By: Toby Christie – follow on twitter @toby_christie
This week, on Sirius XM radio’s Happy Hours show Kevin Harvick attributed most of NASCAR’s attendance and ratings slide over the last few years to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s lack of production on the race track.
“(Earnhardt) hasn’t been anywhere close to being our most successful driver,” Harvick said. “When you look at other sports – you look at basketball and you look at football and you look at their most popular (athletes), they’re also right on the top of the list as their most successful (athletes).
“So for me I believe that Dale Jr. has had a big part in stunting the growth of NASCAR because he’s got these legions of fans and this huge outreach of being able to reach these places that none of us have the possibility to reach. But he’s won nine races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports and hasn’t been able to reach outside of that. So I know that those aren’t the most popular comments, but those are real life facts that you look up and see on the stat sheet.”
On the surface, Harvick’s comments seem to have merit. If a huge portion of the fan base is invested in one driver, and then that driver suffers through a rough 10-year stretch like Earnhardt has you would expect interest to wane. However, when you look back through the history of the sport, you realize that Harvick’s claim is actually quite preposterous.
Who were the last two major popular drivers over a long sustained chunk of NASCAR history?
That’s easy: Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Bill Elliott. Petty won nine Most Popular driver awards, while Elliott won a record 16.
While the success of those two drivers is absolutely undeniable — Petty won an unmatchable total of 200 races in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, to go along with a record seven championships. Elliott won 44 times and took home the 1988 Series championship — do you remember the numbers that these two legendary drivers achieved over the final 10 full-time seasons of their careers?
Here’s a hint: they were worse than the stretch of racing that Dale Jr. has put together over the last decade.
Stats over the final 10 years of Cup Series career:
Petty: 5 wins, 29 top5s, 79 top10s
Elliott: 5 wins, 39 top5s, 91 top10s
Earnhardt Jr.: 9 wins, 73 top5s, 135 top10s
As you can see, although Earnhardt has had some rough spots over the last 10 years, he has still turned in decent numbers since he moved to Hendrick Motorsports in comparison to what Petty and Elliott were able to muster in the late years of their careers.
What happened to ratings when the last two major popular drivers slumped on the track?
From 1982 to when Petty retired in 1992, the sport’s ratings and attendance surged. The numbers continued to soar from 1994 until Elliott retired from full-time competition in 2003. Two years later, ratings and attendance were at all time highs.
The NASCAR bubble eventually burst after the 2005 season (two years before the 10 year period Harvick referenced), and the sport has been on a decline ever since.
While everyone would love to hone in on what is ailing the sport we all love, the answer seems to be a bit more complex than piling the responsibility on the shoulders of one of the most gracious competitors the sport has ever seen.
Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images