Based on driver opinion, NASCAR’s next most popular driver will have a very familiar last name.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Most Popular Driver Award for a 15th and final time after the 2017 season. His retirement from the Cup Series means 2018 will have a MPD with a last name other than Earnhardt (sorry, Jeffrey) since the 2002 season. That year, a guy named Elliott won the award.
And a guy named Elliott looks to be this year’s clear frontrunner.
Johnson wasn’t alone in that sentiment. Elliott’s entering his third year in the series and was once a driver who Junior himself said he’d be rooting for after he retired. Combine his ties with Junior (Elliott won the 2015 Xfinity Series title driving for JR Motorsports) and his famous last name and it could be a runaway.
“I really think Chase Elliott is our biggest tie to our grassroots NASCAR fan,” Kevin Harvick said. “I’ve said this a number of times, but I feel like he’s one of the most important ingredients in what NASCAR racing does going forward because his family name and he has the legacy that’s already been built in this sport by his dad and he’s come into this sport with a great name and already proven that he’s going to be competitive. He has those southeast NASCAR ties to those core fans that none of the rest of us will ever have, and he’s the guy.”
Chase’s father Bill won the award 16 times from 1984-2002, a streak interrupted only twice by Darrell Waltrip and once by Dale Earnhardt.
“I don’t think that’s even close,” Brad Keselowski said. “I think we’ve been seeing that for the past two or three years and [Chase Elliott’s] coming into a perfect spot of having the ability to ascertain the southern fan base, along with the family namesake fan base. He’s in the right time with the right name to kind of inherit it in a great way.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. added: “I think we’re all under the consensus that Chase is gonna take that back over. His dad had it before Dale Jr. ever came along, so I don’t see why that wouldn’t go back to him.”
Other drivers weren’t so sure of Elliott’s chances, at least publicly.
“Honestly I think it is out there for anyone for the taking at this point,” Joey Logano said. “It is a tough question. There are a lot of good personalities that are coming in that are new and a lot that have been here a long time that are pretty exciting that we know pretty well. I guess it is for whoever wants it. If you go out there and do the extra effort and things to try to become that, go for it. It is a great accomplishment to have.”
Elliott hasn’t won a race in his first two years of the Cup Series. But became a fan favorite — at least judging by the reaction from the grandstands — after he wrecked out of the race late at Martinsville in the fall because of contact with Denny Hamlin.
“The way his father carried this sport with many, many, many Most Popular Driver Awards, [Elliott’s] the easy choice in my mind, but it could turn out different. It could be to where fans want to see that guy dominating and getting those race wins and is that most popular from that fashion.”
And at least one, Clint Bowyer, didn’t care who the heck wins the award … unless he’s the one accepting it.
“I don’t care,” Bowyer said. “I want to be the next winner. That is what I want to be. I couldn’t care less who is the most popular.”
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