We're fairly sure you could have seen this coming from the other end of Daytona International Speedway, but Forbes has named Dale Earnhardt Jr. NASCAR's highest-paid driver and Rick Hendrick its wealthiest team owner for 2010.
Earnhardt, the eight-time reigning most popular driver in the sport, stands atop the driver heap with $29 million in 2010 earnings. This, despite the fact that he's won exactly one race in his three-plus years with Hendrick. But while Earnhardt is entitled to a 50 percent share of his earnings and winnings on the track, totaling $4.9 million in 2010, it's in merchandising where he stands apart. Earnhardt Jr. gear accounts for a reported one-third of all NASCAR merchandise. (Still wondering why Hendrick keeps Junior around?)
Right behind Earnhardt is Jeff Gordon with $25 million and Jimmie Johnson at $24 million. The rest of the top 10: Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth.
It's important to note that salaries for the free agents, which include Edwards this year, will likely be well down from earlier peaks because of the economy. Zak Brown -- not the singer, we assume -- of Just Marketing International told Forbes he pegs the projected salary decline at 20 to 25 percent.
On the team side, Hendrick Motorsports, with Earnhardt, Johnson, Gordon and Mark Martin, remains the unchallenged leader among teams. Hendrick's $350 million in valuation on 2010 revenues of $177 million is 56 percent more than second-place Roush Fenway ($224 million on $140 million in revenue). Those two are followed by Richard Childress Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Penske Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing.
While the mood around NASCAR has been one of pessimism the last few years, it's worth noting that there remain more than 400 sponsors in the sport, and teams are making gains. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, eighth-ranked among teams, saw an 8 percent gain last year, with sponsorship revenue expected to increase 20 percent in 2011.
There's no way NASCAR will see the money hand-over-fist days of the early 2000s, but the sport, bolstered by both a recovering economy and some challenging races, may have made it through one of the steepest-banked turns in its history.