On Thursday night, NASCAR officially crowned its newest Cup champion and its first new most popular driver in 15 years.
Joey Logano was recognized as champion after 10 years in the series, and Chase Elliott won the majority of fan votes after three years (and the retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won it 15 years in a row).
The Cup champion and the series’ most popular driver have not synched up in 30 years. It last occurred in 1988 when Hall of Famer Bill Elliott won his only title and the fifth of his record 16 most popular driver awards.
NASCAR has seen a mass exodus of its biggest stars in the last five years with the retirements of four-time champion Jeff Gordon, three-time champion Tony Stewart, Earnhardt, Danica Patrick and Carl Edwards prior to 2018.
Out of that group only Earnhardt won most popular driver.
After Thursday’s banquet, three of the four Championship drivers, including Logano, were asked what they need to do to find and establish themselves as the next big stars in the same vein as those who have recently hung up their helmets.
Here’s what they had to say.
“That’s never going to happen. I think as you look at our sport and you look at the Elliott name and the Earnhardt name, those are names that a guy like myself (a native of California) and Clint Bowyer (Kansas native) and Kyle Larson (California) are never going to overcome. You will never have the Southern, the Southeast fan base that an Earnhardt or an Elliott has. That’s just the way it’s going to be.”
“Changes of the guard always happen. I’m now in my 14th season, something like that, so I’ve been here for a long time. I guess it’s not necessarily my time at the forefront. But I feel as if I’ve learned a tremendous amount and it’s sort of coming down to the point now where you have that opportunity to be able to go out there with all that you’ve learned and now have success.
What do you and the other leaders need to do to establish yourselves as the next Jeff Gordon, Dale Jr., Tony Stewart, etc.?
“Good question, I just think for some reason we’re just not quite getting the same amount of attention that we’ve had years ago. Why that is, I’m not sure. I think the racing is so competitive and some of the most compelling racing in all of motorsports. It’s exciting to me behind the wheel each time. You look at Chicagoland, we don’t have those finishes every week. But people strive for those finishes every week and tell me how many times those finishes have happened in the course of our lifetime. There’s been thousands and thousands of races and there’s probably hundreds of times people talk about great finishes in out sport. It’s just so competitive, everybody wants the picture perfect finish and the excitement of (that) every week.”
“I think Chase is deserving, a deserving member of that. He does a great job as our most popular driver. … Yeah, we all knew that (he would win). You can tell just by the T-shirts walking around. But like I said in my speech, love me or hate me, the fact that you love NASCAR means the most to me. Honestly, that’s what keeps every one of us that are standing around here employed. That’s a big deal for the growth of our sport. For me, I’m a fan before I was a driver and I’m still a fan before I’m a driver. When you think of what it means just to watch racing and to be a race fan and watching it and enjoying every second of it, that’s me. That’s who I am. I’m passionate about the people that I like and the ones I don’t root for in other sports You have to have that. You have to have ones you really like and the ones you don’t. That’s just part of it. I think being a hard racer, sometimes that’s what brings out the boos. Like I said, that doesn’t bother me because I know they’re passionate people and I like people that are passionate.
On driver personalities
“We have big personalities still, which is great. Everyone has their own. I don’t think we’re as vanilla as you think. There’s plenty of interesting personalities. You got Kyle Busch, he’s got so much personality. It’s great. Everyone is just who they are. I like that part. I like that everyone is who you are and not fake. You obviously want to do the right thing for your sponsors, but still being who you is still most important piece.’