Ranking the Most Popular Drivers of All Time in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series

Joe Menzer@@OneMenzFeatured ColumnistDecember 9, 2014

Ranking the Most Popular Drivers of All Time in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series

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    The late Dale Earnhardt (left) with son Dale Earnhardt Jr. shortly before the elder Earnhardt's death.
    The late Dale Earnhardt (left) with son Dale Earnhardt Jr. shortly before the elder Earnhardt's death.PAUL KIZZLE/Associated Press

    Right off the bat, let's be honest here: This is a very subjective list.

    But in the wake of Dale Earnhardt Jr. recently winning his 12th consecutive Most Popular Driver award, as voted on by NASCAR fans, what a great time to explore a ranking of the most popular drivers of all time in NASCAR's premier series.

    The official annual award, for the record, has been around since 1956, when it was first won by Curtis Turner. Both Turner and his close friend and notorious partner in much mischief away from the track, Joe Weatherly, received heavy consideration for this list and barely missed making it. Although Weatherly also won the official award in 1961, both drivers' careers were cut short—Turner because he got suspended by NASCAR in the middle of his prime and Weatherly by his untimely death in a racing accident at Riverside International Raceway in 1964.

    Others, such as NASCAR Hall of Famers David Pearson and Cale Yarborough, also narrowly missed the top 10, as did the roguish but infinitely interesting Tim Richmond. Though popular at times during their respective careers, Pearson only ran a part-time schedule for most of his and Yarborough, well, just wasn't the warm and fuzzy type with fans, the media or fellow competitors, which sometimes harmed his overall popularity. And Richmond, sadly, just wasn't around long enough.

    For those who did make the list, they did so not only on their merits as drivers on the track, but in the way they consistently conducted themselves away from it and how that resonated with fans, media and fellow competitors through the years, even, many times, after they had retired as active drivers.

    And remember, this list is subjective and is sure to invite some hearty debate.

10. Fred Lorenzen

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    Fred Lorenzen after winning the 1965 Daytona 500.
    Fred Lorenzen after winning the 1965 Daytona 500.Associated Press

    Why He's Here: Once dubbed stock-car racing's "Golden Boy" because he was handsome, popular with the fans and talented behind the wheel, Fred Lorenzen stunned the racing world in 1963 when he became the first driver in NASCAR to earn more than $100,000 in winnings in a single season, as noted in my book The Wildest Ride.

    Career Highlights: Lorenzen was twice named winner of the Most Popular Driver award, in 1963 and again in 1965, the same year he won the Daytona 500. He won 32 poles and 26 races at what is now the Sprint Cup level before retiring prematurely at the age of 33 in 1967, although he did return to make a handful of his 158 career starts from 1970 to 1972.

    Legacy: Lorenzen was recently voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He hailed from Elmhurst, Illinois, and is credited with helping spread the popularity of NASCAR to the Midwest. One of his other nicknames, in fact, was the "Elmhurst Express."

9. Fireball Roberts

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    Fireball Roberts grants an interview before getting in his race car at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1962.
    Fireball Roberts grants an interview before getting in his race car at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1962.Associated Press

    Why He's Here: Despite having his career cut short when he passed away because of complications from burns suffered during a terrible, fiery accident at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the 1964 World 600, Glenn "Fireball" Roberts was one of the sport's first and biggest stars during his all-too-brief driving career.

    Career Highlights: Despite running less than half of the scheduled races in NASCAR's highest series in 13 of his 15 seasons, Roberts captured 32 poles and registered 33 wins in 207 career starts. He won the Daytona 500 in 1962 and twice went to Victory Lane in the prestigious Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

    Legacy: Ned Jarrett, a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, was asked by reporters about Roberts following Fireball's own induction into the Hall in 2014. According to NASCAR.com, Jarrett responded that Roberts was NASCAR's "first real superstar." Enough said.

8. Ned Jarrett

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    Ned Jarrett, ever the gentleman, shortly after getting voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.
    Ned Jarrett, ever the gentleman, shortly after getting voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.Jason Smith/Getty Images

    Why He's Here: Jarrett won 50 races and two championships (1961, 1965) in NASCAR's top division. But he further endeared himself to generations of fans with his easy-going, informative style as one of the first television commentators of the sport.

    Career Highlights: Jarrett also captured 35 poles in a driving career that lasted from 1953 to 1966, when he abruptly retired while still near the top of his game. But it was his work in television that many credit with helping NASCAR grow from largely a regional enterprise into the national racing juggernaut that it is today.

    Legacy: Jarrett's legacy really is three-fold. He got it done as a driver, helped fuel tremendous growth of the sport as a broadcaster and also helped give NASCAR another Hall of Famer in his son, Dale Jarrett, a popular champion and broadcaster in his own right who was inducted into the Hall last year. And the elder Jarrett did all of it while living up to his nickname of "Gentleman Ned."

7. Darrell Waltrip

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    Darrell Waltrip eventually won over many fans who disliked him at first.
    Darrell Waltrip eventually won over many fans who disliked him at first.Doug Jennings/Associated Press

    Why He's Here: It's really a testament to Waltrip's unrelenting persuasiveness that he's on this list, as he actually was quite unpopular with fans and fellow drivers at the beginning of his career. But never with the media, whom he embraced with an enthusiasm that others lacked.

    Career Highlights: Waltrip overcame the disdain many fans had for him earlier in his career to be named Most Popular Driver twice, back-to-back in 1989 and 1990. He did plenty on the track to back up his considerable boasting, with his 84 career victories tied with Bobby Allison for fourth on the all-time list. He also won three series championships, 59 poles (fifth all time) and the 1989 Daytona 500. 

    Legacy: Early in his driving career, Waltrip embraced media interviews and once chastised his fellow drivers for avoiding them. He also burst onto the scene when television was becoming a major player in the sport and once said of the cameras, "Man, whenever that red light went on, I went to work" (per The Wildest Ride). He's still doing it today as a popular NASCAR analyst on television for Fox Sports.

6. Jeff Gordon

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    Jeff Gordon makes a point to interact with his fans, and it shows.
    Jeff Gordon makes a point to interact with his fans, and it shows.Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    Why He's Here: Oddly, Jeff Gordon has never won the official award as NASCAR's Most Popular Driver. But that's mostly because his career has paralleled that of both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Earnhardt, two of the most popular drivers ever, as well as caught the tail ends of the careers of two other very popular drivers in Richard Petty and Bill Elliott.

    Career Highlights: One of only two active drivers to make this list, Gordon has four championships, 92 career wins (third all time behind only Richard Petty's record 200 and David Pearson's 105), 77 poles (also third all time behind only Petty and Pearson) and nearly 25,000 laps led in his career. Those kinds of numbers sort of speak for themselves and tend to make a driver pretty popular with his fanbase, which he stays in touch with through social media and by being a generally amiable guy with just about everybody but fellow driver Brad Keselowski these days.

    Legacy: Gordon's popularity has increased through the fact that he transcends NASCAR. He once hosted Saturday Night Live, for goodness sakes, and it certainly doesn't hurt that he's married to model Ingrid Vandebosch and they've started a beautiful family together. Gordon pretty much has a life that most fans dream about, and he's good at letting them have a peek inside every now and then.

5. Bobby Allison

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    Bobby Allison flashing that winning smile in 1981.
    Bobby Allison flashing that winning smile in 1981.Associated Press

    Why He's Here: Bobby Allison is one of four drivers to have won the Most Popular Driver award at least six times, having done so in a pair of three-year streaks precisely one decade apart. He won his first three from 1970-73 and his last three from 1980-83, with the final award coming on top of the only championship he ever won in NASCAR's top series.

    Career Highlights: In addition to capturing the 1983 series title and being tied with Darrell Waltrip for fourth all time with 84 wins (Allison for years has insisted he should be credited with 85), he won the Daytona 500 three times and also captured 58 poles (sixth all time).

    Legacy: One of the most popular NASCAR moments in history came in 1988, when he won the Daytona 500 and his son, Davey, finished second. Bobby's career ended 13 races later when a terrible accident at Pocono left him unable to remember anything about the '88 Daytona victory. The younger Allison died in a helicopter accident five years later, but Bobby has continued to be a great ambassador for the sport in the years since and was voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011.

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Evidence of the popularity of Dale Earnhardt Jr. was on full display at Homestead-Miami Speedway last month.
    Evidence of the popularity of Dale Earnhardt Jr. was on full display at Homestead-Miami Speedway last month.USA TODAY Sports

    Why He's Here: Well, there are sure to be some members of Junior Nation who think he should be ranked higher. But even after 12 consecutive Most Popular Driver awards, a streak that isn't likely to end anytime soon, it's difficult to argue convincingly that he's more popular all time than the three legends ahead of him on this list.

    Career Highlights: Earnhardt Jr. has won the Daytona 500 twice, exactly one decade apart in 2004 and then again to open the recently concluded 2014 season. He won back-to-back championships in the then-Busch Series that next year will be the Xfinity Series (in the only two full-time seasons he ran in the junior series), but he has never won a Cup title. In fact, he's never finished better than third, and that was in 2003. Junior does, however, own a respectable 23 career Cup victories after earning four in 2014.

    Legacy: Obviously, he is legendary Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt's son. But the way Earnhardt Jr. has handled that through the years—even before his father's tragic death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 but especially after—has truly endeared him to an entire racing nation. He is humble and engaging with his fans, media and fellow drivers. He has handled himself with a sort of homespun grace that makes it almost impossible for people to dislike him, and he is a sponsor's dream.

3. Bill Elliott

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    Bill Elliott, shown shortly before qualifying at Pocono in 2008, always was a big hit with fans.
    Bill Elliott, shown shortly before qualifying at Pocono in 2008, always was a big hit with fans.Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    Why He's Here: Before Earnhardt Jr.'s incredibly long domination in winning the Most Popular Driver award, there was Bill Elliott's reign. He won it a total of 16 times, from 1984 to 1988 and again from 1991 through 2000 before winning one last time in 2002 as he began to scale back his driving duties.

    Career Highlights: Although Elliott ceased driving full time after the 2003 Cup season, he continued to run selected races in the series through 2012, when he finally retired for good (we think) at age 56 and after making 828 starts across 37 seasons. He ended his career with 44 race wins. He earned one-fourth of those (a total of 11 in only 28 races) during one magical season in 1985, even though he finished second in the points standings that year to Terry Labonte. Elliott won his only championship three years later in 1988, despite winning five fewer races.

    Legacy: Known as "Awesome Bill From Dawsonville," the proud native son of tiny Dawsonville, Georgia, also earned the nickname "Million-Dollar Bill" by winning the Daytona 500, the May race at Talladega and the Southern 500 at Darlington in that 1985 season to collect a $1 million bonus being offered by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Now, he's the proud dad of Chase Elliott, who recently became the youngest-ever champion of a NASCAR national touring series when he won the 2014 Nationwide Series title.

2. Richard Petty

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    When you start getting streets named after you, you know you're pretty popular.
    When you start getting streets named after you, you know you're pretty popular.Ric Feld/Associated Press

    Why He's Here: The all-time leader in Cup race victories with an astounding 200, Petty also is tied with the late Dale Earnhardt for most championships in NASCAR's premier series (both have seven). But Petty has been so much more than that to the sport. Now a co-owner of Richard Petty Motorsports, he continues to be a great NASCAR ambassador at age 77.

    Career Highlights: He once won 27 races in a single season (out of 48 starts in 1967) and owns the all-time records for career starts (1,185) and poles (123). He won 10 races in a row during one stretch in '67. He also won the Daytona 500 a record seven times. His 200th career victory came at Daytona in a July race that was witnessed by President Ronald Reagan, who sat down afterward for a picnic dinner with the driver nicknamed "The King." As Petty told ESPN.com of the incident, "We sit down and eat some Kentucky Fried Chicken, I guess, just like it was a Fourth of July party. It just happened to be a race involved with the president of the United States."

    Legacy: A member of the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010, it's very likely that no one in NASCAR history has ever signed more autographs for fans. Petty prides himself on giving back to the sport that has given him so much, never knowingly turns anyone away and frequently takes the time to chat with anyone and everyone who approaches him in the Sprint Cup garage even today.

1. Dale Earnhardt

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    Dale Earnhardt became even more popular in death than he was while living.
    Dale Earnhardt became even more popular in death than he was while living.CHRIS O'MEARA/Associated Press

    Why He's Here: Earnhardt won only one Most Popular Driver award, and it came posthumously after his death in the last-lap accident in the 2001 Daytona 500. That's because when he drove, he angered just about as many fans as he pleased. Fellow drivers and the media often found him difficult to deal with too, but behind the scenes, he often worked to help out others around him without making a big show of it.

    Career Highlights: Tied with Petty for the most championships in history, Earnhardt finished his career with 76 race wins in 676 career starts. He also finished runner-up in the points standings three times. He finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998 on his 20th attempt and was applauded by all his peers, who lined up along pit road afterward to cheer him.

    Legacy: Earnhardt was already growing in popularity as he got older and ticked fewer people off as they came to appreciate his aggressive driving style rather than loathe it. But his stunning death brought attention to the sport at new levels and increased his popularity even more. In addition to helping his son gain a strong foothold in the sport, the elder Earnhardt, in death, also brought about many of the greatest safety gains NASCAR has ever made. Those are his greatest legacies.

    Unless otherwise noted, all information was obtained firsthand.

    Joe Menzer has written six books, including two about NASCAR, and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report as well as covering NASCAR as a writer and editor for FoxSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.