Junior's popularity & other NASCAR awards
December, 6, 2013
By Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Info | ESPN.com
Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesFor the 11th straight season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the most popular driver.
Here are three of the other notable winners, with some of the history they’ve made.
Most Popular Driver: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
For an 11th straight season, Earnhardt Jr. captured the Most Popular Driver award, voting on by the fans. Earnhardt Jr. finished the season fifth in points, equaling his best finish since he was a career-best third in 2003.
Domination of this award is nothing new, as Earnhardt Jr. picked up right where Bill Elliott left off. The two have now combined to win the award in 22 of the last 23 seasons, with only Dale Earnhardt Sr. winning the award posthumously in 2001 to break up the dominance.
The award goes back to 1956, well before the start of both Elliott and Earnhardt Jr.’s careers, yet the two have still combined to win 27 of the 58 total awards given.
Earnhardt’s lack of titles hasn’t stopped him from winning the award, as in the 58 total years the trophy has been awarded, only six times has it been given to the driver who won the title in the same season, and not since Elliott won his only championship in 1988.
Rookie of the Year: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
It was basically a two-driver race for the award, as Stenhouse was going up against Danica Patrick, and Stenhouse took it home, despite not putting up a top-10 finish until September at Richmond, and only recording a single top-five finish, at Talladega in October.
Stenhouse finished the year 19th in points, which doesn’t seem like much, but he’s the first Rookie of the Year to finish better than 20th in points since 2006, when Denny Hamlin won twice and finished third in points. The three drivers to win Rookie of the Year previous to Stenhouse finished 41st, 33rd and 35th in points.
Hamlin’s run was the final one in a successful run of rookies. From 1999 to 2006, the eight drivers to win rookie of the year never finished outside the top 20 in points, with four of them finishing in the top 10.
Nationwide Series Champion: Austin Dillon:
Dillon, who is likely coming to the Sprint Cup Series next season, will be the second straight defending Nationwide Series champion to run for Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year the following season, joining Stenhouse Jr.
Before that, it had been awhile since the Nationwide Series champion had moved up to the Cup Series, as the champions were either already-established Cup drivers, or were running their rookie Cup season while simultaneously winning the Nationwide title.
Before Stenhouse, the last driver to move up a series after winning a Nationwide title was Martin Truex Jr., who finished 19th in points in his Cup rookie season.
Before that, it was fairly common, but success was somewhat limited. The best points finish for a rookie Cup driver after previously winning a Nationwide Series championship was 16th, that coming from Earnhardt Jr. in 2000.