The sounds from Fox's telecast of Sunday's Coors Light Pole Qualifying session for the Daytona 500 were almost unmistakable.
Driving the No. 88 Chevrolet, Dale Earnhardt Jr. claimed the provisional pole during his two-lap run. The crowd at Daytona International Speedway erupted in a sea of cheers, as the eight-time Hamburger Helper Most Popular Driver—an award voted on by the fans claimed his first restrictor-plate pole in his 400th start.
There's little doubt that "Junior" is the face of the sport, even if he hasn't won a race since June 2008. All one needs to do is look at his firesuit to know that advertisers realize the same thing.
Here are 20 current drivers—including Dale Jr.—that may or may not have some of the biggest fanbases in NASCAR.
There are a pair of components that went into making this list.
The first 10 drivers are based on this writer's personal views on drivers who have caught the eye of the fans over the past few years, due to their actions or on-track performance.
The second 10 drivers are based on the 10 finalists of last year's Most Popular Driver voting, an entity currently led by the National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA).
Sometimes, all it takes is five words to get 160,000 fans on your side.
For example, take Brad Keselowski's introduction at Bristol last August. After Busch bumped "Special K" out of the lead during the Nationwide race a night earlier, Keselowski took to the microphone like the rest of the drivers in the field for the Saturday night event. (It should be noted that Juan Pablo Montoya told him to say the words in the video.)
Even though Bill Elliott no longer runs a full-time schedule on the Sprint Cup circuit, "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville" earned the respect of many fans during his prime.
Elliott won the Most Popular Driver award 16 times in his career, earning 10 straight between 1991-2000. "Million Dollar Bill" took his name off the ballot in 2001 to honor Dale Earnhardt's career, and did so again after winning the award in 2002.
It's possible that if Elliott stayed on the ballot, he could have taken a couple Most Popular Driver awards from Earnhardt Jr.
One of the most iconic moments of the 2010 season came from last season's Daytona 500, when Jamie McMurray surprised the racing world by winning the "Great American Race" weeks after his Sprint Cup career was in jeopardy after being released by Roush Fenway Racing.
McMurray also took the No. 1 Chevrolet into Victory Lane for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing at the Brickyard 400 and the fall race at Charlotte, two prestigious races on the Sprint Cup slate.
His victory celebrations were unique, as he broke into tears at Daytona and the Brickyard—a driver truly grateful for his success. The fans certainly enjoy that.
Over the past few seasons, Kurt Busch has taken a backseat to his younger brother Kyle's success. As "Rowdy" earned a penchant for being, well, rowdy on the track, Busch quieted down and has had a solid stint with Penske Racing.
This season, Busch moves from the No. 2 to the No. 22 Dodge in search of his second Sprint Cup title. It should be interesting to hear fan reaction if he breaks Jimmie Johnson's five-year string.
Vickers has fallen even more into favor with fans after returning to the track this season, defeating blood clots near his heart and lungs that kept him out of action for most of 2010.
Should Vickers return to Victory Lane this season, it will be one emotional celebration.
Upon looking at the finalists for the Sprint Cup's 10 most popular drivers last season, this writer was stunned to find that Denny Hamlin wasn't on the list. Considering that voting was done before Hamlin nearly won the Chase, the Virginian will likely pop up on the list in 2011.
He recently earned a stamp of approval from Michael Jordan, as his Nike-owned brand is now sponsoring Hamlin—the first time Jordan has sponsored a NASCAR driver.
"Flyin' Ryan" Newman—otherwise known as the other driver in the two-car Stewart-Haas Racing stable—has seen his star fade over the past few years, as he's never been able to recapture the success he had with Penske Racing over the start of his career.
However, Newman has a knack for witty one-liners and is willing let competitors know how he feels. Just ask Joey Logano.
Martin resonates with the fans because of his ability to perform at such a high level at 51 years of age. He came close to winning his first Sprint Cup title in 2009, and will be forever linked to being on the losing end of the photo finish at the 2007 Daytona 500.
I'd expect Martin to move inside the top 10 next season in the aftermath of his final season in the No. 5 Chevy with Hendrick Motorsports.
The second-youngest driver to start the Daytona 500 next weekend (Trevor Bayne is the youngest), Logano began to show a bit of an aggressive streak in 2010. After being knocked around by veterans for weeks on both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide levels, Logano decided he had enough after being spun out by Kevin Harvick in the late stages of the June race at Pocono.
After the race, Logano—at the urging of his father—tried to confront Harvick on pit road. When he was denied, Logano said that Harvick's wife "wore the firesuit in the family." He earned a few fans on that afternoon.
Clint Bowyer seems to have a "country boy" charm that endears him to plenty of fans. While he has a knack for being a bit soft-spoken, the driver of the No. 33 Chevrolet is primed to continue his success in 2011, after winning two races and finishing 10th in the Chase last season.
Bobby Labonte managed to finish in the top 10 in Most Popular Driver voting last season, an impressive feat considering the fact that he drove for four times on different occasions in 2011—TRG Motorsports, Phoenix Racing, Robby Gordon Motorsports and Stavola-Labonte Racing.
In 2011, Labonte moves into what could be his best opportunity since leaving Joe Gibbs Racing after the 2005 season, joining JTG Daugherty Racing—a satellite operation of Michael Waltrip Racing—to drive the No. 47 Toyota.
Known by fans for his remarkable consistency throughout his 11-year Sprint Cup career, Matt Kenseth could also be the harbinger of the "way things used to be." Kenseth's 2003 championship-winning season, in which he won just one race and held onto the points lead for nearly the entire campaign, is believed to be part of the reason why NASCAR came up with the Chase concept.
Love him or hate him—and if you're a Keselowski fan, you know where you stand on this—there's no questioning that Carl Edwards is one of the most visible drivers in NASCAR today. His trademark backflip victory celebration is still beloved by the fans, and he has a personality that seems to connect with audiences and advertisers.
After winning the final two races of 2010, Cousin Carl's stock could be on the rise once again.
Another love-him-or-hate-him personality, Kyle Busch shares some of the Intimidator's characteristics. Busch isn't above wrecking another driver if a win or top-five finish is on the line, but he's known for being explosive when he is wrecked in similar fashion.
To that end, some of Busch's victory celebrations could be viewed as arrogant—who could forget the 2008 season when he would get out of his car after a burnout celebration and start counting how many victories he had on his fingers, much to the crowd's anger?
Speaking of hot-headed drivers, Kevin Harvick's early career was built almost equally on young talent and a short temper. All one needs to do is search "Kevin Harvick fights" on YouTube to solidify this fact. However, Harvick has cooled a bit as the years pass by, and he's turned into a fan favorite because of it. "Happy" had the best season of his career in 2010, coming just short of winning his first Sprint Cup title. This season could be huge for the No. 29 Chevrolet, now adorned with Budweiser sponsorship.
Even though plenty of fans complain that Jimmie Johnson is killing NASCAR with the No. 48 team's dominance over the past five seasons, he's still one of the most popular drivers in the sport.
Everybody loves a frontrunner.
Tony Stewart is a favorite with fans due to his gruff demeanor and brutal honesty when it comes to pretty much anything under the sun. (See: Stewart's press conferences. He's more than willing to let journalists know if he doesn't like a question.) In addition, it helps that "Smoke" is one of the best wheelmen in motorsports today, even as he drives for his own Stewart-Haas Racing for the third consecutive season.
Almost immediately after he replaced Bill Elliott as driver of the No. 9 Dodge for Evernham Motorsports in 2004, Kasey Kahne became one of the most popular drivers on the circuit.
Maybe it was because of his boyish good looks. Maybe it was because of replacing one of the most popular drivers in the history of the sport. Either way, Kahne looks to please his fans driving the No. 4 Toyota for Red Bull Racing this season.
There was once a time when Jeff Gordon was a hated driver. He would be showered with boos during Victory Lane celebrations and driver introductions, even though his mainstream appeal helped lift the sport into new heights during the late 1990s.
Now, Gordon is a somewhat-gruff veteran and a family man. In the midst of the longest winless streak of his career, Gordon likely accumulated some fans who enjoy rooting for the underdog—even if that underdog is one of the all-time greats.
Does this really need any explanation? If you don't know why he's the most popular driver in NASCAR today, you'll probably find out in the days to come.
Thoughts? Comment below.
Ryan Papaserge is a junior journalism/mass communication student at St. Bonaventure University and a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report.