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Can Anybody Push Aside Dale Junior As NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver?

Dale Earnhardt,Jr. (Getty Images)

Dale Earnhardt, Junior won his 10th straight NASCAR Most Popular Driver award on Thursday and that moves him into a tie with Bill Elliott for winning the award most consecutive times. Good for him. Nice guy. But I’ve always scratched my head over why he’s so popular. Is it because he’s a great driver? Hardly. Let’s look at the numbers.

Junior just completed his 14th season in Cup racing. Over that time he has 19 wins including winning the Daytona 500 once, 182 Top Tens and 11 poles.

Compare that with Jeff Gordon. In 21 seasons, Gordon has been a 4-time Cup champion, he has 87 victories including a 3-time Daytona 500 winner. Gordon has 414 Top Tens and 72 poles.

How about Jimmie Johnson? In 12 seasons, Johnson has 60 wins including the Daytona 500 once, 248 Top Tens and 29 poles.

One of the better young drivers is Kyle Busch, but he might be the most-hated driver. In nine seasons he has 24 wins, 141 Top Tens and 10 poles.

Junior has often been compared with his dad, Dale Earnhardt. There is no comparison. In 27 seasons, Earnhardt Senior was a 7-time Cup champion. He won 76 races, had 428 Top Tens and 22 poles.

Maybe race fans think Junior is some embodiment of his dad. Maybe they hope he’ll become as good as his dad was, but I’ve always said the only thing Junior shares with his dad is his name. And Junior continues to be the most popular driver?

There are a number of other good young drivers who could push Earnhardt aside as a fan favorite. How about this year’s Cup champion Brad Keselowski? Denny Hamlin is a class act with 22 wins in eight seasons. I’d even put Carl Edwards on that list. But there’s a driver waiting in the wings who could quickly become a fan favorite in HER very first year. Yes, I said HER.

Danica Patrick moved from IndyCar racing to a full-time NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule in 2012 and she was named the Nationwide Series Most Popular Driver. She’s moving to a full-time Sprint Cup schedule in 2013. I don’t expect her to win too many races if she wins one at all racing against the big boys. But winning races obviously isn’t a prerequisite for winning the Most Popular Award, so why not Patrick?


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