NASCAR Sprint Cup: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and the Fans' 25 Favorite Current Drivers
With one of the biggest fanbases in all of American professional sports, it's no shock that a majority of NASCAR drivers are beloved by hordes of passionate fans. These fans are just as devoted to their drivers and teams as fans of any stick-and-ball sport, dropping hundreds of dollars a year to deck themselves out in their colors of choice and willfully starting all over when drivers change teams or sponsors.
Part of the reason that many of these drivers are so well-loved is because their off-track personalities are so interesting. Carl Edwards runs a record label, Elliott Sadler is friends with Blake Shelton and Mark Martin's love of rap music is widely known, even outside of the NASCAR garage.
It's hard to come up with a formula for popularity, given that merchandise sales, comprehensive Q ratings and Most Popular Driver voting figures aren't easy to come by. This list relies on a lot of subjectivity; most of the big names you would expect to see are on here, plus some older drivers who have earned respect over lengthy careers and a few new faces from the lower levels that have brought over large fanbases from other series.
There are sure to be notable omissions (Kurt Busch didn't make it due to his public relations issues of late), and of course, each driver's ranking is open to debate. But enjoy.
25. Nelson Piquet, Jr.
The ex-Formula 1 driver and son of a three-time F1 champion, Piquet Jr. made the move to NASCAR in 2010 and has made a name for himself in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series. With four wins between the two series' in 2012, Piquet finished seventh in CWTS points and won that series' Most Popular Driver award.
Fun fact: Piquet is the second ex-Formula One driver to win the Most Popular Driver award in the Camping World Truck Series, after Narain Karthikeyan in 2010.
24. Ken Schrader
Though he's no longer a full-time driver, Schrader is beloved by old-school NASCAR fans for his personality, which was a hit for years on the TV show Inside Winston Cup. He's also celebrated for his willingness to race anything on four wheels at any time; from Sprint Cup to local dirt tracks, you'll see Schrader racing more than once any given year.
Fun fact: Schrader became the first driver to ever win at all three of NASCAR's top levels by taking a Truck win at Saugus Speedway in April 1995.
23. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
Stenhouse inherits a high-profile ride at Roush Fenway Racing for 2013 after replacing Matt Kenseth in the No. 17 Ford. Now a two-time Nationwide Series champion, he pulled through intense struggles just two years ago that had many thinking he would lose his ride to become a competitive driver week after week. Roush and Ford supporters will have high hopes for Stenhouse to become end a lengthy Sprint Cup title drought for both team and manufacturer.
Fun fact: Stenhouse is the first driver to win back-to-back championships for Roush Fenway Racing at any NASCAR level.
22. Bobby Labonte
The first driver to win championships at both of NASCAR's top two levels, Labonte became a fixture at the front of the pack while driving for Joe Gibbs before spending a few years with Petty Enterprises in the famed No. 43. But the younger Labonte brother was even a fan favorite before then, having won the Most Popular Driver award in the then-Busch Series in 1990.
Fun fact: Labonte has competed in every Sprint Cup race since the start of the 1993 season, the second-longest active start streak and fourth-longest of all-time.
21. Elliott Sadler
Sadler immediately became a force in the Nationwide Series after stepping back from Sprint Cup in 2011, having finished second in the past two championship battles and winning the series' Most Popular Driver award in 2011. He's well-known for his love of hunting, bologna burgers (he once ate 16 in one sitting) and his close friendship with The Voice co-host Blake Shelton.
20. Jeff Burton
Burton's nickname is "The Mayor" because whenever he speaks, people are willing to listen to his words with respect. Few root against Burton, a clean racer and 21-time Sprint Cup winner who hasn't missed a race since March 1996. Though rumors suggest that he may be replaced at Richard Childress Racing by Austin Dillon after the end of next season, there's little doubt that Burton still has a few more years in him at the Cup level.
Fun fact: Burton became the last driver to lead every lap and win a Cup race when he won at New Hampshire in September 2000, in the only non-superspeedway race in Cup history to ever feature restrictor plates.
19. Bill Elliott
For years and years, Elliott dominated the Most Popular Driver award voting, winning a total of 16 times between 1984 and 2002. His popularity grew when he won the Winston Million bonus in 1985 and 1988 Cup championship while driving for Harry Melling in the iconic No. 9 car. He remains a popular figure on the circuit during his limited appearances, which are now mostly on restrictor-plate tracks.
Fun fact: In 1990, Konami's Bill Elliott's NASCAR Challenge became the first officially-licensed NASCAR video game.
18. Joey Logano
After making the jump to NASCAR's Nationwide Series as soon as he turned 18 years old, Logano's success opened up the floodgates for NASCAR teams to begin hiring young drivers once again. In 2013, he'll move from Joe Gibbs Racing—where he was tasked with replacing Tony Stewart, a strenuous and almost impossible goal—to Penske Racing, where he'll back up defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski and try to improve further.
Fun fact: At 19 years, one month and four days old, Logano became the youngest winner in Sprint Cup history when he took a rain-shortened win at New Hampshire in June 2009.
17. Marcos Ambrose
Australia's best NASCAR export has found himself a good home stateside with Richard Petty Motorsports, winning the past two Sprint Cup races at Watkins Glen in a pair of intense final-lap battles. One of the friendliest drivers in the garage, Ambrose has now spent seven years carving out a niche in oval-based stock car racing after winning two V8 Supercars titles on some of Australia's most challenging road and street courses.
Fun fact: Ambrose has been the best-finishing non-American driver in Sprint Cup points in each of the past two seasons.
16. Greg Biffle
Biffle has the best chance to become the first driver to win championships at all three of NASCAR's national levels, having taken a truck title in 2000 and 2002 championship in what is now the Nationwide Series. Frequently appearing in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Biffle is one of a handful of top drivers from the Pacific Northwest, a list including fellow Sprint Cup star Kasey Kahne and 2002 truck champion Mike Bliss.
Fun fact: Biffle and Ron Hornaday, Jr. are the only two drivers to ever win a Most Popular Driver award in both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series.
15. Matt Kenseth
The last driver to win a Cup title before the Chase era, Kenseth also brought Jack Roush his first championship at NASCAR's highest level. He's known for his love of football, especially his hometown Green Bay Packers, and dry wit; earlier this year, a bemused Kenseth emceed his own press conference when a host failed to show up on time.
Fun fact: Until he debuts for Joe Gibbs Racing in February's Daytona 500, only one of Kenseth's 472 career Cup starts will have come outside of Roush Fenway Racing—a sixth-place run substituting for Bill Elliott at Dover in September 1998.
14. Ryan Newman
Newman earned the nickname "Rocket Man" early in his career for dominating the speed charts in qualifying, scoring a whopping 11 poles in the 2003 season. A car collector and animal enthusiast in his free time, Newman and wife Krissie run the Ryan Newman Foundation, which raises hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on behalf of animal shelters and wildlife conservation.
Fun fact: Newman became the first driver to win the Daytona 500 for Penske Racing when he took the checkered flag in 2008.
13. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin's earned himself a reputation as NASCAR's best dancer. He taught the NASCAR world how to "Dougie" when he broke out the popular dance at Bristol's driver introductions in the spring, eliciting perhaps the loudest reaction of any driver. Then, in August, he "wobbled" his way to his first career Bristol victory, kicking off a stretch of three wins in five races.
Fun fact: Hamlin is the most recent driver to score a win in all three of NASCAR's national series, taking his first Camping World Truck Series victory at Martinsville in October 2011.
12. Clint Bowyer
One of the more interesting and relatable personalities in the garage, Bowyer gives a hilarious press conference and has one of the funniest Twitter accounts in the sport. He's a throwback in many ways, the kind of driver that fans would want to go to a bar or a party with, and his legend only grew when he attempted to run down Jeff Gordon in his hauler after their tangle at Phoenix in November.
Fun fact: Bowyer-owned late models took the checkered flag in two of the last three Prelude to the Dream events, with Jimmie Johnson winning in 2010 and Bowyer himself winning in 2011.
11. Mark Martin
Widely regarded as the best driver to never win a Sprint Cup title, Martin is well-known for his obsessively-detailed workouts and literacy in hip-hop. He's become so well-respected over his 30-plus year racing career that when Dale Earnhardt Jr. left the company that bore his father's name in 2008, Martin was chosen to replace him in the No. 8 as one of the few drivers in the sport that wouldn't have been booed in the car.
Fun fact: Martin's latest nickname, "Epic Swag," is more than just a tribute to his love of rap music—it came about when his Twitter account was hacked and briefly replaced with an inspirational quote feed.
10. Danica Patrick
Patrick brings a new fanbase to NASCAR as its first full-time female driver at the Sprint Cup level; in 2013, she'll be the first driver to start more than half of the races in a Cup season since Janet Guthrie in 1977. After becoming the most successful woman in IndyCar history during a seven-year career from 2005 to 2011, she now looks to become the first woman to win at the Sprint Cup level.
Fun fact: Patrick is the only driver to win a Most Popular Driver award in both IndyCar and one of NASCAR's top three series.
9. Kasey Kahne
During his first few seasons at NASCAR's highest level, Kahne was typecast in Allstate commercials as the kind of heartthrob that would distract women into causing major accidents. While he still certainly wins some popularity contests in that regard, Kahne has also grown into a bona fide championship contender and the future at Hendrick Motorsports, with whom he finished fourth in this year's Sprint Cup championship battle.
Fun fact: Kahne won the first NASCAR race staged at Rockingham in over eight years when he took a Camping World Truck Series victory there in April.
8. Kyle Busch
Perhaps no other driver is more polarizing than Busch, the driver that fans either love or love to hate. Competing at all three of NASCAR's top levels, he'll bow to the crowd after a win, encouraging the boos whenever he can—something that only makes him more beloved to his fanbase. In many ways, "Rowdy" resembles a young, brash Darrell Waltrip.
Fun fact: From 2005 to 2011, Busch scored at least one win in all three of NASCAR's national series, including a sweep of the August 2010 Bristol weekend.
7. Carl Edwards
Edwards' nickname, "Cousin Carl," may have come about because of his relation to fellow Sprint Cup driver Ken Schrader, but it fits so well because of Edwards' folksy demeanor and strong people skills. A fitness buff like former teammate Mark Martin, Edwards is another driver whose popularity has enabled him to branch out beyond NASCAR; he's made numerous television appearances and owns a record label in his hometown of Columbia, Missouri.
Fun fact: Edwards is the only driver to ever lose a tiebreaker for the Sprint Cup championship, having tied Tony Stewart in points in 2011 but scoring only one victory to Stewart's five.
6. Kevin Harvick
Harvick and wife Delana are one of NASCAR's top power couples, running a highly successful Nationwide and Camping World Truck team for about a decade before shutting it down to focus on raising son Keelan. Since replacing Dale Earnhardt in 2001 and winning only his third career Sprint Cup start, Harvick has always been a fan favorite, growing into one of the sport's most respected figures.
Fun fact: Harvick was the only driver to win a race at all three of NASCAR's top levels in 2012.
5. Brad Keselowski
The youngest son in a racing family, Brad earned his way up the NASCAR ranks the way many old-school drivers did: first with his family's ride, then in underfunded equipment before making something of his first big breaks in the sport. Since joining Penske Racing, Keselowski has managed to balance the reverence and cleanliness of most Penske drivers with the brash and outspoken nature that makes him a hit with many fans and the talent to be the sport's next great driver.
Fun fact: Keselowski is the first driver since Bobby Labonte in 2000 to have won both a Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series championship, and the only driver to win both with the same team.
4. Jimmie Johnson
People may not expect it out of him, frequently labeling him "vanilla," but Johnson has a great personality and sense of humor that have come out more and more over the past few years. His five consecutive championships may have spawned a large contingent of "Anyone But Jimmie" supporters, but to his fans, Johnson represents skill and dominance in the same way that mentor Jeff Gordon did in his early career.
Fun fact: Johnson led Forbes.com's Most Influential Athletes list in each of the past two years, beating Tom Brady in 2011 and Tim Tebow in 2012.
3. Jeff Gordon
Envied by many because of his incredible success, especially in the 1990s, Gordon nonetheless has acquired a reputation as one of NASCAR's best-respected figures, and with it, a passionate fanbase. But he's also loved for his still-burning competitive fire, as evidenced by his intentional wrecking of Clint Bowyer at Phoenix in November after feeling slighted on track all season long.
Fun fact: In 2003, Gordon hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live, the first time that a NASCAR driver had ever taken the reins of the popular late-night staple.
2. Tony Stewart
Stewart is beloved because he's a racer's racer who acts in the best interests of the sport with a strong emphasis on the traditions that make racing great. From making the owner-driver cool again to celebrating both sprint car and late model dirt racing, his determination and strong will are proper reflections of his boyhood hero, A.J. Foyt.
Fun fact: Stewart is the only active NASCAR driver to own a track on one of the three national series' schedules in 2013, as his Eldora Speedway will make its debut on the Camping World Truck Series schedule next year.
1. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Undoubtedly, Earnhardt Jr. has to be the No. 1 figure on this list. Not only has he had a stranglehold on the sport's Most Popular Driver award since 2003, but his merchandise sales and varied endorsement portfolio suggest that his popularity transcends that of any other driver in the sport's history—even that of his father.
Fun fact: By winning this year, Earnhardt Jr.'s streak of 10 consecutive Sprint Cup Most Popular Driver awards tied Bill Elliott's all-time record, set from 1991 to 2000.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.