Drivers Who Could Take Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Place As NASCAR’s Most Popular

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When Dale Earnhardt Jr. retires after the 2017 season, he’ll be leaving NASCAR something much bigger to fill than just a spot in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Earnhardt has won NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award a record 14 years running. Putting a number on his importance to the sport doesn’t feel fair, though, as Earnhardt has transcended NASCAR in many ways that can’t be quantified. Losing the face of the sport is something that hits NASCAR at the worst possible time, with ratings and attendance continuing to decline.

Hope, however, might be found in the sport’s youth movement. Once Earnhardt officially retires, NASCAR will look to its talented crop of young drivers to fill the void he leaves behind, and a few of them look like they could be up to the task.

Here are five drivers who could replace Earnhardt as the face of NASCAR:

Chase Elliott

NASCAR driver Chase elliott

Photo via Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY Sports Images

Like Earnhardt, Chase Elliott has had to deal with the expectations that come with being the product of a former racer, as his father Bill is the most popular driver in NASCAR history. And although he’s only in his second full-time season at the Cup level, Elliott has handled the pressure well, and has shown enough on the track to prove he’s worthy of the hype.

Elliott still doesn’t have a Cup race victory, and if he’s going to be the face of the sport, NASCAR needs him to start winning. Still, Elliott is just 21 years old, and looks to have a long, successful career ahead of him.

Kyle Larson

NASCAR driver Kyle Larson

Photo via Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports Images

As popular and important to NASCAR as Elliott is, Kyle Larson probably is the most talented driver on this list, and might be the best driver in the series right now.

In eight starts this season, Larson has one victory, four runner-ups and six top-10 finishes overall. The 24-year-old Chip Ganassi Racing driver doesn’t have the most electric personality, but his popularity could skyrocket if he keeps racing as he has.

Daniel Suarez

NASCAR driver Daniel Suarez

Photo via Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY Sports Images

The 25-year-old rookie is just getting started on the Cup level, but he’s shown flashes of what’s made him such a tantalizing prospect. It’s what he brings from a marketing standpoint, however, that earns him a spot on this list.

The Mexican driver currently is the only foreign-born regular in the series. In addition his ability to help NASCAR extend its reach, Suarez has the talent and personality to be one of the most popular drivers in the sport.

Darrell Wallace Jr.

NASCAR driver Darrell Wallace Jr.

Photo via Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports Images

More commonly known as “Bubba,” Darrell Wallace Jr. currently is a full-time driver in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, but it might not be long before he makes the jump to Cup. When and if that happens, Wallace will be the first black driver to race full-time in NASCAR’s premier series.

Before he can help the sport reach a wider audience, though, Wallace needs to race well enough to earn a spot among the sport’s best.

Ryan Blaney

NASCAR driver Ryan Blaney

Photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images

Apart from after a recent dust-up, Earnhardt hasn’t been shy about praising Ryan Blaney, who’s shown a huge improvement during his fourth full-time season at the Cup level. The 23-year-old Wood Brothers Racing driver isn’t the most brash driver on the series, and he still doesn’t have Cup race victory. Still, he’s young and talented enough to become one of the sport’s most recognizable faces.

Thumbnail photo via Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports Images

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