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Dale Earnhardt Jr. Tops List Of Nascar's Highest-Paid Drivers

Forbes

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been a lightning rod for NASCAR fans since he joined the top level of the sport in 2000. Fans have voted him the sport's most popular driver 10 straight years. He has dominated NASCAR merchandise sales over the past decade with estimates putting his share as high as 35 percent of the total during some years. But the critics question his ardent following after extended winless streaks of 76 and 143 races and figure his support is simply a function of his famous name. Love him or hate him, there is no denying that Dale Jr. is still the biggest star in the sport.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. signs autographs for fans in Las Vegas. (AP)

Earnhardt is also the highest-paid driver in the sport for the fifth straight year with total earnings of $25.9 million in 2012 by our count. Earnhardt's on-track performance has improved, and he made the Chase in 2012 for the second straight year after missing the cut in 2009 and 2010. He broke that 143 race winless streak at the Michigan International Speedway in June and is off to a strong start in 2013 with three straight top-10 finishes. We estimate that Earnhardt earned $12.9 million in combined salary and his share of prize money, which is split with Hendrick Motorsports. Earnhardt signed a contract extension with Hendrick in 2011 that will keep him part of NASCAR's most valuable team through at least 2017.

In Pictures: The Highest-Paid NASCAR Drivers

But what really separates Earnhardt from the rest of NASCAR's top drivers is his off-the-track earnings, which were $13 million last year. While Earnhardt's licensing income is down like all drivers (some as much as 80 percent), he still generated the most licensing dollars in the sport last year. His endorsement income is tops as well, thanks to personal deals with Chevy, Goody's, Nationwide, Wrangler and more. His latest deal is a partnership with Minnesota snack company KLN Family Brands to form Dale Jr. Foods. Last month, they introduced four Dale Jr. flavors of potato chips: Crispy Original, Carolina Barbecue, Creole & Green Onion and Zesty Jalapeno.

Another Hendrick driver, Jimmie Johnson, ranks No. 2 with earnings of $23 million. In fact, all four Hendrick drivers are among the 10 highest-paid with Jeff Gordon No. 4 ($18 million) and Kasey Kahne at No. 9 ($12 million). Johnson barely missed his sixth Sprint Cup title in 2012, but it was still a banner year on the track, as he earned a NASCAR-high $8.1 million in race winnings for the No. 48 car. His "Special Awards" and Sprint Cup bonuses added another $2.3 million.

Johnson is the heavy betting favorite to win the Sprint Cup title in 2013 and got off to a strong start with his second Daytona 500 victory in February. His long-time primary sponsor, Lowe's, recently signed an extension with Hendrick Motorsports that will keep the sport's most successful pairing together through at least 2015 when Johnson's contract expires. Johnson's personal sponsors include Gatorade, Chevy and Tylenol.

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Danica Patrick's popularity has grown since winning the pole at Daytona. (AP)

Danica Patrick, ranks No. 7 with earnings of $12.9 million in 2012. Her merchandise was NASCAR's ninth-best seller in 2012, according to Fanatics.com, one of the largest online retailers of officially licensed sports merchandise. But that ranking will jump this year, as she only raced in 10 Sprint Cup races last year and will be running a full-time Sprint Cup schedule in 2013 for the first time. Her merchandise was flying off shelves after her she secured the pole for the Daytona 500. Her gear was NASCAR's best seller in the week leading up to Daytona on Fanatics.com – a spot usually reserved for Earnhardt. The Go Daddy girl has 15 personal sponsors including Coca-Cola, Nationwide, Tissot and Sega.

Patrick gave NASCAR a shot in the arm with her performance at Daytona, where she finished eighth and became the first woman to lead the Great American Race. Ratings for the race jumped 24 percent, and it was the most watched since 2008. The race was a hit for her car sponsor, Go Daddy, which received the second-most exposure behind Lowe's, who sponsored Johnson's winning car, according to brand analysis and research firm Repucom. Go Daddy received $2.8 million in media value and all brands affiliated with Patrick garnered $6.8 million in value at Daytona by Repucom's count. Her fire suit was tops in overall sponsor exposure among the 43 drivers at Daytona.

Patrick has attracted new followers to NASCAR and elicited strong reactions, good and bad, from the sport's longtime fans. "She has polarized some fans and that is a good thing for a sport," says NASCAR chief marketing officer Steve Phelps, who adds that Danica is a "great brand" and a "marketing phenomenon."

[NASCAR Power Rankings: More of the same from Brad Keselowski]]

Patrick is similar to Earnhardt in several ways. They are among the only drivers to garner significant personal endorsements with non-NASCAR sponsors. She dominated IndyCar merchandise to a greater degree than even Earnhardt did with NASCAR. She outsold the other 32 drivers combined at the 2005 Indy 500 and her merchandise was 43 percent of IndyCar’s total in 2006. Patrick raced for Earnhardt's Nationwide Series team, JR Motorsports, between 2010 and 2012.

NASCAR launched a five-year action plan last year that includes six core initiatives. One of those key areas is "driver star power," which is intended to raise the visibility of drivers. Danica and Dale Jr. already aced the class as the two crossover stars in the sport. Drivers should pay close attention to this initiative. Star power is good for the bank account.

Here are the five highest-paid drivers in NASCAR:

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2. Jimmie Johnson
3. Tony Stewart
4. Jeff Gordon
5. Carl Edwards

More from Forbes.com:

NASCAR's Most Valuable Teams

The Richest Sports Owner Billionaires

World's Highest-Paid Athletes

Most Valuable Sports Teams In The World

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