How the business savvy of Dale Earnhardt built a marketing empire for NASCAR stars

Dale Earnhardt business marketing
Kelly Jordan/USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

NBC Sports will take a look at the life, legacy and long-lasting impact of Dale Earnhardt who died 20 years ago this week on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001. This is the third chapter in an oral history series that remembers “The Intimidator” though the voices of those who knew the seven-time Cup Series champion who remains one of the biggest icons in NASCAR history.

Adjacent to the “deerhead shop” – an aluminum-sided inner sanctum of race cars surrounded by its owner’s trophy hunting-covered walls – Dale Earnhardt’s business empire started at a square maroon desk.

When Don Hawk joined Dale Earnhardt Inc in 1993 to help manage the appearances, branding and commercial opportunities for the seven-time NASCAR champion, his office primarily was in a converted brick farmhouse on Earnhardt’s sprawling property in Mooresville, North Carolina.

It’s where many major decisions were made by Earnhardt and his wife, Teresa, that charted the transcendent superstar’s course as a nine-figure marketing machine whose reach rivaled that of the most popular personalities in other professional sports.

ESSENCE OF THE INTIMIDATOR: What Dale Earnhardt meant to people

‘THE TWO DALES’: Drivers recall what it was like racing the seven-time champion

“I remember Dale and Teresa asking ‘What are we going to do that’s different?’ ” Hawk told NBC Sports. “I said, We’re going to market Dale Earnhardt as an athlete, not a race car driver.’

“The perception in’93 was that we were a barefoot, bib overall, redneck sport. That we had this whole reputation of being backward in business. What I saw in Earnhardt, once I traveled with him and watched the fan interaction, he was the Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus of his sport.”

Like those icons, Earnhardt became a household name in part from myriad multimillion-dollar endorsements that aligned him with ubiquitous trademarks ranging from fast food (Burger King) to toys (Hasbro) to beverages and snacks (Coca-Cola and Nabisco). Hawk said Nike founder Phil Knight had an autographed framed photo of Earnhardt, showing off the Swoosh on his shoes after winning the 1998 Daytona 500, prominently featured at company headquarters.

Dale Earnhardt business marketing
Dale Earnhardt’s firesuit carried the logos of several major brands before qualifying in November 1999 at Phoenix Raceway (Rick Scuteri/USA Today Sports/US Presswire).

But aside from expanding NASCAR’s footprint beyond endemic racing-oriented sponsorships, he also built a financial and licensing model for his peers to follow as merchandise revenues from diecast race cars and other souvenirs ballooned (Earnhardt’s Sports Image company licensed and sold his merchandise in trailers at the track).

“It was huge; he was really good at marketing and merchandising,” NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton said. “He gave me advice that, ‘The most important thing you have is your name. Don’t ever give anyone the rights to your name.’ And he really thought about the business side and how to utilize the work he had done to build the name he had. Those were important to him.”

Some of Earnhardt’s biggest deals were joint partnerships with the drivers whom he slammed fenders with on track in feuds that built his sway.

Dale Earnhardt business marketing
Dale Earnhardt poses next to his hauler after practice Feb. 11, 1997 at Daytona International Speedway (USA TODAY Sports).

While Jeff Gordon’s rise threatened his victory totals, Earnhardt viewed the emergence of a young championship foil as a vehicle for building interest in NASCAR, and they entered business and real estate ventures together (including as shareholders in Action Performance, a major diecast retailer that also bought Sports Image from Earnhardt for $30 million).

“He would know who was selling (how much) every weekend,” Gordon said of Earnhardt during a December 2018 appearance on The Dale Jr. Download. “Where his sales are, where the other drivers are, he knew it all. I think my stuff started getting up there. I’m sure there was a little rivalry and competition, but he embraced it and said, ‘Man, I think we got something here we can grow.’ ”

Dale Jarrett owned three businesses with Earnhardt and said Cup drivers appreciated being able to draft off the enormously popular “Intimidator” persona into their own profitable windfalls.

“He didn’t have to do that, he could have made his own money,” said Jarrett, the NASCAR on NBC analyst and 1999 Cup Series champion. “And even though it was about making money for all of us, it also was about bringing a service and opportunity to the fans. I think we all appreciated that and what helped drive the sport.”

Hawk said Earnhardt’s drive at the office started early after 5:30 a.m. rounds of his shop and the livestock on his farm.

“When he came to the office, he wanted to know how much money we made last week and what did we plan on doing this week,” said Hawk, who started as general manager and rose to president of DEI during his 1993-2000 tenure. “The minute the helmet was hung up and Monday morning came, it was, ‘How many dollars of souvenirs did we sell? What was our gross profit, revenues and expenses? What did we net?’ And he started doing that with endorsements, sponsorships and spokesmanships. For an eighth-grade education, he was very sharp. You didn’t have to tell him twice, and one thing he understood was money.”

Through interviews with those in his business orbit during the 1990s zenith, NBC Sports explored Earnhardt’s meticulously constructed Q score clout in this chapter of a weeklong series recalling the legacy of Earnhardt 20 years after his death:


Don Hawk, former DEI president: The relationships start to build bridges. Coca-Cola was huge. It took a long time to get that done. Earnhardt had a different deal than just being part of the Coca-Cola Racing Family. He had the true endorsement. That started to kick the door down. We did Remington Rifles, and it wasn’t just Dale got guns, he got money to endorse it. The Nabisco deal, Dale spoke at their annual convention to their employees and leaders, and they paid a regular speaking fee like someone in the Washington Speakers Bureau, and they paid him over six digits to come just to speak.

We went to the QVC (home shopping network) with one goal in mind — and Michael Jordan and (agent) David Falk couldn’t have been better sports about it. But in one hour, we broke Michael Jordan’s record for selling products on QVC. We sold $768,000 worth of product in one hour on QVC. And it was diecasts, it was clocks, watches, pennants, T-shirts, hats. You name it, we sold it. A year later, Dale was at Michael’s restaurant, and he and Dale met, and Michael was joking about going back on QVC to blow up Earnhardt’s number. And Dale said, “Why don’t we both go on together and both kill it?” We never got to that point, but it was pretty neat.

Jeff Burton: There were a lot of people who sold a lot of merchandise with Dale Earnhardt’s name on it. And they would tell you how great they were, and I’d be like, “No, you sell my shit, that means you’re good. I could sell his stuff.” Anytime one of them would say to me, “I did this for Dale!” I’d say “OK, you’re not my guy.” Because anyone can do it for him. He was just the guy.

Hell, I had a Dale Earnhardt T-shirt. I was racing at Orange County Speedway on a Saturday night, and we were going on a four-day vacation, and I went out to one of the souvenir trailers and bought a Dale Earnhardt T-shirt, so I’d have one to wear on vacation.

Dale Jarrett: He showed us all there was a whole other business out there besides driving a race car. When he and Benny Ertel and his whole group of people started in on understanding this whole other side of T-shirts and hats and other opportunities as diecast cars came along, it became another business. And Earnhardt showed us all the way, and he also led sales every year in that respect. Business opportunities came along for all of us because everybody couldn’t be associated with Dale Earnhardt.

But he also included a number of us in his business ventures because he was a smart businessman who understood that getting people like Terry Labonte and Rusty Wallace and myself and Bobby Labonte was a part of it. People that were doing well in the sport at that particular time, and Gordon was a part of it, he knew we could be competitors on the track and every weekend we could try to beat other on the track, but as a group, we were much stronger in providing fans with what they wanted in souvenirs. He helped make a lot of us a lot of money.

Rusty Wallace on The Dale Jr. Download in March 2019: When they started the merchandise business, he got me involved in that and made some good money. He was a good guy when it comes to that. We spent a lot of time off the track. … One time at North Wilkesboro, Mr. France Jr. got a hold of us, and we were talking about T-shirts and on and on about merchandising. We were having a good time back then with all these different paint schemes. It was exciting.

So we get in the race, I come off Turn 2, he bangs me in the back end. I got hot and come off Turn 2, and I slammed the brakes. He hit me so hard, it tore off his grille and front end. I finished second, and Old Man France comes down and says “What in the hell are you doing out there, man?” Just selling T-shirts, boss. I really respected (Earnhardt). He taught me a lot. He made me want to be like him. At times, he made me want to dress like him.

Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace in the Daytona International Speedway garage during a Feb. 16, 2000 practice (Gregg Pachkowski/USA TODAY Sports).

Kyle Petty: When it came to hats, T-shirts, trinkets and swag, (Earnhardt) had a team of people and established a group that maximized the potential of the time. Would that work today? Maybe not. Would it have worked 10 years before (then)? Probably not. But if it hadn’t been Dale Earnhardt, it might have been Rusty Wallace. Whoever was in that position then could have taken advantage of that situation. Earnhardt took advantage of the situation that was presented to him. You can say — and rightfully so — that during that period of time he was a leader in what was going on from diecast cars to T-shirts to everything, and his team and his group did the best job of anybody in this sport. But I just think that was just the right timing. I think Jeff Gordon could have done the same thing or Dale Jr could have done the same thing if he was there at that time.


Hawk: Teresa was heavily involved. They played off each other, but they didn’t always agree. Teresa was tough. For a long time, people thought, ‘Man, Hawk, you’re brutal.’ Some of it was doing what I was asked to do, but I was just a loud voice in the room. Anybody in the boardroom knew Teresa was as tough, and I don’t mean that derogatory. Teresa was sharp because she knew they could have a big business. She wanted to make sure she saw every deal and every decision. There was a couple of deals that we lost because we were too onerous. We were too tough. We wanted a big number and wanted our cake and eat it, too. That’s part of how it went.

Dale Earnhardt with his wife, Teresa, before the March 23, 1997 race at Darlington Raceway (Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports).

Bill France Jr. and Dale were extremely tight, and Bill would call sometimes and go, “You guys are running fast, pal. Don’t forget, every single guy that races against you, needs to be taken care of,” so we formed a company owned by Teresa and I called Optima Consulting LLC. And we helped other race car drivers and teams with deals because Bill France told me “If you take all the money, none will be left for the guys racing against him, and your champ will be a chump.”

You have to give credit to Hank Jones and Joe Tillman at Sports Image for getting this idea to put souvenirs out there in the trailer and sell them. And to Ken Barbee, who recently died. He had RJR’s license and eventually got Jeff Gordon. The dangerous part of this sport was when Earnhardt and Gordon started marketing together. It was phenomenal. We owned companies and real estate together. He was Pepsi, we were Coke. He was the champ, we were the challenger. He was The Kid.

Jeff Gordon on The Dale Jr. Download: Our relationship started growing. One of the first times we interacted, your dad asked about signing autographs at Greenville Pickens (Speedway). Big crowd. And so I went. Crazy lines of people. I went there just blown away, and they were all there for (Earnhardt). But I had a pretty good following at that time, too. He was there for hours upon hours signing autographs. There was some money involved. It was a business deal and a good one. We talked after that and the souvenirs started to build up.


Hawk: Chase Racewear was the apparel company formed on a napkin in Ken Barbee’s condominium, No. 407, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. As Ken and I talked, Joe Mattes (now the vice president of licensing and marketing for Dale Earnhardt Jr.) was writing on a napkin the deal points that I took to Dale and other drivers. We offered the rights to the company if they’d allow us to have Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt and a couple of other drivers to own a small piece of it. We gave shares to Earnhardt and Gordon. Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte, Bobby Labonte and John Force, because we wanted the NHRA involved. I remember walking around and handing those guys checks that were in the hundreds of thousands after the first quarter.

Gordon: Fred Wagenhals was coming along with Action Performance and said we need to get more drivers. He talked to me, and it was one of the best business decisions I ever made. They did a great job with the diecasts and made a bunch of us a lot of money. I was very appreciative, and it worked out good for (Earnhardt), too. After that I didn’t mind going to talk to Dale about contracts. He was the first one that came to me. Things were different back then. We’d get on his plane and go to places to sign autographs and do sponsor deals. You start talking on these planes. (Earnhardt) told me right away you need to get all the rights to your likeness. If you can get your licensing deal, too, you need to get that. A lot of things he was doing, he talked me into doing it.

Dale Earnhardt signs autographs Nov. 2, 1997 at Phoenix International Raceway (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports).

I just wanted to win and perform on track, but Dale would do things — we’d be on Lap 10 of the Daytona 500 and he’d take us three wide. I’d be going, “What the hell?” But he had this ability to know he’s got all these fans up there that are going to love this. They’ll eat this up — and they did! He had this ability to read what the fans were asking for.”

Hawk: Dale wanted to not be in debt, so he’d ask, “How much money do we need to pay every vendor every month on time? Then find me that many sponsors or endorsements and we’ll do that many appearances.” One year, we did 342 personal appearances or souvenir gigs with fans because that was when we were starting the building of DEI (the main building), and he wanted a boatload of cash to start. We were on the road somewhere that whole year.

Dale said, “I want a Learjet, but the only way I’m going to buy it is you tell me you paid for it (in full). Find the money to pay for it, and when you do, I’m going to tell you I want that jet. He and Teresa went to the Bahamas. I negotiated with the Learjet president, and I said to Dale we can buy that airplane. He said pass me all the info on it. He had to go to a phone booth on the island in the Bahamas because the yacht phone wouldn’t work. He calls in a phone booth and says, ‘Are you sure that we’re not taking any money out of the bank account?’ I said we’ll take money out of the bank account that we’ve accrued doing this deal, this deal and this deal. So I sent the paperwork to Lear, they sent me a bill of sale. I faxed it to the yacht, and we bought it while he was in the Bahamas with Teresa.

He said, “If the jet costs one dollar more than $3 million, I don’t want it.” I had the buyer’s order written up for $2,999,999 just because I love to win and wanted Earnhardt to know I came in under the number. He gave me a goal, and I had to beat it. I joked with the guy and said I’ll send you the buck.

Friday 5: Is it time to change how NASCAR champion is determined?

2 Comments

Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both raise questions about how NASCAR determines its champion with a one-race event after whittling the 16-driver playoff field to four through a trio of three-race rounds.

Since 2014, the driver who finished the highest among the four championship contenders in the season finale won the title. The format creates a Game 7 type of moment for the sport in an event that has become a winner-take-all race. Joey Logano won the season finale at Phoenix to win his second Cup title. Ty Gibbs claimed the Xfinity title by winning the season finale at Phoenix. Zane Smith won the Truck title by winning the season finale at Phoenix. 

Thursday, the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series announced a new way of determining its series champion that mirrors the NASCAR format. The late model series will cut its field of playoff drivers through eliminations, leading to one race where the four remaining championship contenders will vie for the title in 2023.

One of the questions with the NASCAR format is if it provides the most fair way to determine a series champion. Of course, the NFL determines its champion by the Super Bowl, a winner-take-all game. The best team hasn’t always reached that game or won that game, but the event has been played for more than 50 years with no change in sight.

Those who question NASCAR’s way of determining a champion note that the Super Bowl is between two teams, while the championship race for Cup, Xfinity and the Truck Series not only includes the four teams racing for a crown but also the rest of the field, which can include 30 more vehicles. What those drivers and teams do can make an impact on the race and play a role in who wins the championship.

“I think Dale Jr. covered it perfectly,” Hamlin said. “Should one season come down to this three-hour window?”

Hamlin, who seeks his first Cup title, says that the previous Cup champions have been worthy and admits that “I’m the last one that should comment on this” because he doesn’t have a title. 

Still, he raises questions.

“From a purist’s standpoint, it needs to have a bigger sample size,” he said.

Hamlin notes how he knew he wouldn’t win the 2020 Cup title even though he was among the four contenders because his team was not as strong at the shorter tracks such as Phoenix. 

“If you had more of a sample size, you have a chance,” he said. 

Earnhardt expressed the questions he had about the format when he spoke with former NASCAR Chairman Brian France on the Dale Jr. Download this fall.

Earnhardt said the playoff format, which features three-race rounds, is “compelling. It can be argued that it’s relatively fair. Everybody’s got the same opportunity. It’s three races. You can kind of dig yourself out of a hole. But I’ve always kind of struggled with the final race being all or nothing.

“The reason why I struggle with that is because the venue may suit a team or a driver. … You wouldn’t ever consider running it at a road course or a superspeedway because that certainly suits some drivers more than other. You try to have it at a neutral facility, if you will, like a Homestead or a Phoenix.

“But I always had a hard time with saying, ‘OK, it all boils down to this one race where you’ve got to get it right and if you don’t you’re not a champion this year.’ Even though you’ve really got this amazing body of work. You can still have that guy that wins one race be the champion and the guy that wins six not even make the final round.

“I wish we could figure out a way to make that championship moment not an all or nothing three-hour affair. … I’ve really warmed up to everything else we’ve done. It took me a long time because I was too much of traditionalist. But I still feel like there’s got to be a better scenario for the final moment.”

France responded to Earnhardt’s query by saying: “The reason you feel that way is because those are fair points that you make. They are.”

France went on to say that such questions are “part of the challenge of a playoff format in general with auto racing. You’re just going to have to accept that is not exactly perfect.”

France then said: “My decision was we’re not going to hold ourselves back from getting those (Game 7) moments because auto racing doesn’t quite fit perfectly into that. We just couldn’t do it.”

NASCAR changed how its champion was crowned ahead of the 2004 season. From 2000-03, three champions were so far ahead in the points that they clinched the title with one race left in the season (Bobby Labonte in 2000, Jeff Gordon in 2001 and Matt Kenseth in 2003). 

The Chase was created to generate interest in the fall, particularly when NASCAR was going against the NFL on Sundays. The Chase morphed into the playoffs and included eliminations and one race to determine the champion. 

Hamlin says a three-race round to determine the champion will keep the interest of fans.

“I think when you spread it out amongst a bigger sample size, such as a three-race (round), I don’t see how that’s not a positive thing for ratings. People will be compelled every week to tune in because this is the championship round. I think there’s something to be gained there.”

Asked about what if one of the title contenders wins the first two races to all but assure them the title ahead of the final race, Hamlin said: “Will not happen. There’ll be no lockup. No one will be locked going into the final race.”

Hamlin acknowledges that his viewpoint will not be shared by all.

“I’m a traditionalist like Dale,” Hamlin said. “This is just my opinion. I think that everyone is going to have a different opinion on it, but I just believe a larger sample size of our champion makes it more legitimate. I think it would be hard for anyone to argue that, especially in the industry. 

“If you ask the drivers, ‘Do you see championships as valuable today as they did 10 years ago?’ I don’t think any one considers them as valuable just because it’s one race. It’s one race.”

2. Plugged in

Tyler Reddick moves to 23XI Racing and will have Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan as his bosses. Reddick says that Jordan is not an absent owner.

“We’ve gotten to spend time (together) a little bit, here and there,” Reddick said of Jordan. “His involvement with the team is, I think, more than most realize.”

Reddick referenced the Martinsville race in October when he pulled out of the event because he wasn’t feeling well after contact on the track. Jordan reached out to Reddick afterward.

“It was really cool that you have a guy like him checking in on you to make sure you’re OK,” Reddick said. “He’s definitely locked in, and he really wants the team to do well. I’m excited to be working with him.”

3. Staying home

Kyle Larson said he will race very little this offseason. He’s staying at home for the birth of his third child with wife Katelyn Sweet.

Larson will compete in the Wild West Shootout, a dirt late model event at Vado (New Mexico) Speedway Park on Jan. 7-8 and Jan. 11-15.

Larson will not compete in the Chili Bowl this year. 

He said his focus will be on family this offseason.

“Help out where I can and just spend as much time with the family,” Larson said. “I normally go race a lot, but this year I’m not. I’m actually excited about it. I’ve only run one race so far this offseason. I’m surprised that it already feels like the offseason is going by really fast because I thought it’d be really slow with me not racing. It’s been good to just not race for once.”

4. Looking to improve

Ryan Blaney said he and crew chief Jonathan Hassler have looked back on the season and compiled a list of things to do for next year.

Blaney won the All-Star Race but did not win any points races. He finished eighth in points. It’s the sixth consecutive year he’s finished in the top 10 in points, but he’s never placed higher than seventh in the standings at the end of a season.

“We were up front so many races and led a lot of laps and won a bunch of stages, just never won (a points race),” Blaney said. “It is kind of a bummer. 

“So what kept us out of victory lane? Was it me? Was it a bad pit stop? It was kind of everything in some certain races. Sometimes they don’t work out for you. Some are self-induced. I felt like we took ourselves out of a handful of races I felt like we had a good shot of winning. … It is a bummer we didn’t win, but I was proud of the consistency and just hope to build on that.” 

Blaney is ready for the new season to begin.

“I’m kind of like two weeks is nice and then I kind of get itching to get back going,” he said. “It is nice to reset, and you kind of go through things you want to be better at. You have your own little list between myself and my team. … It’s a perfect time to work on that stuff.”

5. New partnership 

Among the new driver/crew chief pairings for 2023 is Austin Dillon working with Keith Rodden.

Rodden last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne. Rodden served as crew chief for William Byron in one race in 2020 but returns to full-time duty with Dillon, who finished 11th in points this past season, tying his career best. 

Rodden most recently worked on the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors. He takes over for Justin Alexander.

“Keith and I first got to work together in a wheel-force test for the Next Gen car at Richmond,” Dillon said. “It was a two-day test. We had dinner that night. It was good to talk to him. … Just knowing his passion was still very high to get back to the Cup level and crew chief. Him having the ability the work with Chevy this past year and seeing the different odds and ends of the Next Gen car was really the key to us (for him) to come over and crew chief for.”

Jesse Iwuji Motorsports seeks $4.125 million in lawsuit against sponsor

1 Comment

Jesse Iwuji Motorsports, a NASCAR Xfinity Series team, has filed a $4.125-million lawsuit against Equity Prime Mortgage, one of the team’s sponsors.

In the lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the team alleges that EPM committed a breach of contract. JIM alleges that EPM agreed to pay the team $2.25 million for sponsorship in the 2022 season and $3.75 million for 2023.

The lawsuit attempts to recoup what Jesse Iwuji Motorsports calls two missed payments totaling $375,000 from 2022 and the $3.75 million for 2023. The filing of the lawsuit was first reported by TobyChristie.com.

MORE: Dr. Diandra: The best driver of 2022

MORE: RCR reveals Kyle Busch sponsors 

The team scored one top-10 finish in 30 Xfinity starts in 2022. The team’s cars were driven by Kyle Weatherman and Iwuji. Weatherman had a best finish of eighth; Iwuji’s best run was an 11th.

The team was founded by Iwuji, former National Football League player Emmitt Smith and a group of investors.

The lawsuit claims that an EPM executive informed the team in September 2022 that EPM had been “margin called” and was dealing with problems because of rising mortgage rates and that EPM could not make any more payments to Jesse Iwuji Motorsports .

According to the lawsuit, Jesse Iwuji Motorsports sent EPM a Notice of Intent to terminate the sponsorship agreement after the payment due Oct. 1 was missed. The suit claims EPM “took no action” after EPM offered 30 days to remedy the situation.

The suit also claims EPM “allegedly continued to take advantage of their status as a sponsor of the NASCAR Xfinity Series team, as EPM continued to make promotional posts on social media, which featured the company’s logo on the JIM race car.”

EPM is based in Atlanta.

Dr Diandra: The best driver of 2022

0 Comments

NASCAR’s elimination playoff format means that the driver with the best statistics — arguably the “best driver of 2022” — doesn’t always win the championship.

Races unfinished

Drivers involved in a lot of crashes also failed to finish a lot of races. But not all accidents end drivers’ races. Comparing accidents and spins to DNF (did not finish) totals helps gauge how serious those incidents were.

Ross Chastain and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were involved in the most accidents for a single driver with 15 caution-causing crashes each. The difference is that Chastain had only five DNFs (33.3%), while Stenhouse had nine (60.0%).

Ty Dillion tied Stenhouse for the most DNFs in the series with nine DNFs and 10 accidents.

Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon and Corey LaJoie tied for third place with eight DNFs each. Reddick had 10 accidents, while Dillon and LaJoie were each involved in 11 crashes.

No driver avoided DNFs entirely. Among full-timers, Michael McDowell had the fewest DNFs in 2022 with two. Justin Haley and Ryan Blaney tied for second with three DNFs each.

In 2021, only Denny Hamlin finished every race running. This year he had five DNFs, with four in the first nine races.

This year’s 225 DNFs are up significantly from 179 in 2021. and the most DNFs since 2017. I’ll be watching in 2023 to see if the rise in DNFs continues, or if this was a one-time phenomenon due to the first year with a new car.

Wins

“Best driver” doesn’t necessarily mean most wins.

This year’s champion, Joey Logano, didn’t have the most wins. That’s not at all uncommon in NASCAR. With 19 different winners in 2022, no driver dominated the season the way Kyle Larson did in 2021 with 10 wins.

The winningest drivers in 2022 were: Chase Elliott (five wins) and Logano (four wins). Christopher Bell, Larson and Reddick tied for third with three wins each.

Top-five and top-10 finishes

While wins matter more than good finishes, the number of top-five and top-10 finishes show how close a driver got to taking home the checkered flag. Running up front means being there to take advantage of other drivers’ mistakes and misfortune.

In 2021, Larson had the most top-five finishes (20) and the most top-10 finishes (26). This year, good finishes were much more spread out.2022's best drivers in terms of top-five and top-ten finishes

Chastain deserves a special shoutout for having 13 more top-10 finishes than he earned in 2021.

Also deserving of a shoutout, but for different reasons: Hamlin had the same number of wins this year as last, but nine fewer top-five finishes. William Byron and Martin Truex Jr. also had nine fewer finishes in the top five.

Logging laps

While Truex didn’t make the championship race, he did tie Elliott for the most lead-lap finishes in the season with 29, or 80.6% of starts. Blaney, Byron and Kevin Harvick each had 28 lead-lap finishes.

Elliott led the most laps in 2022 with 857. He’s followed by Logano (784), Byron (746), Chastain (692) and Blaney (636).

I remain slightly wary of metrics that purport to measure quickness because so much of a car’s speed depends on where in the field it’s running. Lap traffic, or even being far back in the field, can slow fast cars. That’s especially true at short tracks.

For completeness, however, the next two tables show the drivers’ numbers of fastest laps and those with the best rank in green-flag speed according to NASCAR’s loop data.

Two tables showing the drivers with the most fastest laps and the highest rank in green-flag speedChampion Logano ranked 11th in fastest laps with 319, and eighth in overall green-flag speed with an average ranking of 9.281.

Best Finishes

The tables below show drivers’ rankings throughout the season for average finishes and average running position.

Two tables comparing 2022's best drivers in terms of average finish and average running position

Elliott ranks first in both average finish and running position. Chastain takes second for best average finish and fourth for best average running position, while Blaney is second for running position and fourth for finishing position.

Logano finished 2022 third in both metrics.

Passing

NASCAR defines a quality pass as a pass for position inside the top 15. Interpreting the meaning of the number of passes is a little tricky. A driver who runs up front a lot doesn’t make many quality passes because he doesn’t need to.

I focus instead on the percentage of quality passes: the fraction of all green-flag passes that qualify as quality passes. A higher percentage means that the driver is efficient: The passes mean something.

Elliott scores first in percentage of quality passes with 63.4%, just edging out Bell, who has 63.3% quality passes. Larson is third with 61.2%.

Who was the best driver in 2022?

I combined the metrics I think matter most for determining the best driver in the table below. I color-coded drivers who appear in the top five in more than one metric to make it easier to see patterns.

A table showing the top five in each of the metrics discussed in the hopes of identifying 2022's best driver.

This table confirms that the NASCAR playoffs format did a good job identifying the top four drivers in the series. Elliott, Logano, Chastain and Bell are well-represented in the top five in each metric.

The table also shows that Larson and Blaney contended strongly in 2022. With a slightly different distribution of luck, one (or both) might have found their way to the Championship Four.

Logano’s consistency is also evident, even though he doesn’t rank first in any of these metrics and fails to make the table in top-five finishes or quality passes. It’s not uncommon for the driver with the most wins not to win the championship. And this year has been anything but common.

But overall, it’s hard not to argue that Elliott had the statistically best year. He led the series in wins, laps led, average finish, average running position and percent quality passes. If his playoffs had been comparable to his regular season, he would have taken the trophy.

But they weren’t and he didn’t. That may have ended the 2022 season on a down note for the No. 9 team, but they can look forward to 2023 knowing they have a strong base on which to build.

While skill is reproducible, luck isn’t.

Kaz Grala, Connor Mosack join Sam Hunt Racing for 2023

0 Comments

Kaz Grala is scheduled to run the full NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule for Sam Hunt Racing in 2023.

Connor Mosack will drive a second Hunt car — No. 24 — in 20 races for the team. Grala will drive the No. 26 Toyota.

The new season will mark Grala’s first as a full-time Xfinity driver.

MORE: RCR reveals sponsors for Kyle Busch

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: Calculating the numbers

“I’ve scratched and clawed for each opportunity over the past several seasons, and while it hasn’t been easy, it’s made me appreciate this sport and its difficulty more than I ever could if things had been easy,” Grala said in a statement released by the team. “I feel like everything has finally come together at the perfect time in my life with the right team around me to start that next chapter in my career.”

Grala, 23, has scored five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 44 Xfinity starts. He has raced in all three NASCAR national series and won a Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway in 2017.

Allen Hart will be Grala’s crew chief.

Mosack, who will begin his schedule at Phoenix Raceway March 11, was the CARS Tour rookie of the year in 2020. He drove in two Xfinity and two Truck races in 2022.

Kris Bowen will be Mosack’s crew chief. The team said it will announce other drivers for the 24 car later.