It is no secret what is the heart and soul of NASCAR. It's not the money that Sprint, Nationwide or Camping World puts out to be the champion. It's not the track promoters that spend the money in commercials, and it is certainly not the sponsors getting their product exposure every weekend.
No, the heart and soul of NASCAR is in the people that sit in those stands every weekend. The fans, young and old, have made NASCAR what it is today.
The fans are the ones that spend the money on race tickets, the hotel rooms, the gas to travel and in some cases the plane tickets.
NASCAR fans are the ones that purchase their favorite t-shirts, hats and die-casts of the driver they root for each week. They are also the ones that argue every Sunday as to who is better at winning, or who's the driver most hated. Each one comes to the track wearing familiar colors of their driver, just showing the passion that the sport brings out.
All this means that popularity in NASCAR can be defined by its fan base. At the same time, popularity in the garage has another way of defining the sport.
Drivers have a way of earning respect on the track, but that carries over in the garage. Some drivers have their peers come for advice, sometimes for issues in the race and sometimes it's advice outside the race.
Popularity not only defines a driver, it simply defines the sport.
Who is the most popular driver of all time? Is it someone who is defined by his fan base, by the respect in the garage, the amount of merchandise sold or a combination of all three?
In simple terms, NASCAR is all about popularity. The sport got this big because it became the popular sport in the country.
But who is the most popular driver of all-time? Let's count down the 50 most popular drivers in NASCAR to find out.
As one of the originators of the speedway era in NASCAR in the early 1960s, Fireball Roberts was a name everyone recognized in the sport.
Roberts' career was most significantly defined on the original NASCAR speedway, Darlington. His ability to run fast and maintain control on the unique track got him four wins in the late 50s and early 60s.
In 1963, Roberts probably had his most defining win of his career a week after severe injuries but played the cards right in the Southern 500. Saving his equipment and running to the front with 75 laps to go, Roberts ran away with the victory.
His unfortunate death a year later from pneumonia following a scary crash with Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson cut short a promising career.
There really is no telling how far "Fireball" could have gone in the sport.
His name was defined by a small budget trying to make it big. But, Carl Long does have a place on this list because it was one incident that sparked his popularity among the fans.
In 2004 at Rockingham, Long made the lineup, but he and some other drivers on the starting grid had the unfortunate term of "field fillers." By today's terms, these would lead to what we now call "start and park" teams.
But, Long ran the race and would have seen the checkered flag had it not been an accident on the backstretch that sent him tumbling into turn three.
The problem with that wreck, more than the damage, was that car was the only one Long owned and put a major dent in his pocketbook.
Long continued to race, but after an engine fiasco at the Sprint All-Star Race a few years ago that saw him penalized $250,000, we didn't hear much from him.
But, who would have thought that one wreck would set off the popularity, and amount of help, for someone just trying to earn a living.
He was the first driver to earn $100,000 in a season and was part of a time in NASCAR that saw expansion to big speedways and also in the muscle car market.
Fred Lorenzen was a driver on the cutting edge as he would travel cross country putting NASCAR on the market and in the eyes of the public. The interesting thing about Lorenzen was that he never ran a full schedule. In those days, NASCAR was running upwards of 50 races a year, making the modern 36-race schedule seem rather mundane.
But, Lorenzen did it simply because it was something he wanted to do.
These days, Lorenzen focuses mainly on the stock market and makes a lot of money using his portfolio. But, as far as popularity, you can't hate someone for doing what they wanted in life.
If there was ever a driver that seemed to be made to be popular, it is David Reutimann. He's hard working, kind to the people he's around and can simply drive a car.
After teaming up with Michael Waltrip Racing to drive the "Aaron's Dream Machine" in the Sprint Cup Series, Reutimann has gained his own following of fans.
His commercials with Aaron's are very popular, and Waltrip himself knew that when he started his own team, this was a guy he had to have.
Although his first win came thanks to rain in last year's Coca-Cola 600, Reutimann made sure that was forgotten when he outright won at Chicago this summer.
Who knows where Reutimann's popularity will go, but you can bet he's living his own dream in NASCAR.
Popularity among drivers doesn't limit one to just being behind the wheel. It can be both behind the wheel and behind the scenes.
Richard Childress was a very successful driver in his time, but his popularity skyrocketed after he decided to step out of the race car. It was thanks in part to him becoming an owner and signing a very tough, very rugged and no-nonsense driver in Dale Earnhardt.
From that point on, it was hard to argue that Childress would be popular in NASCAR.
His legacy is set and is still growing with every season.
"Gentleman" Ned Jarrett was as popular a driver as he was a broadcaster. In fact, he was one of the first to make the transition from behind the wheel to on the microphone.
One of the nicest guys in the garage in the early years of NASCAR, Jarrett won titles in 1961 and 1965. When he came on as a broadcaster, it was one of the most natural transitions anyone had seen. Jarrett provided great insight into the drivers, their thought process and was part of the great TNN coverage team with Eli Gold and Buddy Baker.
It's appropriate that this year Jarrett is being inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame as he rightfully earned the spot.
Whether at the wheel or at the mic, Jarrett is as popular now as in his driving days.
There has only been one name in NASCAR with the distinction of going through four generations of drivers. That name is Petty.
Kyle was third in line in the family to drive and had a very successful career in NASCAR. He may not have reached a level like his famous father, but Kyle certainly held his own.
His last victory came in 1995 at Dover where he famously collapsed after getting out of the car since he was so hot and tired.
But, his career and life took a dramatic turn after his son, Adam, was killed at New Hampshire. Petty has since gotten out of the car but has always remained loyal to his racing roots as he is part of SPEED's NASCAR Raceday and NASCAR Victory Lane.
He also works play-by-play for TNT and is not one for hiding his emotion. He wears a No. 45 cap with the number blackened out in the middle, signifying that no one will run that number in NASCAR.
Staying loyal to his son, his popularity continued to grow as so many people have given to the Victory Junction Gang Camp in Adam's memory.
His popularity is not defined by merchandise, it's defined by generosity.
He was once known as NASCAR's "Iron Man," but Ricky Rudd's popularity could be defined by his longevity and toughness.
Any driver willing to tape his eyes open in order to race is beyond tough. That happened at Daytona in the early 1980s following a crash in the qualifying race. But, Rudd would not be denied and a few weeks later, would go on to win.
There is no one that defines toughness as much as Rudd. In 1998, his lone victory showcased Rudd's refusal to yield.
The cooling system in his car failed, but he was in the lead at Martinsville despite the temperatures beyond miserable. Rudd would win the race, pull into victory lane and have to be pulled from the car in order to get some fresh air. That is determination.
Popular because he was tough, something many of today's drivers have taken to heart.
The only reason Adam is low on this list is because his popularity was cut off before it could ever start. The fourth generation driver was extremely successful before entering NASCAR and had all the tools capable of getting to the top of the sport.
But, one tragic afternoon took that all away.
Kyle, Richard and the entire Petty family were devastated when such talent and such charm was robbed from NASCAR.
Adam had such a bright future, but his name continues to live on as part of the Victory Junction Gang Camp.
One of the first big stars in NASCAR, Joe Weatherly had the distinction of being one of the most dominant drivers in the early years of the sport.
Weatherly started stock car racing in 1952, winning 49 of the 83 races he entered, a staggering winning percentage. He was also the champion in 1962 and 1963. He was also involved in the finish of the first Daytona 500, despite being two laps down to the leader.
Unfortunately, the career of Weatherly was cut short in 1964 after a very scary and tragic accident. Although in his death, NASCAR did mandate the window net, despite it taking seven years to do so.
His career was cut short, but his popularity reigns supreme.
As one of the originators of the great "Alabama Gang," Donnie Allison was one of the most popular drivers in the 1970s.
Despite only competing in 20 or less events a year, Allison was one that every driver knew could be a winner at any point. Allison only has 10 wins to his credit, but that includes wins at some of NASCAR's famed tracks, including both Charlotte and Bristol.
Allison remains one of the most popular drivers from the early days and continues the legacy of one of the more famous names in NASCAR.
For Dave Marcis, his racing career spanned over 30 years and saw him win only five times. He wasn't popular because of his racing, nor his success.
Instead, it was his feet.
Marcis found a unique way to protect his feet from the heat of the exhaust while in the car...wing-tipped shoes.
They certainly seemed to work for him for a long time.
Simply put, Tim Richmond was the first "rock star" of NASCAR. He loved to party, was boisterous and at the same time could drive a race car.
That attitude grew a fan base that was extremely dedicated to their driver. His success in the 1980s nearly had him win a championship but also came at a price.
He took time off from racing because of illness, something he couldn't figure out but many could see was affecting him. In the end, it was that illness that took Richmond away from racing.
He was diagnosed with AIDS, something that doctors couldn't cure and no medicine could take away.
His piece this year on ESPN's "30 for 30" series was one of the most watched programs by drivers, fans and media alike. The short film provided great insight to a man that simply lived on the edge, and eventually, it caught up with him.
Who knows how popular Richmond would be today if he was still with us.
The Labonte brothers are the only family to have the distinction of winning NASCAR championships at it's highest level.
That honor was achieved by younger brother Bobby in 2000. He tried to follow up his victory in 2001 with another run but didn't make it. But even before his title, Labonte had gotten the break he needed to become a very strong and very popular driver.
In 1995, he signed on with Joe Gibbs Racing to race the No. 18 car and got his first win. But, the most success Labonte saw in his career came at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Fans knew from 1996 through 2002 that if NASCAR came to Atlanta, Labonte was going to be hard to beat. In fact, it was where he locked up his 2000 championship.
Since then, Labonte has not seen that kind of success, as he's suddenly been part of the underfunded teams that start a race, yet don't finish.
Maybe next year that success and popularity will return, thanks to JTG Daugherty Racing.
Another driver turned broadcaster that saw some success in NASCAR was Ricky Craven. Although early in his career he didn't get the breaks he needed, it was Rick Hendrick that saw the potential.
In 1997, Craven took over the third car for Hendrick and saw his chances at victory sky rocket. He won the Winston Open that year to qualify for the Winston event at Charlotte. But, he would not get his first career victory until 2001.
But, Craven's most talked about moment came two years later at Darlington. After running to the front of the field, he and Kurt Busch had an intense battle that saw both bump and beat on each other for seven corners. Coming off the final corner, Craven had his Pontiac inside Kurt Busch's Ford and the two put on a side-by-side battle right to the finish.
Craven would take the win by 0.002 seconds—the closest finish in NASCAR history.
That win would be Craven's last and would be the final one for Pontiac. But, in that moment, Craven earned the respect and popularity at a track that he had to tame the hard way.
Love him or hate him, Kyle Busch has earned his popularity the same way he goes for victory...by any means necessary.
Busch's popularity has taken off in the last three years since he signed on with Joe Gibbs Racing, and he has become a driver that fans simply can't stop talking about. When he wins, he lets everyone know it, not just on the radio but after exiting his car. His trademark bow to the fans has become a staple at the end of a race just like a burnout.
But, it's also his rambunctious side that has become popular with many fans. His walkouts, his rants and his emotion have given many fans someone to actually hate on race weekends.
Like Busch said a while back, "As long as they're making noise, I'm happy." That seemingly won't change as he is not even in the prime of his career.
In the mid-1990s, Geoff Bodine was having a lot of success as a driver, winning races and earning a lot of respect from his fellow drivers.
But, it was the first Craftsman Truck race at Daytona that put his popularity and his will to live on the map.
The crash that sent his Chevrolet Silverado into the outside wall, tearing it apart and causing a fire to ignite is one of the scariest in recent memory. Everyone at the track, on TV and in the broadcast booth had to hold their breath to see if things would turn out alright.
The image of Bodine being carted off to the ambulance, all the while trying to take off his oxygen mask, earned the respect of everyone.
Bodine's popularity in NASCAR now has him working in the Research and Development Center, focusing solely on safety.
What a perfect fit.
Another member of the Alabama Gang, Bobby Allison's career is one that is among the finest in NASCAR. It has earned him a spot in the NASCAR Hall of Fame in the second class of inductees.
In his racing career, Allison won 84 races and has the 1983 championship to his credit. However, thanks to one track and another family member, Allison's popularity in NASCAR was set in stone.
It was termed "Allison Wonderland" in 1988 as Bobby won the Daytona 500 with son Davey placing second. It was one of the greatest races NASCAR had ever run, but it was one that Bobby never remembers.
A year earlier, Bobby was involved in a horrific crash at Talladega that saw his car destroyed and part of the safety fencing torn down on the front straightaway, which eventually led to the restrictor plates used at Daytona and Talladega. Later in 1988, Allison had a near fatal accident at Pocono that caused major head injuries, forcing him to retire.
He still remains a fixture in NASCAR to this day, and his legacy will never be forgotten.
With the nickname "Sliced Bread," everyone knew that Joey Logano would be a popular driver. No one could have expected him to be so popular so soon.
In 2008, Logano was in the Nationwide Series when he broke through with a victory at Nashville in just his third start. At the same time, then-Joe Gibbs Racing driver Tony Stewart announced he would leave the organization to start his own team. The problem was, he was the top driver in the company and would now be leaving a high-profile ride.
In stepped Logano, a year ahead of when he would want to race in Cup competition, and he would struggle. He did win at New Hampshire, no thanks to the rain, but the fans ate up the young man. At the same time, he was one of the more quiet drivers, as he didn't exactly show his emotions when he got angry at other competitors.
That all changed in 2010 when his career really took off. His remark following a run-in with Kevin Harvick at Pocono was the most infamous quote of the season.
"His wife wears the firesuit in the family," he said, referring to Harvick's wife, Delana.
The kid had some guts in saying that, and almost instantly, his popularity soared to new heights. Where's it going from here?
That is yet to be seen as his career is just getting warmed up.
Probably the first driver to turn car owner and have great success was Junior Johnson. His 50 career wins are not his biggest credit but more of what he discovered in NASCAR that still continues today.
His win in the 1960 Daytona 500 can be credited to him discovering the use of drafting. With a car that was 22 mph slower than the competitors, he used the draft to find his way to the front and eventually win a race.
Johnson's popularity in NASCAR was all about his ability as a team owner in the 1970s and 1980s. Johnson won six NASCAR titles as a car owner, three each from Cale Yarborough (1976-1978) and Darrell Waltrip (1981-1982, 1985).
That popularity among his peers and fans earned him a spot in the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class.
A lot of respect from both the fans and the drivers goes toward Johnson, and his popularity continues to grow as he remains a constant figure in the sport.
How can you not love a driver with the nickname "Onion." It's not because Todd Bodine has a bad smell or makes people cry.
Bodine has a lot of layers as he's competed in all three top NASCAR touring series, but his best success has come in the Camping World Truck Series.
He has 25 wins behind the wheel of the truck and is a two-time champion in the series, winning his second title this season.
What's next for this tough driver? Wait until 2011 to find out.
As the youngest of the Wallace brothers, Kenny has earned the popularity of his peers and the fans for being one of the more humorous figures in the garage.
That humor has also landed him a spot on NASCAR Raceday and Victory Lane, where his craziness just makes the weekend at the track more fun.
Although his NASCAR career didn't see victory lane in Cup competition, Wallace admits his proudest moment was finishing second behind Dale Earnhardt in his final victory. He says that the he felt he should have finished second to Dale that afternoon, and since his passing, he has felt that is how it was meant to be.
Kenny is still competing in the Nationwide Series, but it's his antics on the pre-race and post-race shows that put him on this list.
I don't know what it is about NASCAR drivers, but each likes to make their own stamp on a victory.
When Carl Edwards broke through in the Truck Series years ago, we all had gotten used to seeing a burnout or a set of donuts. But, when Edwards won his first race, he decided to do something different, and at the same time, save the equipment.
He climbed out of the cab, stood on the bed...and back-flipped to the asphalt.
Since then, "Cousin Carl" has been doing back flips in the Nationwide Series and the Sprint Cup Series after each victory.
It was his unique celebration that earned him the popularity with the fans, and it is surely to only go up with each season.
It only took one season for Denny Hamlin to become one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR. It was simply because he gave the champ a run for his money.
When he won the season finale at Homestead, Hamlin made the point to say that his team would win a championship in the next few years. Bold prediction, or was he reaching for a miracle? It's hard to say, but Hamlin made the most of the opportunity.
His popularity among the drivers in seeing how he backed up his word made him very popular. When someone can back up what they say, that's big.
Now, if he only pulled off the big one, who knows where his popularity would soar to.
But then again, the driver that does beat Johnson for the championship will be the most celebrated driver in the sport.
It took just two races to cement Jamie McMurray's popularity in NASCAR.
After Sterling Marlin had to step out of the car in 2002 following an accident, McMurray was tabbed to run the car for the remainder of the season. After just two races, McMurray put his name on the map as he won at Charlotte. The smile on his face told the entire story.
After a trying relationship at Ganassi, McMurray went to Roush and saw some success but only two victories.
But, this year it was a season of living a dream for McMurray. A win in the Daytona 500, then at Indianapolis and again at Charlotte was by far the best season of his entire career.
That smile, the joy and the happiness grew on the fans and will only continue as the years progress.
Probably one of the nicest and humblest figures in NASCAR had to be Benny Parsons. He wasn't very outspoken, but he spoke out when needed.
His toughness and will to win is what gave him the 1973 championship. But as a broadcaster, he was able to reach an entire new audience, one that was more in tune with today's NASCAR.
Who can ever forget the "Golden Benny" which was given to one team or organization after their performance each week. He also went as far as challenging the pit crews on the air, saying that if a team performed a four-tire pit stop in under 13 seconds, each member would be given $100 cash from his own account.
These days, those pit stops are normal, but it was something when it happened.
But, when he announced that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006, everyone was wondering how long Parsons would be around to provide insight to the drivers. Despite the treatment working, later that year he was readmitted to the hospital because of complications. Less than a month later, Parsons succumbed to the complications.
His nickname was "The Professor," and in NASCAR, it's hard to find those kind of legends to give that kind of insight. Parsons, or as many knew him BP, is still missed to this day.
When you have a nickname like "Happy," it's hard not to be liked.
But for Kevin Harvick, his popularity came at a sacrifice. After Dale Earnhardt's death, Harvick was named the driver to take over the GM Goodwrench Chevrolet. The car wasn't black anymore, and the No. 3 wasn't on the door panel.
It was a white No. 29, and Harvick was at the wheel.
He debuted at Rockingham, and right away, it was seen that the talent was there. Another three races, he gave the entire NASCAR community a chance to heal as he took the GM Goodwrench Chevrolet to victory lane in Atlanta after a photo finish with Jeff Gordon.
That race has been nicknamed "Won From Above" simply because of how all the numbers lined up. Harvick's third race at the wheel, fourth race of the year in the No. 29 and he qualified fifth and won the race.
4-29-51 equals No. 3 in this case cause those numbers are Dale Earnhardt's birthday.
That will never happen again, guaranteed.
His win sent Harvick's popularity through the roof, and now he finally has accepted the role of being the driver taking over the Earnhardt legacy.
That will lead him to much success down the road.
The patriarch of the greatest name in NASCAR and one of the five newest inductees for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Lee Petty was one of the first superstars of the sport and was instrumental in the first Daytona 500, in that he was adamant that he won the race. Johnny Beauchamp was declared the winner at the track, but Petty wouldn't accept it, saying his car was the leader at the line.
After two days of debate, photos confirmed Petty's claim, and he will forever be known as the first winner of the Daytona 500.
Petty was also credited with starting the longest-running team in the sport, Petty Enterprises.
His career ended in 1960 after a crash at Daytona, but he has forever been credited as being one of the pioneers of the sport we know today.
Politics aren't exactly something people talk about in happiness. In fact, it causes a lot of arguments.
But, when it comes to NASCAR, they have their own "Mayor."
That nickname goes to Jeff Burton, who is one of the more outspoken drivers in the garage. He has been credited as being one of the biggest in the safety movement following Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001. Burton also is one that doesn't sugar coat what he feels and will speak his mind.
For Burton, it's all about respect, and that gets him fans both in the garage and in the grandstands.
Burton admits that after he is done driving, he would like to get into politics. Most of the garage area will agree that if he does go that route, he will be just as successful as he has been in NASCAR.
He'll have a lot of votes from the fans—that's for sure.
Probably the fiercest rival to Richard Petty in the 1960s and 1970s was David Pearson. In fact, the two drivers had careers that nearly were parallel in statistics.
The two sit 1-2 in all time victories, but the two were most famously known for their duel in the 1976 Daytona 500. Pearson up high, Petty down low, and the two connect out of Turn 4, with each hitting the wall. Petty slid to the infield but stopped just short of the finish line.
Pearson was able to fire up the engine, and then drove the car to a slow victory.
Thought to go into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on the first class of inductees, Pearson was surprisingly left out. But, he was the first name read for the 2011 class of inductees, as his statistics and demeanor were more than enough to get the respect of his peers and the fans.
His rivalry with Petty was the most popular one in the early days of NASCAR and has earned him much respect from his fellow drivers and fans.
Kurt Busch became popular probably in the most unorthodox of ways. Between 2000 and 2002, Busch had an intense rivalry with Jimmy Spencer that saw the two have numerous run-ins on the track.
But, it was an altercation in the garage at Michigan in 2003 that put Busch on the map, seeing as though it meant he had to take a punch.
At that point, fans began to hate Busch as he would go on to win the following week at Bristol. Then, during the first Chase for the Cup, Busch made a believer out of everyone that he was champion material. He won the first Chase by eight points, giving Jack Roush his second of two titles.
The following year, Busch found himself on the wrong end of the law...literally. After an altercation with police in Phoenix, Busch was released from Roush and soon began his career with Roger Penske.
And what a career he's had driving the blue deuce. The fans have grown to appreciate this young talent, and have also been introduced to a new way of celebrating a win. Busch has termed it the "unwind lap," in that he drives around the track backwards.
Probably one of the more unique celebrations NASCAR has seen, but it sure is cool for the fans after he wins.
He's not overly loud, but when Matt Kenseth talks, many listen.
The 2003 NASCAR Cup champion was always cool on the track, not being aggressive and earned the respect of many drivers. It also meant that when he did get angry, it was something to talk about.
His run-in with Jeff Gordon in 2006 at Bristol was a hot topic, but it showed that Kenseth was not one to take lightly.
A former Busch Series champion as well, Kenseth's cool demeanor has been very popular with the fans because he's not one to get angry. But, he will let you know when he is.
The older of the Labonte brothers, Terry has enjoyed a guaranteed Hall of Fame career in NASCAR. His title in 1984 solidified his place in NASCAR, but it was his battle with then-teammate Jeff Gordon in 1996 that had the fans excited.
When Labonte took over the lead late in the season, fans knew it would come down to the final races. Plus, Labonte soon had to battle a broken hand he suffered in a crash during practice one weekend.
Sure enough, it didn't matter as on the final weekend of the season, Labonte won the title and brother Bobby won the race.
Labonte retired following the 2006 season but has made appearances for Michael Waltrip Racing and other teams throughout the last few years.
One thing is for sure, the "Ice Man" was always cool when behind the wheel.
In a way, Michael Waltrip's popularity skyrocketed because of tragedy. He got the big break he was looking for thanks to Dale Earnhardt in 2001.
His first race out in the NAPA car, Waltrip won the Daytona 500. But, he didn't celebrate as Earnhardt died on the last lap. It was as though the celebration for the fans and Michael was robbed.
However, as the years progressed, Waltrip continued to win, as his four Cup victories came on restrictor plate tracks. He won the night race at Daytona in 2002, following that up with a win in the rain-shortened 2003 Daytona 500.
His most popular and signature win came at Talladega that same year when Waltrip popped out the roof of his Chevrolet, thanks to the new escape hatch. It was almost as though the driver was a human jack-in-the-box.
Waltrip is still popular today with the fans even though he is no longer a driver. "Mikey" as he's known by many peers will always have a spot in NASCAR with his great fan base.
A young face, great driving ability and great determination sum up Kasey Kahne.
But, his popularity among the ladies is rather obvious. He's an eye catcher for young girls, and for the guys his driving ability is second to none.
Whether he was driving the No. 9 Dodge Charger, the No. 9 Budweiser Ford or now the Red Bull Toyota, Kahne's fan base is secure.
Look for this young man to continue to grow in support for years to come.
Everyone believes this man should be higher than he is going to be on this list. I admit, he would be if it was not for the frustration that his fans have seen the last few years.
Dale Earnhardt Jr's popularity was secure simply because of the name, and after his father's death, it grew 10-fold. His win at Daytona in 2001 was the win that healed a NASCAR nation.
Now, his own "Junior Nation" follows him loyally but has been frustrated. Where's the success?
It will come, but the question is when. After parting with DEI in 2007, Junior came to Hendrick Motorsports and right away saw himself in the title hunt.
Since then, nothing.
No matter what, he will still have a following, but the frustration will need to turn to celebration.
Still, the seven-time most popular driver is still the hottest-selling driver in NASCAR. As long as the fans buy the products, his popularity is secure.
Another one of the pioneers of the sport was Cale Yarborough. He was the first NASCAR champion to win back-to-back-to-back championships from 1976-1978.
But, what really set off his popularity in NASCAR was the moment that blasted NASCAR into the main stream.
The 1979 Daytona 500 put not only him, but NASCAR on the map. His battle with Donnie Allison was shaping up to be one of the best the sport had seen to that point. What they got was a moment that has been classified as the No. 1 greatest moment in the sport.
It wasn't the collision on the backstretch, nor was it the wreck entering Turn 3.
It was simply the fight.
Yarborough would become a car owner in the 1990s and still remains a fixture in NASCAR. He has missed the first two ballots for the NASCAR Hall of Fame but will definitely be inducted within the next few years.
I am not sure what made Alan Kulwicki more popular. Was it his way of knowing exactly how to adjust the car due to his college degree?
Could it be his unique way of celebrating a victory, his "Polish Victory Lap?" Or, could it have something to do with his most famous sponsor, Hooters?
Well, chances are that it could be all of them because Kulwicki was one of the most popular guys in the garage because he was one of the few drivers in the early days to work on the cars himself. It was that kind of attitude that earned a lot of respect from the folks in the garage.
When he won the 1992 title, it was the greatest battle for the championship NASCAR had ever seen. Five drivers with a shot at the crown, and in the end by leading just one more lap than his closest competitor, Kulwicki took his lone championship.
That victory lap he took that afternoon would ultimately be the last one of his career. He would lose his life in a plane crash the following year.
Kulwicki's name is still spoke of today as many more drivers are hands-on when working on the cars. It is a shame that he was taken so suddenly.
Whether it was at the wheel of the Home Depot car, the Office Depot Chevrolet or his own late model, Tony Stewart is one of the most talked about and popular drivers to come into NASCAR in the last decade.
He wasn't always this giving, as his early years in the sport saw him have an attitude and eventually take anger management classes.
That seemed to help out a lot, as not only did it increase his ability to control his temper, it also helped him become a better driver. That soon led him to purchase his own race team and also buy the Eldora Speedway.
His popularity among the fans is evident by his nickname "Smoke." It's easy to remember and fans know when they hear that name who is being talked about.
Stewart has proven to be a winning driver, car owner, track owner and a generous human being with his numerous donations to the Victory Junction Gang Camp.
This man isn't blowing smoke, but he does know how to smoke the competition.
One time...two time...three time...four time...FIVE-TIME CHAMPION.
When Jimmie Johnson came to Cup competition in 2002, he made an immediate impact with the fans and drivers by winning the pole in the Daytona 500. When he made the first Chase in 2004, he finished third, then second the next season.
Each year his popularity among the fans grew by leaps and bounds. But, who knew that popularity had two different sides.
Johnson is without question the champ these days in NASCAR. He became the first man to win back-to-back Chase titles from 2006-2007, then tied Cale Yarborough with three straight in 2008.
But, at the same time fans began to get tired of seeing his title run, and some jeers came his way. But, the last few years, that has not been the case. With his fourth consecutive title in 2009, and now his fifth consecutive title this year, more fans are beginning to appreciate what Johnson has done.
Only question among everyone in the sport that keeps coming up is "Could he continue this dominance?"
If he does, look for this man's popularity to soar like the Space Shuttle.
Not very many drivers can say they spent the majority of their career with one team, but in the case of Rusty Wallace, that is the case.
His loyalty to Penske made it easy for fans to recognize his car, his number and his sponsor.
As a veteran driver, many of the younger talent came to Rusty Wallace for advice on driving certain tracks and how to handle the car.
These days, Wallace is always a fixture at the track, especially when ESPN is doing the races. His transition to the broadcast booth is one of the smoothest by any former driver. His excitement for the sport is uncanny, especially when NASCAR heads to Bristol. It's by far his favorite track.
Wallace is as popular with today's fans as when he was driving. Look for him to be in the Hall of Fame in the next few years.
Before even stepping into the broadcast booth, Darrell Waltrip was certainly a character in NASCAR. His crazy antics in the garage are well known just as much as his ability to drive the race car.
Who could ever forget his infamous "Icky Shuffle" after his win in the 1989 Daytona 500 or his fully chromed out car and driver suit in the Winston from 1997 through 2000.
Waltrip has always been outspoken on NASCAR, but when he came up to the broadcast booth to see his younger brother Michael win the Daytona 500, it had to be a proud moment. Unfortunately, he also had to see his long-time friend, Dale Earnhardt, pass away in the final corner.
However, he has become ever popular alongside Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds when FOX does the first half of the season.
Everyone knows the green flag has waved when they hear DW's famous words.
"Boogity...Boogity...Boogity. Let's go racing, boys."
Another driver that was popular among his peers and fans alike was Davey Allison. And, much like his fellow driver Alan Kulwicki, he was taken away from the sport way too quickly.
Much like his father, Davey was a great driver and knew his way around the race car. He won the Daytona 500 and had an opportunity to win the championship in 1992, only to have a wreck take him out of the running.
But, it was his death the following year that really showed how well he was liked.
The race after his death was at Pocono, and every driver was taking the loss hard. At the end of the afternoon, it was Dale Earnhardt winning in his famed No. 3. But, after the race, he pulled to the start/finish line with his crew. They handed him a flag bearing Allison's No. 28, and everyone took a bow in honor of the fallen competitor.
Earnhardt didn't show much emotion, but the loss hit him hard as everyone could tell.
His loss hit everyone hard in the sport, but much like the slogan for Allison since his death, he truly is gone but not forgotten.
The 1999 champion, Dale Jarrett, is on this list not just because of his popularity among the fans and the drivers.
He was popular especially for the commercials he did with UPS. The commercials featuring the UPS team trying to get Dale to drive their "big brown truck" are among some of the most creative ever seen for NASCAR.
Sure, he eventually caved in and did drive the truck. Not in competition, but he did drive one.
As a broadcaster, racer or delivery man, Jarrett is a popular figure in NASCAR.
How can you not like this man?
Mark Martin is without question the most popular, most respected and overall most liked driver in the garage. Walk through the garage and not one person has anything negative to say about the veteran driver.
Here's a man that elected to go to a part-time schedule after the 2006 season—and did so for two years. But then got asked to drive the No. 5 car for Hendrick Motorsports beginning in 2009, and it's almost like his career was resurrected.
Martin's final year of full-time driving looks to be in 2011, but it's safe to say this man is not going to lose any popularity among his peers when he walks away.
Whether the car had a brightly painted rainbow or it had red-hot flames, Jeff Gordon has always been one of the more popular drivers among the fans.
At the same time, early in his career, he was also well-hated. When you have championship seasons that saw him win seven, 10 and 13 races in a matter of three years, haters will be there. It got so bad where fans wore shirts questioning Gordon's sexual preference. That was a little extreme, but when someone has that much success, anything could be fair game.
But, Gordon has changed the last few years in his career. He's not just racing for him and his wife, he's racing for his family.
It's quite different to see the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet at the track with his three-year old daughter, Ella, and also his new son, Leo and wife, Ingrid. It's a different Gordon, one that has reduced the haters and increased his popularity.
Any driver that earns the respect of the Intimidator is certainly popular among everyone in the garage.
He was the original "Most Popular Driver" in NASCAR. Bill Elliott certainly did many firsts in his career. He was the first to eclipse the 210 mph mark on a superspeedway then won the first Winston Million.
Elliott continued his career with his own team in the mid-1990s but got a resurgence in 2001 when he signed with Evernham Motorsports to bring Dodge back to NASCAR and also bring back the No. 9, which he made famous in the 1980s.
Elliott won three races for Evernham, including the Brickyard 400 in 2002.
These days, Elliott is running a partial schedule with the Wood Brothers, but to his legions of fans, he will always be Awesome Bill from Dawsonville.
There has never been, nor ever will be again, another Dale Earnhardt. He was the one driver that could exemplify what NASCAR is all about.
He could be the most hated and feared enemy on the track, yet when it came to helping others, there was no one with a bigger heart. In the rear view mirror, seeing that black No. 3 meant you had to move or will be moved by force. But if you saw that smile beneath the huge mustache, Earnhardt was the kindest man you could ever meet.
When he died in 2001, NASCAR itself lost something. It's like a part of the garage, the grandstands and the starting grid was taken away.
But, in a way, his legacy lives on. We still see fans wear the No. 3 to the track, and we still see a hauler bearing his number in the souvenir areas. The documentary "Dale" is one of the most watched films in recent memory.
Earnhardt is still here, although not physically. We can surely look up to the sky and see those huge sunglasses looking down, probably smiling and happy we are continuing to enjoy the sport he loved.
No personality in NASCAR has the longevity, the recognition and the respect like Richard Petty. For over 40 years, "The King" has been a fixture in the sport.
His seven championships, 200 wins and numerous poles will never be equaled. But, it's the man outside those statistics that make him the most popular driver, and man, in NASCAR history.
No other driver, or personality for that matter, will take as much time with his fans to sign an autograph, talk to people and give the time of day to drivers. Petty retired from driving in 1992, but in a way, he just never left. Petty just took a different path and saw the sport grow to what it is today.
When everyone sees that No. 43, they know who drove it. That's what earned him induction into the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame. Everyone knew what Petty meant to this sport.
He truly is, and forever will be, known as "The King." No driver will ever reach the popularity of Petty—and that is fact.