Nascar driver salaries have been shaved in recent years with fewer dollars available as sponsors cut back on their financial commitments to teams. Drivers that once made $4-6 million in salary are getting re-signed to deals for $3 million in some cases. Guys on poorly funded teams are lucky to make seven figures. Licensing and endorsement money has also dried up for all but the very elite drivers. Endorsement deals that once paid $500,000 a clip are now $250,000 and many have disappeared completely.
But for the sport’s stars, the paychecks are nearly as big as ever and can reach eight figures in salary alone. The 10 highest-paid drivers pulled down $170 million in 2013 in cumulative salary, endorsements and their share of winnings and licensing income. It is on par with what the top 10 made five years ago. There is a scramble among the teams to sign high profile drivers that consistently end up in the winner’s circle and make the Chase year after year, garnering valuable TV time for sponsors. These drivers can still attract big sponsorship dollars and will command top salaries. The big drop off in income comes after the first dozen or so drivers.
Leading the way for the sixth straight year is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who earned $25.6 million in 2013 by Forbes’ count. Earnhardt’s licensing income is down significantly from five years ago when he was making $30 million a year, but he is still the sport’s biggest star with the biggest salary, as well as the top licensing and endorsement income, according to sources.
Earnhardt’s No. 88 car carries the most expensive real estate in the sport. The Army National Guard spent $30 million in 2013 on sponsoring 20 races on the No. 88 car and activating around the sponsorship. Hendrick Motorsports entered the past two seasons with 13 races to sell on Earnhardt’s car, but even if owner Rick Hendrick has to pick up the tab on a couple of races, the sponsorship revenue for Earnhardt’s car is still the envy of the sport.
Earnhardt has made the Chase three straight years and last year had his best season since 2005 with a fifth place finish in the year-end standings. He would have won the Sprint Cup title in 2013 if the new Chase rules were in place at the time. In October, Earnhardt became the 34th driver to make 500 career Sprint Cup starts, and he was voted Nascar's most popular driver by fans a record 11th straight year.
Earnhardt’s teammate, Jimmie Johnson, ranks No. 2 with estimated earnings of $24.8 million last year. Johnson won his sixth Sprint Cup title, which carried bonuses and special awards of $5.8 million. Johnson’s total prize money haul of $14.7 is twice as much as Earnhardt, but Johnson’s endorsements and licensing income lag behind.
Johnson was America's most influential athlete in 2011 and 2012 based on data from Nielsen and E-Poll. It is that impact that personal sponsors like Gatorade, Tylenol, Chevy, Hall of Fame Foods and Dry Shine are paying for. Johnson has a chance to make history this year with a record-tying seventh Cup title. In November, Johnson became the first athlete to guest host ESPN's flagship news program, SportsCenter, but a career in broadcasting or any other post-racing plans will have to wait. "I am more committed to [racing] than I have ever been," says the 38-year-old Johnson, who thinks he has at least seven more years in Sprint Cup racing (see "Jimmie Johnson On Nascar's New Chase, A Seventh Cup Title And Retirement Plans").
It is a clean sweep for Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers at the top with Jeff Gordon in third earning $18.2 million in 2013 (the fourth HMS driver, Kasey Kahne, ranks No. 10 at $12.6 million). Gordon's 88 career victories are the most in Nascar's modern era. It has been a dozen years since Gordon won his fourth Cup title, but he remains one of Nascar’s most popular drivers. His merchandise was the sport’s second best seller, behind Earnhardt, in 2013, according to multiple sources. Gordon also benefits from his ownership stake in the No. 48 car. Gordon's longtime sponsor, DuPont, sold its Performance Coatings business to the Carlyle Group last year and it was renamed Axalta Coating Systems. Axalta will sponsor 14 of Gordon's races in 2014.
Nascar's golden girl, Danica Patrick, ranks No. 9 with earnings of $13.5 million. She struggled on the track in her first full season racing Cup last year. She finished 27th in the season long standings and logged only one top 10 finish. But she remains one of the sport's biggest draws and has more than 10 personal endorsement partners, including Coca-Cola, Tissot and Peak. Patrick has appeared in a record 13 Super Bowl commercials for her car sponsor, GoDaddy and her merchandise was Nascar’s sixth best seller on Fanatics.com, the largest online retailer of officially licensed sports merchandise.
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