For the past 20 plus years, the question of which driver belonged at the front of NASCAR’s image had a simple answer undisputed by many: Dale. But 2018 is a turning point for the sport, where that name is no longer seen on the circuit. Who is NASCAR’s go-to superstar in 2018?
That question should be no trouble for one fan to answer. But what if you locked 15 diehard NASCAR fans in a room and forced them to unanimously agree on who they see as the face of the sport? Is there any consensus? Probably not.
Before delineating which driver carries the weight of being the face of NASCAR, we have to define the requirements to be at the forefront of the sport. That definition does not come from our latest spearhead of NASCAR; instead, it comes from the one before him: his dad.
First, it is important to note that Dale Earnhardt Jr, the son of 7-time Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt Sr, is a true exception to these informal requirements. Dale Jr was already a primetime name when he first entered the Cup series full time in 2000. Was he in line to be the future face of NASCAR? Possibly, but that question will forever remain unanswered.
Following Dale Sr’s tragic death at the 2001 Daytona 500, the younger Dale was undoubtedly the talk of the paddock, fans, and nation. If someone at the track wasn’t decked out in Goodwrench #3 gear, they almost certainly had on a #8 Budweiser hat or t-shirt. This trend didn’t last just for the weeks following Daytona, or even the 2001 season. It lasted for the better part of two decades.
Jr excelled over the following three years, amassing 10 wins, including capturing the 2004 Daytona 500. There was no looking back. The young star had grabbed the hearts of a huge portion of the fanbase. That portion would remain completely loyal over his long career, up until his 2017 retirement.
Jr was known nationwide, and easily was the most popular and most liked driver the sport had ever seen. But he didn’t carry what a typical face of a sport would. Tom Brady has 5 Super Bowl rings, Lewis Hamilton is a 4-time world champion, and Dale Sr won 7 titles. Jr has an impressive 26 wins, but no titles. He is comparable to a modern day Kurt Busch (29 wins) or Brad Keselowski (24 wins).
Simply put, Jr was handed the title of face of the sport because of his lineage. Dale Sr, on the other hand, became the face of NASCAR by dominating the series, being the most popular driver, but not necessarily the most liked driver.
Bill Elliott, or as fans liked to call him, Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, was by far the most liked driver, winning the misnamed Most Popular Driver award (fans are going to vote for their favourite driver that they like, not a popular driver they hate) 16 times in his career. But when NASCAR came up randomly into a conversation, he wasn’t the first driver to pop up in many minds. Dale Earnhardt was.
Earnhardt Sr was hated by many, loved by others, with not much in between. He created controversy and rivalries, all whilst being immensely successful. Dale Sr is the closest to a modern illustration of the informal requirements to be the face of NASCAR: talented, successful, and popular. That begs the question we started out with: who truly is the face of NASCAR today?
Many would say that Chase Elliott, the son of aforementioned Bill Elliott, has the potential to be. It’s hard to argue the fact that Chase is a fan favourite. But consistent success is not yet evident, nor is a breakthrough. Elliott has shown speed, led laps, and been in positions to win, but has never won. A 22-year old driver with no wins as the face of the sport is an argument not worth hearing.
The driver most closely resembling Elliott in the same fashion is rookie Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. Wallace carries a personality unlike any other, not being afraid to speak his mind. He is so new to NASCAR’s premier series that he cannot even be considered in this discussion. And being in mediocre equipment along with his good, but not great, results in NASCAR’s lower series does not make him look to be the face of NASCAR in the future.
Other young drivers, namely Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson, have burst onto the scene in the past five years. Blaney has one win in two years and counting, while Larson has five as he is in his fifth year in the Cup Series. These two drivers also fall victim to the success pillar that is required to be the face of NASCAR.
It’s obvious young drivers just haven’t been overly successful in the past decade of the sport. To find the face of NASCAR, we must look at some of the veterans who may have been overshadowed by the previous vanguard, Dale Jr, and other superstars like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.
Jimmie Johnson, 7-time Cup champion and sixth on the all-time wins list, seems to be the obvious answer for those not entirely familiar with NASCAR. But Johnson suffered from being overshadowed by his teammate Dale Jr at many stages in his career. With Jr gone, Johnson could have easily taken over his seat. But he hasn’t, and may never.
Johnson, 42 years old, seems to be on the down swing of his career, having lucked into a championship in 2016 and underperformed in 2017. This season has not been any different. Johnson may never get back to the level of dominance he enjoyed during his streak of five consecutive titles, and with retirement looming for him in the eyes of many, he is not in the position to lead NASCAR into the future.
Kevin Harvick, also 42 years old, sits in a bit of a different position than Johnson. Harvick took over Dale Sr’s #3 car at Richard Childress Racing in 2001 after Dale’s death. Harvick drove the car, switched to #29, to victory three weeks later at Atlanta in emotional fashion. Harvick won the fans over, but not quite like Earnhardt Jr had.
Harvick’s career now boasts 40 wins, one title in 2014, and a 2007 Daytona 500 victory. He carries a large fanbase, but again, is not the huge point of discussion wherever NASCAR travels. Moreover, Harvick is likely going to be in the retirement discussion five years from now. He is one of NASCAR’s stalwart stars, but not the main event.
Defending champion Martin Truex Jr. has enjoyed amazing success in the Cup Series – for about two whole years. Before his breakout season in 2016, Truex only had three wins. Although very likeable, Truex doesn’t generate discussion on a daily basis. He’s a reserved, focused, level personality for the most part. Truex is no doubt a current superstar of NASCAR, but he is not the superstar.
This leaves only one feasible driver left, which many of you have certainly predicted by now. Kyle Busch. Yes, the Kyle Busch who fans hate, call a crybaby, and harass on social media. Yes, the Kyle Busch who demolished Ron Hornaday Jr’s chance of winning the 2011 Truck title by purposefully wrecking him under caution. Yes, the Kyle Busch who gets booed every week at driver intros and while on the track.
That Kyle Busch is also the same Kyle Busch who has enjoyed one of the most successful NASCAR careers in the history of the sport. 46 wins, one title (albeit controversial, only running 25 out of 36 races in 2015), and nearly 200 wins across NASCAR’s top three series. Since his first full-time season in 2005, Busch has won at least one race every year, and at least three races in ten of those fourteen years. The man in simply a force to be reckoned with more often that he isn’t.
So there is no doubt that the younger Busch brother is crazy talented and crazy successful. But is he popular enough? Popular in the sense of the media and television? Absolutely. He is talked about every week, and on every daily radio or talk show concerning NASCAR. Popular in the sense of being liked by the majority of fans? Well, that’s a different story.
Busch is possibly the most hated active driver. Some of that hatred or dislike, is deserved. But some of that hate also comes from the fact that he’s annoyingly successful. When he’s not winning, he’s finishing second, second, third, and second (see, Las Vegas-Martinsville, 2018). And when he does win, he seems unstoppable, just as he did during his three race winning streak this very season.
The backlash Busch gets for whatever he does – good or bad – sometimes overshadows his loyal and large fanbase. He has a huge following on social media platforms, and at the racetrack. The hate he faces and love he welcomes can best be compared to the late Dale Earnhardt. You either hate him or love him; there is no being indifferent.
Whether you moan every time you see the #18 Toyota on TV, or cheer with all your might, it is important to respect the driver while he is in the prime of his career. He is one of the most decorated drivers of all-time, and the trophies just keep piling up. He is one of the most talented wheelmen ever in NASCAR. He is also shaping up to be a certified all-time great, and no doubt a Hall of Famer. Most importantly, he does not lack the popularity that other superstars do. He captivates the NASCAR world when he talks, just as he does when he’s behind the wheel.
Due to this unbelievable talent, tremendous success, and the rare ability to captivate the world of NASCAR, Kyle Busch is the face of NASCAR, and he will be for the foreseeable future.