifter must be set up differently!), Earnhardt acknowledged nothing in the car has changed.

This was simply driver error.

“I wish I could blame it on something else, because this feels awful,” he told FOX Sports 1. “It’s just my fault. … I wish I could say the shifter is different.”

There isn’t much good to say about the day — or the season so far. Earnhardt clearly isn’t confident in his cars right now and isn’t having the fun he had been the past few years.

But there might be one positive. As noted by Justin Bukoski, an Earnhardt fan from Portland, Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne appeared to have brake failures (as did Jamie McMurray). And Earnhardt had earlier been complaining of brake problems.

So if Earnhardt had not blown an engine, was it only a matter of time before his brakes led to a Johnson-like hit into the wall? If so, that might have been the end of Earnhardt’s career — or worse — given his concussion history.

3. Another scary moment

Maybe it’s just a heightened sense of awareness since the Aric Almirola crash, but it feels like there have been a lot of hard hits lately, doesn’t it? And there were two more on Sunday.

With four laps left in Stage 2, Johnson and McMurray suffered simultaneous brake failures going into Turn 1 — and both crashed hard.

They were each frightening in their own right. Johnson’s hit was violent — and he initially seemed headed straight for the wall, nose-first — while McMurray’s was fiery.

Johnson seemed shaken and said, “We got away with one there.” He knew it could have been a lot worse.

The burning car was the most worrisome part about McMurray’s wreck. Though it was nice to see the automatic extinguisher put out the fire in the front of the car, the back end was still in flames for quite awhile.

It appeared there were approximately 20 seconds between the time McMurray’s car stopped and when the safety crew put the first bit of extinguisher on the flames. Could the response time have been faster? Before you answer, consider what would have happened if McMurray had not been able to get out of the car (what if he had an Almirola-like injury?). That would have been ugly.

Either way, it’s just another reminder of how dangerous this sport is. And I think we’re all good on reminders for awhile.

4. New blood on TV

I was moving cross-country this weekend and missed the drivers-only Xfinity Series broadcast. That really bummed me out, because I wanted to know how it went.

Fortunately, many Twitter followers were able to fill me in. I received 115 replies to a tweet asking whether people enjoyed it or not.

The consensus: An overwhelmingly positive response to the broadcast, with many comments urging FOX Sports to try it again sometime. I’d say 95 percent of the responses were raving about it; people really seemed to enjoy seeing different faces on the broadcast.

Hopefully, that emotion from the fans was noticed by FOX executives. There appear to be many capable drivers who could fill on-air roles at the moment, some who will be retiring within the next few years. A career full of TV interviews and commercials and appearances has helped drivers become very polished on camera.

If that’s the case, why not stock the on-air booths with the most relevant analysts possible? FOX should do everything it can to keep its talent fresh.

5. Another race, another new winner

That’s now 10 different winners in the first 14 races — which is quite impressive considering drivers like Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have yet to go to victory lane.

But it’s also a whopping eight different teams that have won races, thanks to new faces like Wood Brothers Racing (first win since 2011), Richard Childress Racing (first win since 2013) and Roush Fenway Racing (first win since 2014).

Joe Gibbs Racing has not won yet and certainly will before the regular season ends, so that will be nine.

How does that compare to last year? Well, only seven different teams won a race in all of 2016.

Though it’s still tough to say whether this is a sign of real parity or just unique circumstances producing different winners, it’s always good when no single entity — driver or team — is dominating the season.

Social Spotlight with Kenny Wallace

Each week, I’m asking someone from the racing industry about their social media use in a feature called the Social Spotlight. Up next: Kenny Wallace, the longtime driver and FOX Sports analyst. This interview is also available in podcast form.

You were one of the first people in NASCAR to really understand social media, understand how to use your Facebook page, your Twitter page. You’ve always been so into it. Why did you embrace it early on? What did you see in it that made you feel like you need to be part of that?

Well this is incredibly true: It had nothing to do with me. What happened was I had a gentleman who was running KennyWallace.com, and I thought it was boring, and I said to him, “We need to put video on KennyWallace.com.” He said to me, “It’s too expensive.” So then all of a sudden, he said, “Let’s go to Facebook and you can do videos for free there.” And then I remember saying, “Facebook is for children.” And he was appalled; he says, “No it’s not.”

So fast-forward. My career was kind of not going real good and I was driving the U.S. Border Patrol car for Jay Robinson (in 2009). Well, they said, “You’re gonna have to start and park in Montreal, Canada, because U.S. Border Patrol is not gonna be a sponsor there.” Made sense. But I remember being appalled (about being asked to start and park).

First of all, I want to say this: we all do what we have to do, and I’m no better than anybody, but I do not start and park. Maybe it’s just because of my father and my family being so competitive. And I wasn’t broke, but I was not going to start and park.

So I called NASCAR up and we had this idea to create a fan car. So NASCAR said, “You can get away with it, Kenny Wallace.” I remember them saying that. So then that’s how it started: it was everybody could put their name on our car that we raced in the first Xfinity race in Montreal, Canada.

We raised an enormous amount of money (roughly $100,000) and some 7,000 people’s names were on the car, and I wrote Jay Robinson a check and that is the way that I got it out, on Facebook. And then that’s when I went, “Wow. OK.” Then it became entertainment and that’s how it all started with me.

So you are very entertaining on all social media. I’m sure there’s been times where you put out something and you were like, “Oh my gosh, did I go too far with this?” Because you are not afraid, from what I can tell. How do you know when you go too far on social media?

Well, when I look back, there’s things that I’m embarrassed of. In my early days, I still listened to Howard Stern — and I still listen — and people just had this fascination with going to the bathroom. So I felt, “Well, I’ll try this. I’m not gonna copy Howard but…” So I was taking pictures of myself around porta-potties, in porta-potties, and I’m like, “This is ridiculous.” They had the most retweets, they had the most (reply) tweets. Am I embarrassed by that nowadays? I’m like, “Oh my gosh,” you know.

But we all have this fascination with bathrooms. You know, I don’t know if I’d do that over again. Of course, I did something a little about pooping today, which was a little lighthearted. But you know, I really do get something ready to go, I read it and read it and go, “Nope.”

Oh my God, I’ve deleted so many things. I can promise you right now, the hardest thing for me to do is not involve myself in this political viewpoint we have right now because I’m a Republican, and I have so much to say, but I just know you can’t win. And then it becomes no fun and that is when I think I’ve gone too far nowadays.

And I don’t like to hurt. For some reason, I like to crack a joke. I did say something the other day that I did delete. Somebody said that (Eric) Thames with Milwaukee in Major League Baseball has 11 home runs, and what do other players think of that? And I sarcastically tweeted, “Ask (Ryan) Braun” — Braun got caught with PEDs, steroids. And a fan said, “Come on Kenny, can’t a guy just have a good start this season?” And I thought, “Yeah, that was mean of me.”

But I did put that laughing face behind it. But I went back and deleted the tweet. You know, it just came to my mind right away, so it is natural for me to be conversational, tweet because I’m bored at an airport. I don’t like going too far.

You talked about some of the blowback that you might get sometimes — you know, political tweets, whatever. How do you handle people who say something mean, because you’re a very positive person from everything I’ve been able to tell all over the years. Do you just block them, or do you ignore people? How do you handle it if somebody’s coming at you?

That’s a great question, because I’ve had to teach myself and I’m like anybody else: I get my feelings hurt. I’ve been roughed up, I’ve felt like it’s been 300,000 people against me. But I’m tough, so I never say, “Why me?” and I’m really into therapy. I mean, I don’t take therapy, but I tease some really good friends of mine that are very mature and are good to me.

So what I did is when people would rough me up, I would turn it around and I would kind of play a game with them. I would say, “Wow, what happened in your childhood to make you so negative? I really feel sorry for you.” And I would never argue with them. And so I would always use the childhood thing. That always seemed to work — go back to why they’re so mean.

Then all of a sudden, I felt, “Well, this is silly. Don’t even respond.” So I literally started this one deal I had. I said, OK, you can say, “Hey Kenny Wallace, you were no good as a race car driver.” And I would say, “Well, you know, at least I tried.” Or I would say, “I didn’t accomplish what I wanted, but I made a lot of money doing it.” That would be a little bit of a sarcastic innuendo.

So all of a sudden, I said OK, you can debate with me. You can rough me up. But as soon as you cuss me out, if you go really hardcore, I block people. And I’ll tell you, I’ve probably blocked 100 people, I would say that. And it really silenced the noise.

Well it’s interesting because you want to be interactive with people, you want to be fan-friendly, you want to be approachable, all that stuff, but once somebody is like ruining your day with their tweets, they forget that everybody on the other side of it is still human. You still have feelings. You can’t just say, “Whatever, that doesn’t mean anything to me.” If somebody says something, it can get to you. So you can actually make it more fun for yourself by eliminating seeing these tweets in some way.

Here’s what I learned about. Years ago, a dear friend of mine, Felix Sabates, and myself got in a knock-down drag-out over something I said about Chip Ganassi Racing. I simply said they weren’t a top 10 team. I said Kyle Larson’s goal should be to run in the top 20. Well, Felix got really mad at me, and he attacked me and we talked to each other, we were about in tears hugging each other.

So here’s what I say about tweeting: I can start at first in the points in any series. I can start with Kyle Larson and I could go to the 40th place driver, and I could say negative, mean stuff about them — and it’d be true. But that’s not right. So my point is: you can take a four-time champion, Jeff Gordon, and I’ve got enough on him where I can really hurt his feelings. Just because he won 90-something races, everybody’s still got… you know they can be hurt, and they all got secrets, and I know them.

So I said to myself, “Isn’t that something? If I wanted to, I could hurt anybody. Anybody that’s really good!” I could hurt Jimmie Johnson. Just because you’re good at any type of sport doesn’t mean you’re perfect. And once you realize that, and you see Jimmie Johnson get roughed up, it’s like, Jeff Gluck, you, or I, we could get roughed up. Hell, they rough up a seven-time champion more than they do us, so that’s when you really start to bring in the scope. If they can rough up anybody, then that’s when everybody’s free game. And then, it’s just not right.

Part of your social media success in my view is it’s an extension of your personality. When I see you with people, you’re very warm, you’re very approachable. Somebody will come up to you and say, “Hey Kenny, I’m a big fan!” And you’ll put your arm around him, you’ll make it seem like you’ve been friends for a long time. I feel like I want to be more like that in someways; I need to be warmer with people. I guess my question is, how do you open yourself up to people you’ve maybe never met, or you don’t even know what their motives are necessarily, but you are willing to embrace them. How do you do that?

Well, when I look back on my childhood — now what I’m telling you now, I had to learn about myself. So my mother Judy says, “Kenny, you’re an old soul.” And I was like, “What is that, Mom?” And she says, “Well, you’ve been here before.” And I am laughing a little about it. But if you believe in reincarnation, and God knows that we have dreams when we go to bed, it’s kind of voodoo, like, “Gosh, I think I’ve done this before.”

So, with that being said, I was in school and I was always squeaking my chair. I was seeking attention from the teachers. I was always in trouble and they sent me to a therapist. And the therapist said, “He has a sibling rivalry with his brothers. Kenny is reaching out for attention — he’s competing with Rusty Wallace and Mike Wallace.” Well that’s untrue, because I know myself.

What I can tell you I learned about myself is for some reason, if there’s tension or people are arguing, I don’t like it. Now, I am a leader and a boss, but I don’t believe in roughing people up. I believe in organization and big nice meetings, but I don’t believe you have to be a total prick.

So I was born a lover, and I mean that, because I’ve read some things by Steven Tyler, the lead singer for Aerosmith. I’ve seen Steven Tyler give the biggest obese lady the biggest hug and just embrace her, when most people would go, “Oh my God, you’re too big. You’re nasty.” And my mother said, “Boy, Kenny, you are always good to little old ladies.” And it just taught me that, you know, you can’t just hug good-looking ladies. Everybody needs love. So Jeff, I kind of compiled all that and I’m like, “Everybody needs the love.”

You know, my brother Rusty, he’s won 50-something races and he flat-looked at me one day and he was mad at me. He said, “OK, Kenny, you win the ‘Everybody likes me’ award.” And I looked him, and it had crushed me. My brother Rusty was jealous of me that everybody liked me. So, you know, but I’m jealous of Rusty — I’d love to have one Cup win. But here I’ve never won a Cup race, and he wants what I have.

And Jeff Gordon said to me, “God, I wish I could laugh like you, Kenny.” And he was serious. And I take these great drivers, and then I had to learn that, “Oh my God, all they’re good at is driving a car around in circles really fast.”

You know, I really started learning what was wrong with us. So somebody can hit a baseball really far, and what, now you can solve world peace? So I just know that everybody needs to love everybody and nobody is really better than anybody. And if you’re really good at something, I really respect you and I admire you for it. But it doesn’t mean you’re a good person.

Well that’s important and I think that can come through on social media and make a difference because there’s so much negativity out there. If you can sort of cut through that and spread a positive message, make people feel good, show that there’s a different way, put aside the angry people and try to have fun with it, I think that seems to be the key to enjoying social media. I feel like you, maybe more than anybody I see out there, have sort of captured that. Is that fair to say?

Yeah, and I take my chances. This has nothing to do with you, and I want to make sure that you don’t get in trouble for what I’m gonna say, but you know, Jenna Fryer’s a very strong-willed lady, and I recognize that and I’ve known that for years. But she got roughed up (in written form) by one of the world’s greatest race car drivers, Mario Andretti, and it almost appalled me. You know, Mario went at her (about a controversial column regarding Fernando Alonso), and then everybody started going at her.

But you know, we put ourselves out there. And I already knew what she was going through, and I said that it’s amazing that sometimes the media will eat their own. And what I mean by that is that we are in a new environment where it’s insane, you know? Either people are too sensitive or they’re too harsh.

Listen, I’ve got a lot of bad things to say, but there’s no way I would have said them because they’re too hurtful. And it goes back to what I said: If you want, I can go right down the line. It’s like the movie where the man goes around the table and literally makes fun of everybody. It’s like, “Oh my God.” So, social (media) is brutal and it’s great and it’s bad.

What advice would you give to younger drivers who are trying to navigate this world? Right now, the sport’s in need of people to show personality like you’ve shown throughout your career. How would you tell them to do that?

I would tell them that I understand they want their privacy and I understand that they’re quiet. Being quiet is not a cool new thing. Me and Ryan Blaney had a conversation about this. Ryan Blaney said that he wanted to send a message that he’s very serious when we know he’s not. He’s funny, and he has a lot of good wit; he’s funny.

And I said, “Why are you walking around the garage area all serious?” He goes, “Well, I want to send a message that I’m serious.” But then you look at Clint Bowyer, who runs second, wins races, and just is as crazy as me, and he can get away with it because he runs good.

I would tell all race car drivers coming up now today: Be yourself. You know, if you’re waiting for an airplane or you’re somewhere eating lunch and you’ve just gotten moments that you’re just bored, get on social (media). I mean, I’m on social (media) all the time because I truly am bored that much. I’m waiting for an airplane, I’m drinking coffee.

So as hyper as I am and as many places as I go — when you travel as much as we do and you do, it could appear we’re busy, but we’re not. We’re not that busy, we’re just traveling. Get on your phone and create entertainment. It makes me laugh.

Well, thank you for joining us.

No, thank you. And I admire you; I really do. You know, I just want to make sure before we’re done that, you know, you took a chance, you quit your job, you got out on your own, and that’s the American dream, and that’s very hard to do. It’s very scary for me to watch you do it, but you’re my hero, and I wish more of us could do that. That’s kind of what America was built on. So good job and keep digging.

Thank you very much, and the feeling is very mutual. Like I said, I wish I could be more like you a lot of times.

You’re good. (Laughs)

This interview is sponsored by Dover International Speedway. If you’re planning to attend the Dover race in June, please consider using my ticket link. Thanks!