by Tom Jensen October 18, 2021
Driving talent is a key to success in NASCAR racing, but being a fan favorite is important, too.
The ultimate measure of success for a NASCAR premier series driver is, of course, winning a championship, which frequently is the result of winning races.
But from the very beginning, NASCAR has recognized the importance of connecting with fellow competitors and fans. Starting with the first season of the NASCAR Strictly Stock Division (now premier series), the sanctioning body has had a Most Popular Driver Award.
NASCAR has given out the Most Popular Driver award 70 times since 1949. There were no awards handed out in 1950 or ’51, but the honor resumed in 1952 and has continued every year since.
How the winner was determined has changed over the years, as has the presenting sponsor, which in recent years has been the National Motorsports Press Association.
Here’s some interesting trivial about drivers who have won Most Popular Driver awards in the premier series:
NASCAR has handed out the Most Popular Driver award 70 times, but just 20 drivers have won it.
Of the 20 Most Popular Driver winners, 17 have been inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The only three men to be named Most Popular Driver and not make the Hall of Fame are Jack Smith in 1959, Darel Dieringer in 1966 and Chase Elliott, winner in the last three seasons. Elliott, of course, is still active and is not yet Hall of Fame eligible.
Of the 17 Hall of Famers to take Most Popular Driver honors, eight have won it at least twice. Here they are.
Curtis Turner, 2
A dirt-track ace from Virginia, Curtis Turner (2016) won the inaugural honors in 1949, when a NASCAR panel made the selection. Turner’s 1949 win covered all of NASCAR and not just the premier series. He would take a second title in 1956.
Fred Lorenzen, 2
Nicknamed “The Golden Boy” for his movie-star good looks, it’s no wonder why Lorenzen was a favorite of NASCAR race fans. In 1963, Lorenzen became the first driver to win more than $100,000 in a single season and two years later, he won a rain-shortened Daytona 500. Lorenzen’s two Most Popular Driver awards were won in 1963 and ’65.
Darrell Waltrip, 2
In terms of fan popularity, the best thing that ever happened to Darrell Waltrip (2012) was getting dumped by Rusty Wallace in the 1989 NASCAR All-Star Race. Instantly, Waltrip went from villain to hero with fans, as evidenced by his consecutive Most Popular Driver awards in 1989 and 1990.
Lee Petty, 3
The patriarch of the Petty family of racers and one of the first owner/drivers to truly make racing the family business, Lee Petty (2011) won three consecutive Most Popular Driver titles from 1952-’54. The founder of Petty Enterprises went on to become the first driver to win three premier series championships.
Bobby Allison, 7
The leader of the Alabama Gang of racers, Bobby Allison (2011) put together two very impressive streaks, winning three straight Most Popular Driver awards from 1971-73. The next decade, Allison did even better, winning four in a row from 1980-83. The ’83 season saw Allison win his only championship.
Richard Petty, 9
His massive appeal with fans and fellow racers alike is one of many reasons that Richard Petty (2010) is known – and revered – as “The King.” Petty’s Most Popular Driver awards were spread out over nearly two full decades. He won for the first time in 1962, then repeated in ’64, ’68 and ’70, later winning it five years in a row from 1974-78.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., 15
A third-generation driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2021) followed in the footsteps of his grandfather Ralph and his father Dale. The 15-year streak Earnhardt Jr. amassed from 2003-2017 is an all-time record one that ended only because he retired from full-time competition after the 2017 season.
Bill Elliott, 16
The most popular of the Most Popular Driver award winners is Bill Elliott, who took the title a remarkable 16 times. Elliott won the honors from 1984-88, ’91-2000 and again in ’02. “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville,” won the premier series championship in ’88, one year after he set a NASCAR qualifying record, turning a lap of 212.809 mph at Talladega Superspeedway.