FONTANA, Calif. _ Who is the most popular driver in NASCAR?
There is only one way to find out. (Actually, there are many ways to find out, and most methods don’t involve eating giant turkey legs or giving away heart-shaped chocolates. But for the purposes of this article…) There really was only one way to find out.
With NASCAR on the West Coast for the second race of the season, All Left Turns hit Auto Club Speedway
in search of the answer to the question, “Who is NASCAR’s most popular driver?” We decided to conduct an experiment that would rank the three drivers considered the most popular in the sport – Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The choices were obvious. Johnson and Gordon both call California home and have eight titles between them, so we knew they would have plenty of fans present. Earnhardt has global appeal. This was evident at their souvenir haulers, of which Earnhardt has two. (On the flip side, the four Penske drivers share one souvenir hauler. And when we walked by it on Sunday, it looked like this...)
On the crowded concourse of the FanZone at the Auto Club Speedway your authors set down three NASCAR commemorative items and one control item to see which one would be picked up first. Each item was placed in a high-traffic area of the concourse. The amount of time each item spent on the ground was timed with a stopwatch. One of your authors (Chris) would bend down to tie his shoe and leave the item on the ground while your other author (Joe) would time how long the item was on the ground while simultaneously eating a gigantic Fred Flintstone-style “Texas-Sized Turkey Leg.” This is Chris making a “drop.”
This is Joe eating a Texas-Sized Turkey Leg.
Jeff Gordon Beer Koozie – 4.9 seconds
Chris was barely two steps away from the koozie when a woman with bright red hair who was in her 50s picked up the koozie, slyly stuck it in her tote bag and walked away. With the exception of the control item, it was the smallest piece of memorabilia and hardest to see. This is a credit to Gordon’s popularity, no doubt a result of all of his appearances on Regis
Jimmie Johnson Heart-Shaped Chocolate Tin – 15.0 seconds
The tin was wrapped in its original Cellophane so people would not be put off by the idea of picking up opened food. Several people walked by and looked at the tin before one woman who appeared to be in her 30s or 40s picked it up and walked away without looking to see if it belonged to anyone. We found this fan behavior to be reflective of Johnson’s unapologetic win-at-any-cost style.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. License Plate – 30.1 seconds
The license plate was the largest item and it lasted 30.1 seconds before it was swept up by persons unknown. A crowd of 30 people blocked Joe’s view of the plate at one point, but when that crowd disappeared the license plate was gone, and so were several bites of Joe’s Texas-sized turkey leg. (Because Joe kept eating.)
A Box of Watermelon-Flavored Orbit Gum (As the Control Item) – over two minutes
Many people stepped on the gum. No one picked it up. We probably would have received similar results from a Paul Menard boat keychain.
From this experiment we can only conclude that Jeff Gordon is NASCAR's most popular driver.
Not content with the scientific research we had planned, we also observed several popularity-related facts during our day at Auto Club Speedway.
- NASCAR’s popularity has reached even "American Idol" runner-up Katharine McPhee. The national anthem singer said she was excited to be attending her first NASCAR “game.” At least she did not screw up the anthem like Jesse McCartney did last fall, when he ruined the start of the game for everyone.
- The Texas-sized turkey legs were extremely popular, selling at a rate of about one every 10 seconds, otherwise known as the Hornish Crash Ratio.
- What about Danica Patrick? In spite of the fact that one guy we met kept sarcastically calling her “Miss Princess Sparkle Pony,” which we found pretty hilarious, her souvenir hauler was six cashiers wide and 15 customers deep.
And while Earnhardt Jr. might have finished third in our highly-scientific experiment, the many fans waiting to buy souvenirs outside of his hauler were die-hard. One fan, whom we’ll call “Guy Who Told Us He Was a Felon within 30 Seconds of Meeting Him" was wearing a Dale Earnhardt Jr. hat, jacket and shirt while waiting to buy an Earnhardt Jr. die-cast car. He offered to show us the Dale Earnhardt Jr. underwear he was wearing. This actually happened. We declined the invitation. Even the pursuit of science has its limits.
(With reporting from All Left Turns columnist Chris M.)