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.

Kyle Petty ready for another epic charity ride

You might think driving a race car and riding a motorcycle have something in common. But that’s not really the case, according to Kyle Petty — who has done a lot of both.

“Everything is offense in a race car, where everything is defense on a motorcycle,” he said. “A dog is going to run out in front of you, someone is going to be texting and not see you.

“So many people assume the people who like motorcycles ride with reckless abandon and are all daredevils, but that’s not it. It’s all calculated. There’s an understanding for the limits.”

Petty has been riding a motorcycle in some form since he was 5 — his father felt it would give him respect for speed — and continues to do so at age 56. On May 13, Petty will embark on the 23rd annual Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America — a weeklong ride of more than 2,400 miles where 200 participants will raise money for the Victory Junction Gang Camp.

The ride has yet to repeat an entire route, and this year is no different. It will start in Portland, Ore., and make stops in Washington, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and Minnesota before ending in Wisconsin.

But coming up with unique routes is actually pretty difficult, because the logistics for putting on an event like this are crazy. Local authorities have to be informed all along the way (think police escorts), and stops are planned every couple hours so riders can break for food and gas. Then there’s the matter of finding hotel rooms for everyone — often while the ride travels through rural areas — which has to be done months in advance.

“It’s like putting on five charity golf tournaments a day for seven days,” Petty said.

Petty’s wife Morgan is the one who makes the logistics work, and the two rent a car and drive the route backward before the ride to make sure everything is set.

This year’s ride will once again include Richard Petty — who still rides the whole way at age 79 — as well as NFL great Herschel Walker and former drivers Harry Gant, Donnie Allison and Hershel McGriff.

Obviously, raising money for Victory Junction — which offers children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses a place to attend camp for free — is the primary goal. The ride has raised $17.5 million for the camp since its inception in 1995.

But there’s also an incredible amount of satisfaction in seeing the response from people all over the country, particularly the small towns that would never otherwise dream of having famous athletes roll through the area and stop to sign autographs in a gas station parking lot.

“You’d think you had Elvis in town,” Petty said. “It’s like people come out to watch the elephants unload from the circus train.”