Voting for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award is underway, and, for the most part, it’s been little more than a formality in recent decades. Since 1984, only 5 different drivers have been voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver: Bill Elliott (16 Times), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (15 Times), Chase Elliott (5 Times), Darrell Waltrip (2 Times), and Dale Earnhardt (Awarded posthumously in 2001). In 39 years, these are the only drivers to win the award, and Bill Elliott even voluntarily removed his name from the ballot in 2003 to give another driver a chance to win the award.
It seems like a slam dunk virtually every year in the Cup Series. With little question about who wins the award normally, does this award really matter?
The Fans Perspective
From the fan’s perspective, it’s tough to say whether or not the award matters. Most fans already have their own built-in allegiances, so they will just vote for their favorite driver. Seeing a driver being voted the most popular does not change many of these fans’ allegiances from their current favorite driver.
Now, it has been seen on social media at times when fans or even drivers may grow animosity towards a driver because of them being the “Most Popular Driver”. One example of this is Kevin Harvick saying that Dale Earnhardt Jr. “stunted” the growth of the sport because of Earnhardt Jr.’s lack of success despite being the “Most Popular Driver”.
In that respect, it can matter because being the “Most Popular Driver” makes a driver one of NASCAR’s most marketable stars regardless of performance. Some people may not love that a driver who may not be quite as successful on the track gets publicity just because they are popular amongst the fanbase.
There are multiple sides to this. On one hand, it has nothing to do with performance on track with fans already having built-in allegiances, so, to many it does not matter. However, the way the awards causes NASCAR to market drivers could rub some people the wrong way. Speaking of marketing…
NASCAR and the Sponsors’ Perspective
In any kind of sport, the “best” athlete may not necessarily be the most marketable athlete. There is a laundry list of great athletes who either brought along a lot of personal baggage or are just not as good at marketing themselves. What NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award does is show which driver markets themself best to the fanbase.
For sponsors, who would you rather have? The best NASCAR driver in the sport who may struggle or just do an average at marketing your product, or the most popular NASCAR driver who may not be the “best driver” that will bring along a massive fanbase to put your product in front of plenty of eyeballs. Ultimately, option 2 is where a lot of companies would rather be.
In that sense, this award matters a lot. It also matters to NASCAR because it shows them which drivers they can put on promotional material and which drivers they can use to market the sport. If a driver is the most popular driver, then they automatically become one of the most recognizable faces in the sport that you know will put the sport in a good light. If they are the most popular amongst the fanbase, they’re likely a very marketable person.
At the end of the day, the award may feel like a formality most years. However, that does not mean the award does not matter to people. It has a purpose, and it goes a long way to how NASCAR markets the sport.