Over the last 20 years, NASCAR’s most popular driver has always been the son of one of the legends of the sport.
Following the death of his father, Dale Earnhardt Jr. held the title of “Most Popular Driver” from 2003 until his retirement in 2017. Since then another son of a racing legend, Chase Elliott, has had the most popular honors.
Like Earnhardt, Elliott grew up completely surrounded by the world of NASCAR. The Georgia native is the son of NASCAR Hall-of-Famer Bill Elliott, who won 44 races and the 1988 Cup Series championship over the course of his career.
While such accomplishments may seem like a tough act to follow, the younger Elliott has already proven himself to be one of NASCAR’s top drivers.
He won the Xfinity Series title in 2014 — ironically driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team — and then clinched his first Cup Series championship in 2020. He currently has 13 race victories at the sport’s highest level.
But being the face of a sport comes with a lot of pressure. The pressure to win comes naturally. But there also is the pressure to help grow the sport.
In a recent profile for Sports Business Journal, Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon stated he wanted the team’s drivers to broaden their horizons – by interacting more with fans and sponsors.
“He wants us to grow – grow not only ourselves individually, but our sport as a whole,” Elliott said. “If the drivers are growing their following, then likely the sport is benefiting from it too.
“I think he’s just trying to help everybody win. At the end of the day, if we’re all gaining a following or popularity in a different area that we typically wouldn’t be in, you’re likely going to benefit. And likely, we’re all going to benefit.”
Gordon knows all about growing the sport of stock car racing. When he burst onto the circuit in the early 1990s, he quickly became the face of NASCAR, appearing in everything from Pepsi ads to movie cameos and even as a host of Saturday Night Live in 2003.
As the current face of NASCAR, would Elliott be willing to do the same?
“Yeah, I mean we all have a comfort zone, for sure,” Elliott said. “I think for me, I don’t mind stepping outside my comfort zone.
“Where I sometimes struggle with wanting to go do things is I want to feel like those people want me there too. You want to feel like somebody cares about having you as a part of their show or whatever it may be; not just to check a box for them.
“When I feel appreciated and respect, I’m all-in and I’ll go as far outside of my comfort zone as they want to get.”
Eliott admitted that he’s sure there are some opportunities he’s turned down before. But it takes two to tango and he believes the best marketing opportunities arise when both parties are on the same page.
“I feel like we typically try to make it work,” Elliott said. “If they have an idea of something that’s going to give you some exposure or whatever it may be, I feel like nine times out of ten, I find a way to make that happen.
“When a partner activates with you, it’s not just them that’s benefiting. If you’re being activated on a national level, you’re benefiting too just by being there. It goes both ways.
“Also, I’m appreciative of the opportunities that I’ve had – to get on that stage and be able to do that; and that’s all because of a partner likely.”