Chase Elliott’s NASCAR Cup Series championship wasn’t the only award he picked up last season. After the season concluded, Elliott also took home the Most Popular Driver award for the third consecutive year. This award is purely based on the votes of NASCAR fans, and they’re nothing if not consistent. Now that he holds both titles, it’s become clear that the future of the sport rests in his hands.
Popularity runs in the Elliott family
There is no single explanation that can account for Elliott’s standing among the fans. The easiest and most likely one, however, is that Elliott is carrying on the tradition of a driver who himself captured the hearts of the NASCAR faithful.
During the 1980s and 90s, NASCAR was packed with larger-than-life figures. Bill Elliott was not one of those. He fit the ideal of the race driver perfectly – an ordinary man who, once a week, could step into a race car and do extraordinary things. Those extraordinary things included winning the 1988 Winston Cup title, along with the 1985 and 1987 Daytona 500.
During his day, his fan base was the most passionate that any driver ever had. This propelled him to win NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award 16 times between 1984 and 2002 He would likely have won at least one more had he not removed his name from consideration for future awards after the 2002 season.
Chase Elliott walked into the perfect situation
Even besides the fact that he has the last name of Elliott, Chase couldn’t have asked for a better set of circumstances to propel him into NASCAR stardom.
The success he’s had this early in his racing career certainly hasn’t hurt. Elliott stormed into the NASCAR Cup Series after winning the Xfinity Series title in 2014, his rookie year in the latter. He followed that up by finishing second in the series the following year, behind only Chris Buescher. In both of those seasons, he drove for JR Motorsports, the Xfinity Series team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
And yes, he won the Most Popular Driver in that series in both seasons.
This set the stage for Elliott’s entry into the Cup Series on a full-time basis in 2016. Hendrick Motorsports gave him the ultimate vote of confidence by placing him in the no. 24, where he would succeed the retired Jeff Gordon. In effect, Chase is the successor to the legacy of not only his father, but Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. The fanbases for all three of those drivers have placed their full support behind the younger Elliott.
The rest is all down to Chase himself
Most popular athletes have a core group of people who despise them just as much as their fans admire them. This is not the case for Chase Elliott. While there’s certainly someone out there who has him on their least favorite drivers list, he hasn’t given fans many reasons to hate him.
Even in an era of relatively squeaky-clean personalities, Elliott is perhaps the cleanest. Whenever he encounters misfortune on the track, he doesn’t usually whine or complain about what happened. In fact, he’s more likely to blame himself for anything that goes wrong.
This stands in stark contrast to some of Elliott’s competition. Both Joey Logano and Kyle Busch, who have also won the Cup Series in the past five years, are among the most despised figures in motorsports. Each driver has earned scrutiny throughout their careers for their overly-aggressive driving and explosive personalities, which have placed them in ill regard with fans and other drivers.
Statistics courtesy of Racing-Reference.