NASCAR Sprint Cup: Ranking the 15 Drivers with the Biggest Fanbases
We all know that NASCAR is one of the biggest spectator sports in America, if not the world. With that, some of its drivers have become superstars on level with A-list celebrities, while others are poised to break out with one good season or lucrative sponsorship deal.
These drivers are aided by the nature of motorsport on two planes: first, by the fact that what they do is one of the most dangerous professions in the world, and second, the fact that they become so well identified with the brands that back them that they can undo twenty years of brand loyalty by their fans. This combination makes them both real-life superheroes and marketing machines, and many of them have millions of fans willing to support them.
We're here to rank the drivers with the top 15 fanbases in the sport. It doesn't just include active drivers, by the way, which should give away at least one of them...But to see who shows up where, you're just going to have to read on.
15. Brad Keselowski
Kez is here on the strength of two things.
First, calling Kyle Busch an "ass" during driver introductions at Bristol last year is a great way to endear yourself to a fanbase that used to hate your guts. But second, inheriting the Blue Deuce, the Miller Lite ride at Penske Racing, is to inherit one of the longest tenured and best respected teams in all of NASCAR. Stepping up under pressure to win a bunch of races after breaking your foot and contending for a Chase title is just a bonus.
14. Richard Petty
The only reason I'm ranking Petty this low is because it's been a long time since he's been behind the wheel. The winningest driver in NASCAR history remains one of its most popular among longtime fans for his willingness to sign autographs for fans no matter the time or place. His friendly demeanor and sparkling record on the track earned him the nickname "The King."
But in a dramatically changed NASCAR that is no longer just a Southern sport, many new fans don't quite comprehend Petty's legacy the way they should—not as an owner of a so-so race team, but as the driver that owned the sport for twenty years.
13. Mark Martin
Martin has put some fans off with what has become a half-decade retirement tour, but he remains one of the most revered and respected drivers in the garage. Fans can't come up with much to say against Martin, a testament to his clean driving record and sympathy for being the best driver to never win a NASCAR championship. That's part of the reason why, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. left his father's company in 2008, Teresa Earnhardt installed him as the replacement driver for that car; who would boo Mark Martin?
Longtime fans will remember his association with Valvoline, Ford and Jack Roush as one of the toughest to beat in all of NASCAR in the 1990s.
12. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth is much like Martin in that he is a generally quiet and clean driver. And like Martin, he built up lengthy brand associations with both a manufacturer (Ford) and a sponsor (DeWalt Tools, now replaced by Crown Royal). Now driving for Crown Royal, Kenseth remains popular because of his ability to win—and he is especially popular in his home state of Wisconsin, which recognizes him as one of its most prominent Green Bay Packers fans.
His willingness to talk football at any time makes him easy to relate to as just another average guy, just one that happens to drive race cars.
11. Denny Hamlin
Last year's championship runner-up, Hamlin has built long-standing brand associations with FedEx, Coca-Cola and Toyota, and he now represents Nike through their iconic Team Jordan brand. But Hamlin also drives for Joe Gibbs, one of the sport's most respected owners, and has proven himself so worthy of support that Interstate Batteries, one of the sport's most iconic sponsors, frequently backs Hamlin's Nationwide races. Fans were rooting for him last year, if only to dethrone Jimmie Johnson.
10. Kyle Busch
This one is a bit tough in the wake of last weekend's incident with Ron Hornaday. But "Rowdy Busch" is well loved by fans who see him as a successor to Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt in their early careers—as a brash, bold young winner who races hard, but needs to learn how to rein it in to sway public support behind him.
As the M&M's driver, Busch is also popular with younger fans, who frequently see him in commercials with the brand's animated characters.
9. Kevin Harvick
Harvick's big break came in inheriting a ride with Richard Childress after the tragic passing of Dale Earnhardt. But it didn't take him too long to step out of the Intimidator's shadow.
Harvick is now completely his own force, a Nationwide and Truck team owner who has built dozens of lengthy associations with brands from Budweiser to Ollie's Bargain Outlet. That's because the fans are always willing to pay to watch Happy wheel a racecar at any level.
8. Kasey Kahne
The ladies still swoon for Kasey, who remains one of NASCAR's coolest (and hottest) eligible bachelors.
Okay, I just got a little sick writing that, let's start over.
Kahne has just about everything sponsors want: a popular and marketable public image, the ability to deal with fans with relative ease, the "cool" factor and decent performance on the race track. When he joins Hendrick Motorsports next season, it should even take him to the next level in all of those categories.
7. Danica Patrick
NASCAR fans: prepare for Danica Mania to run wild through stock cars in the next few years. The longtime IndyCar starlet will finally focus on stock cars full time next season, bringing over a massive and diverse fanbase that ranges from young girls who have a racing role model to college-aged guys who like her, uh, "promotional work" with GoDaddy.
6. Carl Edwards
Some may find his earnest image disingenuous, but Edwards is Jack Roush's best driver since Mark Martin, if inconsistent in his star power.
Sponsors all want a piece of him, using his clean-cut, good-natured image to market their brands, and his frequent challenges for the Sprint Cup make him the rare combination of speed demon on track and media darling off of it.
5. Tony Stewart
Sure, Smoke is popular because he's a winner and because he's never been afraid to speak his mind. But since he became his own team owner in 2009, he's added yet another reason for fans to like him: he's a self-made man that runs his own business, runs it well and continues to succeed no matter the challenges he faces. In many ways, Tony Stewart is racing's answer to the American dream.
4. Dale Earnhardt
In many ways, Earnhardt's tragic passing on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 may have prolonged his legacy. Like many all-time great racing drivers, Earnhardt died in his prime, coming off a second place finish in the 2000 championship. His loss provided something for all NASCAR fans to rally around, and even 10 years removed, he is remembered fondly by his peers, idolized by younger drivers and still sells millions of dollars worth of merchandise every year.
3. Jimmie Johnson
Being a fan of the most dominant driver in Chase history doesn't make you a front-runner. It means you recognize Johnson for what he is: NASCAR's smartest and most clutch driver.
For five straight seasons from 2006 to 2010, Johnson, Chad Knaus, and their entire Hendrick Motorsports team haven't exhausted themselves in the regular season and kicked it into high gear for the final 10 races. It may be taking advantage of a questionable system, but the rules are the same for everybody, and Johnson knows how to make them work for him.
2. Jeff Gordon
It's only fitting that Jimmie Johnson was Jeff Gordon's protege, because Gordon was tearing up the sport for much of the 1990s the same way Johnson has been in the 2000s. He's a superstar in every sense of the word, from movie appearances to Pepsi commercials to guest hosting gigs on Live with Regis and Kelly. Fans used to boo him because he "won too much," but Gordon has aged gracefully into one of the sport's most respected elder statesmen.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
I think this photo says it all about where Little E is now. After inheriting much of his deceased father's fanbase, Junior made them proud by frequently contending for race wins. Then he took his massive influence to NASCAR's biggest team, using it to help build his self-owned Nationwide team into a perennial contender.
But most importantly, longtime fans are willing to follow Junior just as tightly as they did his father—which means immediate brand loyalty to whoever sponsors him. No wonder so many companies partner with the sport's most popular driver (for eight years running now).