Former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick pulled no punches last night when talking about the imminent retirement of fellow driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr., saying the sport’s perennial Most Popular Driver “had a big part in stunting the growth of NASCAR” by not winning enough races.
Speaking on his weekly Sirius XM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hours,” the 2014 series champion said he is puzzled by the popularity of Earnhardt, who has won just nine races in the last 10 seasons.
“He is the most popular driver, but did he have the credentials to back up being the highest paid driver in the sport? Probably not,” said Harvick. He was the most popular driver in the sport (and) he could demand a huge sum of money, because he brought things in from the souvenir side of things and a popularity side of things, that other drivers didn’t. He earned his money a different way. It wasn’t from a performance base.
“This is where some of the growth in this sport has not reached the levels that it should have,” he added. Because our most popular driver hasn’t been our most successful driver.
“When you look at other sports; basketball (and) football -- and you look at their most popular (athletes) -- they’re also right up there at the top of the list as their most successful. So, I believe that Dale Jr. has had a big part in kind of stunting the growth of NASCAR, because he’s got these legions of fans. (He has) this huge outreach, being able to reach different places that none of us have the possibility to reach. But he’s won 9 races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports.
Harvick admitted that “these aren’t the most popular comments,” but insisted “those are real-life facts that you can look up on the stat sheet.”
Harvick said Earnhardt’s massive fan base is “totally confusing to me,” adding that “Jimmie Johnson should be our most popular guy, because he’s won seven championships. But when you look at the souvenir sheets every week, he’s 3-4-5, coming off of a championship year.
“That part is a little bit confusing.”
Harvick said Earnhardt’s late father, Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt, Sr. “became Dale Earnhardt because of the fact that he won seven championships and was out there grinding every week. That hasn’t happened (with Junior). The thing that makes sports go around is success. The people… that are the most popular people in other sports, win.”
“Lebron James wins. Steph Curry wins. Peyton Manning won. That’s how you drive the sport and take it to a new level; when your most popular guys are winning, week after week after week. It’s so confusing to me, the whole scenario. I keep bringing up Jimmie Johnson because he’s won seven championships. (We should be) putting him on a pedestal with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, but it’s like that doesn’t even register with everybody out there.”
Harvick also discounted Earnhardt’s recent comments about declining driver salaries, saying, “Dale’s never really been in a position -- since he’s been at Hendrick Motorsports -- to understand where normal driver salaries even are.
“He’s always been the highest-paid guy in NASCAR. He’s been the guy that makes the most money.
“Hendrick Motorsports is about to go through a total reset,” he said. “For years, they’ve had the highest-paid athletes in motorsports on their team. Now, with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Kasey Kahne exiting within a two-year period, it’s a complete re-branding. Sure it’s going to lower the cost. Hendrick Motorsports has had the highest paid drivers for a number of years, with Jeff Gordon and the highest paid driver, Dale Jr.
“(In 2018), they’re going to have some of the lowest payroll with three of their drivers. They’re going to lean on Jimmie Johnson to be the veteran guy and lead the company; teaching those guys how to race. And they’re going to have to pay him more than the other three guys combined, in order to take that role and push Hendrick Motorsports forward.”