As difficult as it is for people to agree on anything these days, can we at least all agree that 2014 wasn’t all that long ago?
Well, it might as well have been a lifetime ago for NASCAR.
Racing journalist Jeff Gluck compiled the top 10 racers on every ballot for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award since 2003, and one look at the tally from just three years ago showed just how much star power has been lost: Only three of the top 10 vote-getters from 2014 are expected to still be competing in 2018.
The top 10 is listed below, in alphabetical order. Active drivers in 2018 are in bold face.
2014 Most Popular Driver ballot*
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
*as voted on by the National Motorsports Press Association
**Patrick will not race full-time in 2018, but intends to contest the Daytona 500.
(Wise’s inclusion will forever amuse diehards, who recall the grassroots online movement in 2014 that not only led to Wise cracking this top 10, but even getting voted into the Sprint All-Star Race.)
Longtime fans have been distressed by the recent exodus of so many beloved drivers. This year’s high-profile retirement by Earnhardt dominated the discussion, but he’s far from the only popular driver to call it quits — or to have it called for him.
Earnhardt, Gordon and Stewart enjoyed extended farewell tours, whereas Kenseth and Patrick optimistically hoped for new rides until almost the very last moment. Even Edwards’ retirement earlier this year looks less surprising now, given how quickly the landscape changed for once-stable drivers such as Kurt Busch and Kahne.
NASCAR has plenty of young talent waiting to step into the spotlight, led by Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson. But it’s unclear whether those young drivers will be able to capture the hearts of established fans, or whether NASCAR will need to continue to think outside the box in its efforts to attract new fans and sponsors.