Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon top list of NASCAR’s highest-paid drivers

Danica Patrick was a lightning rod for attention while she was racing in the IndyCar series, where she was the most popular driver the past six years. She was Yahoo!’s most searched-for athlete (male or female) last year. The attention has been good for Patrick’s bank account, helping her earn $12 million in 2011, by our estimation.

She moves over to NASCAR full-time this season with a big-money sponsor in Go Daddy. She is racing on the Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports. She’ll also run 10 races for Stewart-Haas in Sprint Cup starting with the 54th running of the Daytona 500, and will race a full schedule of Cup races in 2013.

The move to the more lucrative racing series will add millions to Patrick’s annual earnings, and should put her among the sport’s top earners despite her limited racing resume (Patrick won one IndyCar race). Her $12 million income last year ranks eighth among NASCAR drivers.

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In Pictures: NASCAR’s highest-paid drivers

Even with the added millions, Patrick will still be looking up at Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is NASCAR’s highest-paid driver for the fourth straight year. Earnhardt earned $28 million in 2011 thanks to the highest licensing income in the sport and a host of personal endorsements with the likes of Wrangler, Chevrolet and Dollar General. Earnhardt is also Patrick’s part-time boss as the co-owner of JR Motorsports. Our earnings figures include driving salaries and personal endorsements, as well as drivers’ share of race winnings and licensing income.

Earnhardt has not had the success that had been expected since moving to the wealthy Hendrick Motorsports operation for the 2008 season. He captured one Cup win his first season, but is currently riding a 129-race winless streak. He still has a legion of ardent followers who voted him NASCAR’s most popular driver for the ninth straight time last year.

Earnhardt made progress in 2011 by making the season-ending Chase for the first time since 2008. He finished seventh in the final standings. It was his best showing since a fifth-place finish in 2005 when he raced for the outfit his father founded, Dale Earnhardt Inc. Earnhardt extended his driving contract with Hendrick, worth roughly $10 million annually, in September. The new deal keeps Earnhardt part of the Hendrick stable through 2017.

The second-highest-paid driver in NASCAR is Earnhardt teammate Jeff Gordon, who banked $24 million last year. Gordon captured three wins in the No. 24 car, including his 85th career win, which moved him to third on NASCAR’s all-time win list behind only Richard Petty and David Pearson. Gordon also benefits from his ownership stake in the car of five-time Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson didn’t win the title last year for the first time since 2005, but he still earned $21 million – good for fourth among all drivers. All four Hendrick Motorsports drivers – Earnhardt, Gordon, Johnson and Kasey Kahne – were among the top 10 drivers in earnings. Kahne, who joins Hendrick this year in the No. 5 car, earned $11 million in 2011.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 19, 2012.
(Getty Images)

NASCAR enters its 2012 season with some much-needed momentum after a 10 percent jump in TV ratings for last year’s races. Part of the credit goes to the thrilling season-ending duel between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart. The two finished the season deadlocked in the final Chase standings with Stewart winning the Sprint Cup title on a tiebreaker – his five wins compared to a single race victory for Edwards.

The duel boosted the earnings of both drivers thanks to increased race winnings and Sprint Cup bonuses. Stewart earned $6.6 million in winnings and $6.1 million in bonuses for his title. This money is split with his team, Stewart-Haas, which Stewart owns a 50 percent stake in. The title sparked buying of Stewart swag and he ranked behind only Dale Jr. for merchandise sales. Stewart earned $21 million in 2011, which ranked third among NASCAR drivers.

Edwards had a NASCAR-high $8.5 million in race winnings in 2011, along with an additional $2.9 million in Sprint Cup bonuses and special awards. His total earnings of $15.5 million ranked fifth among drivers last year. Edwards was NASCAR’s top free agent in 2011, but he re-signed with Roush Fenway in August in a deal worth roughly $10million a year.

Edwards was one of the few drivers to get a salary bump. Several drivers lost their Sprint Cup ride or had to settle for pay cuts due to car sponsorship deals worth less than in past years.

The list:

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. – $28 million
2. Jeff Gordon – $24 million
3. Tony Stewart – $22 million
4. Jimmie Johnson – $21 million
5. Carl Edwards – $15.5 million
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Updated Wednesday, Feb 22, 2012