Since 2018, the NASCAR Cup series’ Most Popular Driver award has been a foregone conclusion: Chase Elliott would win it.
But that award may not be as cut and dry this year due to Kyle Busch‘s rising popularity and Elliott’s controversy. Will that lead their amount of fan votes to meet in the middle?
No, I haven’t completely lost my mind.
Did you hear the crowd at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway after Busch won? It was all cheers — loud ones, too.
A few years ago, a mixture of cheers and boos would’ve been heard. A little over a decade ago, it would’ve been the loudest chorus of boos ever to grace a racetrack.
There’s been a complete transformation in how the NASCAR masses view Busch. He’s traded in the black hat for a white one.
Before he was that guy who wrecked Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ron Hornaday Jr., smashed a Sam Bass guitar in victory lane and drove one of “dem cheatin’ ‘Yoders.” Now he’s regarded as one of the greatest drivers of all time, one of the cleanest racers on the track and a driver who actually has a personality.
His move to Richard Childress Racing (a team loved by many fans) and Chevrolet (the most popular manufacturer) completed his transformation from villain to hero and placed him firmly among the fan favorites.
When NASCAR honored its 75 Greatest Drivers at Darlington Raceway this year, Carl Edwards was taken aback at the crowd’s positive reaction to Busch. Edwards remembered the boos Busch got as recently as 2016 when Edwards left NASCAR. The difference in reaction was startling for the former driver.
Here’s the thing, though: Even at the peak of his villainy, Busch still had one of the biggest fanbases in NASCAR. He consistently finished in the top 10 in the Most Popular Driver voting. I believe he even finished second in the voting a few years, but NASCAR doesn’t release the results, so don’t quote me on that.
So take the fanbase Busch already had and then add onto it the fans that have hopped onto his bandwagon this year, and he could give Elliott a serious run for his money for that award.
Elliott, on the flip side, has done nothing but hurt his chances for the award this year.
First, he hurt himself snowboarding and missed six races. Think of the fans who spent their hard-earned money to buy tickets to those six races to see Elliott race and didn’t because I guess golf or basketball are too boring for him.
I get it, Elliott has the right to do whatever he wants in his free time. But wouldn’t that leave a sour taste in a fan’s mouth if they spent money to go to a race and didn’t even get to see him race because he was doing a different but still dangerous activity?
In the races since Elliott’s return, he’s been OK. But he’s been the third best Hendrick Motorsports car, with his teammates Kyle Larson and William Byron running better. Those who are Elliott fans solely because he drives for HMS are probably voting for Larson or Byron for MPD instead this year.
Then in the Coca-Cola 600, Elliott broke one of the unwritten rules in racing: right-hooking a competitor. He sent Denny Hamlin head-on into the frontstretch wall in a wreck eerily similar to the one that took Blaise Alexander‘s life in 2001.
I realize that’s not something that would deter the hardcore Elliott fans. They’ll love him no matter what he does. Based on some of the craziest Elliott fans’ comments I’ve seen on social media, I’d wager that if Elliott were to burn Hamlin’s house down, the craziest Elliott fans would be like, “It’s Denny’s fault for having such a flammable house! Plus he rubbed Chase at Charlotte, so he deserved to lose his house!”
So Elliott isn’t losing any of those fans.
And I realize Hamlin is one of the most hated drivers, but the intentional wreck was a move that could potentially have caused the more moderate Elliott fans who have been around the sport for a while to question their allegiance. And if these more casual Elliott fans were done with their favorite driver after this incident, where might their allegiances go? Rowdy Nation.
When it comes to unethical racing, one incident can turn a fanbase. Entering 1989’s The Winston, Rusty Wallace was a pretty popular driver while Darrell Waltrip had always been one of the most hated. Wallace got into Waltrip and sent the No. 17 spinning while Wallace’s No. 27 Pontiac cruised to the win.
The move by Wallace wasn’t nearly as egregious as Elliott’s on Hamlin, but still, fans immediately turned on Wallace, booing him everywhere for the next several years. Meanwhile, Waltrip went on to win Most Popular Driver that year and the next one. Those two years were the only times between 1984-2000 that Elliott’s father Bill did not win the award.
These two instances aren’t complete parallels. The younger Elliott still has a ton of fans and still will probably win Most Popular Driver. And Busch wasn’t involved in the intentional wreck, it was Hamlin, who is not on his way to winning the popularity award just yet.
But Busch has to be hotter on Elliott’s heels than any driver ever has been. If there were ever a year for someone to end Elliott’s streak of winning Most Popular Driver, this might be the one.
About the author
Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.
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