NASCAR's 30 Most Lovable Personalities of the Last 25 Years

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistJanuary 20, 2013

NASCAR's 30 Most Lovable Personalities of the Last 25 Years

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    This was a topic that just kept growing and growing.

    We were originally going to list just five of the most lovable personalities in NASCAR over the last 10 years, but we kept coming up with others who were just as qualified and deserved to make the list.

    Then, because we kept coming up with more individuals that were worthy, we decided to lengthen the list to the last 20 years and then eventually to the last quarter-century.

    Pretty soon, we were at 20 names, then 25 and we still weren't finished. We finally settled on 30 individuals, and the finished product is what you're looking at here.

    The interesting thing about this list is that a full one-third (10) are related, either as brothers or fathers and sons. That just goes to show how special family really is in NASCAR.

    We've chosen individuals from the ranks of drivers, team owners, broadcasters, writers and humanitarians. There is no ranking or particular order to this list.

    Of course, no list is ever complete. So if there's someone you feel should be added, please let us know in the comments section.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    When you're voted NASCAR's Most Popular Driver for 10 years in a row now, how can you not be one of the most lovable personalities in the sport?

    Just like his late father, Dale Jr. has carried on the family tradition as both a racer and a fan icon. As Junior goes, so goes NASCAR, it seems.

    With a fanbase that numbers likely in the millions, Junior is without question someone who belongs on this list.

Benny Parsons

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    Last Wednesday marked six years since we lost Benny Parsons to cancer, and many of us still haven't gotten over his passing.

    Benny was truly loved by virtually everyone.

    His down-home way of spinning stories, his ever-present smile, his positive outlook and how he always had time for fans are just some of the best things we remember about Benny.

    In a way, the man almost everyone lovingly called BP was like the grandfather many of us never had.

    He was always there with a comforting ear, never took things for granted, was patient as the day is long, didn't have a pompous or self-centered bone in his body and was both a hell of a race car driver and, upon retiring, a broadcaster who set the bar so high that no one has yet to equal him.

Darrell Waltrip

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    One of NASCAR's greatest drivers, Darrell Waltrip came out of Owensboro, Ky., with a cockiness and bravado that initially turned some people off, talking a good game that he was one day going to become one of the sport's all-time best. But then went out and did it, more than living up to his word.

    That's why, to paraphrase an old TV commercial, when Waltrip speaks, people listen.

    It's no wonder Waltrip is in the NASCAR Hall of Fame for his talent, his wins and his three Cup championships. And almost by accident, after retiring as a driver, Waltrip became a second career success by morphing into one of the most lovable broadcasters in NASCAR today.

    With his down-home style, the elder Waltrip brother made "Boogity, boogity, boogity" a household phrase. And with each passing season, the Fox and SpeedTV personality just keeps getting more popular and lovable.

Kenny Wallace

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    To us, Kenny Wallace is the sport's court jester. You can be having a terrible day, but once you hear Wallace's yarns and infectious laughter, it makes you smile and suddenly your day isn't so bad.

    The brother of NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace and Nationwide driver Mike Wallace, Kenny has become a legend of sorts—not necessarily for his success on the race track (although he has had incredible staying power), but more so for his shtick on TV.

    He's wild and crazy on camera, and believe it or not, he's the same way off-camera as well. In other words, he's always "on."

    But without question, he's one of NASCAR's most colorful and lovable personalities.

Betty Jane France

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    The widow of the late Bill France Jr. and mother of NASCAR chairman Brian France and International Speedway Corporation president Lisa France Kennedy, Betty Jane is one of the sport's most philanthropic humanitarians.

    While she typically stays out of the spotlight for the most part, she is loved by the sport's insiders, including drivers, team owners and team personnel.

Michael Waltrip

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    Michael Waltrip is not only one of the funniest people on camera, he's also one of the smartest businessmen in he sport today.

    His "aw shucks" persona has made him wealthy, successful, popular and, yes, lovable.

    While he has only won four races in his Sprint Cup career, Waltrip has done so much more as a team owner, broadcaster and humanitarian.

    He's cut from the same cloth as Kenny Wallace, and that's not a bad cloth to be cut from.

Dale Earnhardt

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    Even today, nearly 12 years after his tragic death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the elder Dale Earnhardt remains one of the most legendary and beloved personalities in the sport.

    In fact, he's still talked about and reverently remembered by so many fans that it almost seems like The Intimidator is still with us. And in a way, he is, given all the people he touched and for being as beloved as he was.

    It sure doesn't seem like it's been 12 years, does it?

    If you're a true NASCAR fan, it will likely almost always seem like we lost Earnhardt just yesterday.

Kyle Petty

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    The son of Richard Petty, Kyle has become one of the sport's most beloved personalities for a variety of reasons.

    There was his never-give-up attitude when he was an active racer, there's his personality on TV and, of course, there's his humanitarian side. Petty was one of the founders of Victory Junction Gang Camp, which memorializes his late son, Adam, who was killed at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in a crash during practice.

    Kyle has a personality that immediately puts strangers at ease, is one of the most approachable individuals in the sport and has a heart that may be as big as the sport itself.

Richard Petty

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    Even at 75, Richard Petty is still the King of NASCAR.

    Arguably the greatest driver the sport has ever seen, Petty set countless records that will likely never be broken, including career wins (200) and most wins in a season (27). He also shares the mark for most championships by a driver with the late Dale Earnhardt (7).

    Having traded his racing helmet for his signature Charlie One Horse cowboy hat upon retiring as a driver, Petty is not only one of the most recognizable figures in the sport, he also has aged gracefully and remains as big and beloved of a fan favorite today as he was in his years behind the wheel.

    He has an infectious personality that puts strangers at ease immediately, and he has one of the most infectious smiles in the sport. He truly is the King and always will be.

Rusty Wallace

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    The redhead from St. Louis is one of the greatest drivers the sport has ever seen.

    Is it any wonder that he was elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility?

    But Wallace is much more than just a retired driver. His appearances as an ESPN analyst and the humanitarian things he does as one of the sport's best ambassadors go unacknowledged far too often.

    Wallace is the perfect example of what NASCAR is all about: a hotshot kid with a hotshot hot rod that not only fulfilled all his dreams, but has never forgotten where he came from or how the sport has been so good to him.

Dale Jarrett

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    Much like Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett remains as popular in retirement as an ESPN analyst as he was behind the wheel.

    Part of the reason why Jarrett is so lovable is the way he was raised—full of family values, modesty and humility that were instilled in him by his parents, including father Ned Jarrett, who also is on this list.

    Jarrett has long been known as one of NASCAR's straight shooters. He was long respected for his ability behind the wheel, and he continues to be respected in front of the TV camera—not to mention off-camera as well.

Tony Stewart

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    Tony Stewart reminds us of the mischievous little kid who occasionally gets into scrapes, but once he flashes that famous, impish smile, people quickly forgive him for any transgressions he may have caused.

    Not only is he a legendary Hall of Fame-worthy driver, he also has a humanitarian side that isn't talked about enough.

    He was one of the first to support the Victory Junction Gang Camp, has raised millions of dollars for a variety of charities and is one of the most grounded, selfless and giving personalities in the sport.

Kasey Kahne

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    Kasey Kahne is unquestionably one of the sport's biggest heartthrobs.

    With his piercing eyes and chiseled good looks, it's no wonder he has so many fans, particularly of the female persuasion.

    Plus, he's a heck of a race car driver. Kahne is not only one of the sport's most popular drivers, he's also one of its most personable and lovable.

Jamie Little

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    ESPN pit road reporter Jamie Little has become one of the most recognized personalities in the sport and on TV.

    A former athlete herself, she's developed a huge fanbase that tunes in both for the racesand to see and listen to her reporting, which is top-notch.

    When Little went on maternity leave last year, fans flooded her web page with well wishes and couldn’t wait for her to return. She is now back and is as great as ever.

Ned Jarrett

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    Ned Jarrett truly lives up to his name of "Gentleman Ned."

    Even though he was one of the fiercest competitors behind the wheel during his racing career, away from a race car, he is one of the nicest and most genuine individuals you'd ever want to meet, much like Richard Petty and the late Benny Parsons.

    He has a down-home style that immediately puts people he meets at ease, is a deeply religious man and has long been one of the sport's great ambassadors.

    Jarrett has scaled back in recent years—first from his outstanding racing career and then a very successful broadcasting career—but whenever he's around a race track, he's greeted warmly by everyone that sees him.

    That truly is the mark of a lovable personality.

Chocolate Myers

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    Danny "Chocolate" Myers wasn't just a gas man for the late Dale Earnhardt, he became a true artist at filling the Intimidator's gas tank, essentially becoming the prototype of what a good gas man should be.

    But even more than that, Myers didn't just keep Earnhardt's tank full, he also was one of Earnhardt's closest and most trusted friends.

    Since retiring from pit road, Myers has gone on to oversee the Richard Childress Racing Museum, as well as becoming one of the most popular personalities on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio's mid-day Trading Paint show with Rick Benjamin.

    Myers has a seemingly endless supply of stories that old and young fans just love to listen to. While he can get cranky at times, that only adds to his lovable personality.

Dave Moody

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    Dave Moody is one of the most popular and lovable broadcasters in the business, blessed with a voice and enthusiasm that makes even the slowest parts of races seem like a championship is on the line.

    A fixture in Turn 1 during race broadcasts on the Motor Racing Network, the Vermont native is closing in on a decade as the host of the very popular SiriusXM Speedway on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

    His mind is like an encyclopedia of racing, his online blog is always a must-read and while he's all-business on-air, Moody is also one of the friendliest people you'll ever want to meet.

Dick Berggren

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    Dr. Dick Berggren retired last season after one of the longest, richest and rewarding careers anyone could ask for.

    During his life, Berggren not only earned a doctorate in psychology, he also was a racer himself. He wrote for numerous publications, founded his own magazine and then found even greater success for his succinct and insightful analysis on TV broadcasts, particularly the last 12 years with Fox.

    Plus, he's always been a fan favorite, generously giving of his time to either sign autographs or simply just talk racing with fans.

    We will miss him on the Fox NASCAR telecasts this year, but hopefully he'll make at least a few special guest appearances.

Barney Hall

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    "The Voice of NASCAR" has been behind a microphone seemingly since birth—well, at least for more than the last 50 years.

    The lead voice on Motor Racing Network broadcasts of NASCAR Sprint Cup races, Hall has an outstanding broadcasting style that mirrors his personality: patient, never gets too excited, always paints a vivid picture for listeners and is one of the most knowledgeable persons in the sport.

    When he spins his yarns on-air, you can't help but stop what you're doing and listen intently because you don't want to miss the end of the story.

    A member of more Hall of Fames than you can count, Hall has been Mr. NASCAR for so long, but has never forgotten his roots, either.

    Perhaps one of the greatest compliments I've ever heard about Hall is that he is NASCAR's version of Major League Baseball broadcasting great Vin Scully.

    It doesn't get much better than that.

Joe Gibbs

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    Joe Gibbs was "The Coach" before Mike Ditka became "Da Coach."

    While he is known for his NFL coaching acumen, Gibbs was, is and always will be a gearhead first.

    He used to drag race in his younger days before football became his livelihood. But Gibbs never got away from his lifelong love affair with racing, eventually forming an organization that is synonymous with excellence, winning, humility and humanism.

    A devoutly religious man, Gibbs is not only one of the sport's most recognizable figures, he's also one of its most lovable.

Roger Penske

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    I've known Roger Penske for close to 30 years, and I can guarantee that you will never find a more personable, down-home, easy-going and friendly billionaire as him.

    That's right, "B" as in billion.

    Penske has built his business and racing lives on similar foundations of excellence, great personnel, rewarding those who do a great job, humility and a savvy that is unmatched in business or sports.

    He also has a great level of patience, waiting 30 years before he finally got that elusive first Sprint Cup championship last season—not to mention well over 20 other championships in other forms of racing, plus being the winningest team owner in Indianapolis 500 history.

    The best story I can offer of Penske's personality is that at Homestead in 2011, as he was hurrying on his way to yet another meeting, he immediately stopped in mid-stride when he saw me coming down a stairway and made a beeline to personally shake my hand and say hello.

    Even after all these years, that was one of the classiest and most humbling moves I've seen from anyone in racing.

Chris Economaki

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    The racing world lost one of its giants last September when racing media pioneer Chris Economaki passed away at the age of 91.

    Economaki became one of the best and most insightful racing broadcasters ever, both in Indy Car and NASCAR.

    He also established "National Speed Sport News," which was the Bible of racing for more than a half-century.

    It's rare to find a member of the NASCAR media who wasn't influenced at one point or other in their lives by Economaki.

    The dean of motorsports media, Economaki could spin tales not just for hours, but days. And even in this day of laptops and iPads, Economaki still wrote most of his stories—even up to his death—on an old-fashioned manual typewriter.

    Chris was a legendary character and figure in all forms of motorsports, and he will be missed for many years to come.

Carl Edwards

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    How can you not love a guy whose nickname is "Cousin Carl"?

    Carl Edwards may be from Columbia, Mo., but he's no country bumpkin. With his million-dollar smile and outstanding talent behind the wheel, plus a true rags-to-riches life story, Edwards has been a fan favorite from day one of his racing career.

    His life is almost legendary, with the way he worked as a substitute teacher and a reserve sheriff's deputy just to make enough money to support his racing habit.

    But at the same time, once he made it big in NASCAR, Edwards has never lost his humility and appreciation for all those who helped him get to where he is at today.

Claire B. Lang

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    If you listen to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, you don't need me to tell you how lovable of a personality Claire B. Lang has become to hundreds of thousands of listeners.

    I can't count the number of people who have referred to her as the "hardest working person in NASCAR media." And she truly is.

    The Green Bay, Wis., native has become SiriusXM's go-to person when it comes to live, on-the-scene reporting, and her friendly manner keeps the switchboard lit up when she's hosting talk shows like her signature Dialed In program on SiriusXM.

    If you have any doubt how beloved CBL is, just tune in to one of her shows. She actually may have as many fans—if not more—than some NASCAR drivers out there today.

Bill Elliott

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    Otherwise known as "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville" (Ga.), Bill Elliott has been one of NASCAR's most lovable personalities for well over three decades now.

    People marvel that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been voted NASCAR's Most Popular Driver for the last 10 years running, but compared to Elliott, that's a drop in the bucket.

    The charming, good looking Elliott was voted MPD an incredible 16 times in his racing career—and he's still one of the most popular sights in the few races he competes in each season.

    Let's put it this way: Even today, if a fan had a chance to get an autograph from Elliott or Dale Earnhardt Jr., it would be one of the most difficult decisions ever made. That shows how lovable Elliott was, is and likely will be for a long time to come.

Mark Martin

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    Mark Martin has been one of the most beloved drivers in NASCAR for going on 30 years.

    Not only is he a great driver—and continues to be even at the age of 52, putting drivers half his age to shame—he's also one of the most stand-up people you'd ever want to meet.

    Martin is true old school racer. He's a hard-nosed competitor, but he races his opponents as clean as any driver ever has.

    Plus, Martin is arguably the most respected driver in the Sprint Cup garage for all the accomplishments and things he's achieved in his career. I've never heard any driver ever say a bad word about Martin.

    While he's cut back to a part-time race schedule, every time Martin gets behind the wheel is nothing short of a true treat.

    He is, without question, a true racing legend.

Alan Kulwicki

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    Alan Kulwicki left his native Milwaukee with a pick-up truck, a race car towed behind it and just a few bucks in his pocket as he made his way to the Charlotte to make his fame and fortune in NASCAR.

    Kulwicki was one of the hardest workers the sport has ever seen, not just driving his race car, but also working on his car as much, if not more, than some of his own pit crew personnel.

    A university-trained engineer, Kulwicki had a brilliant mind and a personality that quickly made him a fan favorite. He also received Mark Martin-like respect from his fellow drivers for his true rags-to-riches life story.

    He was an inspiration to many, and he finally earned his long-held dream of winning a Winston Cup championship in 1992, defying innumerable odds to beat Bill Elliott for the title by a mere 10 points in the final race of the season (which was also Richard Petty's last race and Jeff Gordon's first Cup race).

    Sadly, Kulwicki wasn't able to enjoy the rewards of his championship, as he was tragically killed in a plane crash less than six months later en route to race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

    Even today, nearly 21 years after his death, Kulwicki still commands a love and respect that few drivers ever have.

Jeff Gordon

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    Although fans of the late Dale Earnhardt may disagree, it's hard not to call Jeff Gordon one of NASCAR's most lovable personalities.

    Not only is he one of the sport's great champions, with four Cup titles to his credit, he also is now the third-winningest driver in Cup history with 87 wins.

    Even though Brad Keselowski stole most of the headlines after last season's finale at Homestead because of winning the championship, Gordon received a litany of cheers from both fans and fellow competitors for winning the race.

    One of the sport's biggest humanitarians and activists, Gordon truly is as nice a guy in person as he is on camera.

    Even Clint Bowyer would likely agree.

David Poole

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    The late David Poole wasn't just a newspaper reporter, he was the yardstick by which all other NASCAR reporters was measured by.

    The lead NASCAR writer/columnist for the Charlotte Observer, Poole was one of the most colorful personalities in the business for what many would simply say was "just David's way."

    Poole always asked the toughest, most poignant questions and never backed down when challenged. That's why he was the most-read writer in the business and a mentor and example to many.

    His expert analysis and encyclopedia-like mind eventually led to becoming co-host of The Morning Drive on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, where he was as on-point on the air as he was in print.

    He also authored a number of books that were among the most-read in the sport. And he was involved in numerous charitable initiatives, not for the notoriety, but because he truly loved helping people and giving back to the sport that had been so good to him over the years.

    Sadly, like Earnhardt, Kulwicki and Parsons, Poole left us far too soon, dying at the age of 50. He suffered a heart attack shortly after signing off the air following an on-air shift back in April 2009. The NASCAR media has never been the same since Poole left us—and it likely never will be.

Bobby Allison

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    Although his racing career came to an abrupt and almost fatal halt in 1988, when he was almost killed in a wreck at Pocono, Bobby Allison has remained one of the most lovable fan favorites in NASCAR to this very day.

    Part of that is due to his great racing career, and the other part is his friendly, affable personality.

    At the same time, Allison has undergone perhaps more tragedy than any person in NASCAR. He lost both sons to accidents within a year of each other—Clifford while practicing at Michigan International Speedway, and Davey in a helicopter mishap while trying to land in the infield of Talladega Superspeedway.

    Even with unfathomable tragedy that most people could never comprehend, Allison has persevered and continued on.

    And even today, he's still immensely popular, always ready with an autograph and a smile to fans that simply want to meet a NASCAR legend.

    Follow me on Twitter @Jerry Bonkowski.