What makes a NASCAR
driver popular? What is it that draws millions of fans to one souvenir trailer on race weekend?
It’s obvious that there must be some kind of charisma in a driver’s personality that captivates millions of fans. Whether it’s their approachable smile, or cunning interviews, a driver’s style off the track often catches the eye of the fan.
There are other aspects of a driver’s personality that impinge on the way fans will see them. They way the driver treats his fans often makes or breaks his public appeal. The way he handles adversity is another facet in which fans will take into consideration when choosing a favorite. Some drivers in the past have been able to overcome certain amounts of adversity, which in turn has broadened their fan base. At the same time, other drivers have handled difficult situations rather poorly (see Kurt Busch) and their public image has suffered immensely.
Of course, the driving style helps determine the popularity of a driver. An over-aggressive driver usually attracts a high number of fans, but it also can detract a lot as well. When a driver is passive-aggressive, many may consider him soft, and that quality can attract as well as detract a certain brand of fans. Usually it’s the drivers in the medium of the two driving styles that draw the most fans. Dale Earnhardt was massively popular as he built a legion of fans throughout the country, but he was considered over-aggressive at times and because of that, you either loved him or hated him. Tony Stewart is in the same predicament today.
Fitting into a certain image has become a huge part of today’s NASCAR driver, more so than in the past. A driver’s marketability has plenty to do with how the public may perceive them. Marketability can override success sometimes. Take Michael Waltrip for instance. Waltrip has a very charismatic personality. He’s funny, outgoing, and a natural behind camera. Granted, he’s not the most accomplished driver, but he does well in the spotlight. Take Waltrip versus Matt Kenseth. Kenseth is the 2003 Nextel Cup Champion. He’s already doubled Waltrip’s career win total in far less career starts. He’s a constant among the top ten in the points standings, but his image seems inferior to Waltrip’s. He is quiet and considered bland at times. In fact, a couple of years ago, he was portrayed as a robot in some of his commercials. He doesn’t have the sense of humor that enhanced Waltrip’s popularity and that is prevalent in today’s NASCAR.
Dale Earnhardt Jr versus Bill Elliott
Bill Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr are arguably the two most popular drivers ever to grace the NASCAR asphalt. I’m not sure if it’s the color red, but ever since the mid-1980’s, most NASCAR events have been dominated by a sea of red. When Elliott was in his heyday, he quickly built up a huge fan-base, one that is still strong today, even after his retirement from full-time competition. He has the quiet, boy next-door demeanor that millions of fans back in the 1980’s graciously embraced. He was considered to be a gentlemen by many, which at that time it was a breath of fresh air, as for years the sport was dominated by the rough around the edges image that Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, and Dale Earnhardt had depicted.
Earnhardt Jr came along well after his father had accomplished almost everything a NASCAR driver can accomplish, which immediately bulked his fan-base. His two consecutive Busch Series championships also gave him extra notoriety as he strived to break out of his father’s shadows. After his father was tragically killed in 2001, Earnhardt Jr inherited a large percentage of his fan-base on top of the fan-base he had already built himself. To this day, he has remained to fan favorite as many fans describe him as Ã?Â¯Ã?Â¿Ã?Â½down to earth’. Earnhardt Jr comes across as a cool guy who really seems to enjoy his job, even if it demands so much attention from the public.
If it comes down to the two as who is the most popular all-time driver, the nod would go to Elliott. You cannot beat 16 Most Popular Driver Awards, all in a span 19 years. In two of those years, Elliott beat out Earnhardt Jr head-to-head.
Top Ten Most Popular Drivers
1. Bill Elliott
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr
3. Richard Petty
4. Dale Earnhardt
5. Bobby Allison
6. Darrell Waltrip
7. David Pearson
8. Cale Yarborough
9. Jeff Gordon
10. Lee Petty