After overtaking Jeff Gordon as NASCAR fans' favorite driver in 2003, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has ranked as the favorite every following year. Even in 2017, he remains the favorite of 17% of NASCAR fans, not far below his peak of 24% in 2004. The gap between Earnhardt and the 2nd favorite active driver has never been bigger than it is today. His retirement follows the losses of both Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart in 2016. Gordon was the 2nd favorite driver for most of the past 15 years, Stewart typically ranked 3rd or 4th.
This leaves Jimmie Johnson as the favorite active NASCAR driver of only 5% of NASCAR fans. Following him, the top remaining drivers are Danica Patrick at 2% (also retiring next season) and Kyle Busch at 2%. No other active driver is higher than 1%.
The greatest change has been the rise of fans with no favorite driver. In 2017, 49% of fans have no favorite driver, up from from 31% in 2007. The losses have been highest with the youngest fans. In 2017, 76% of 12-17 year-old NASCAR fans have no favorite driver.
Earnhardt's rise paralleled the growth of NASCAR as a major national sport. NASCAR's rise began during the heyday of his father in the 1990s (his father was the favorite driver at the time of his death in 2001), then peaked around 2004-05 (the same time Dale Jr. peaked as most popular driver). Both have declined since then.
All data is from the Luker on Trends Sports Poll. The Sports Poll is conducted via telephone 350 days per year among a random nationally representative sample of Americans age 12 and older, including landlines and cell phones, and English and Spanish language interviews.
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