Mark Story

With Dale Jr. retired, Kentucky Speedway fans have settled on a new favorite driver

For years, the rivalry between the fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon was the defining feature of NASCAR.

Now that both iconic drivers are retired, at least some of their fans have found a point of agreement:

They have switched their allegiance to Chase Elliott.

If an eye test administered to the fans attending the ninth running of NASCAR’s Quaker State 400 Presented by Walmart at Kentucky Speedway is any indication, Elliott, the 23-year-old son of former NASCAR star Bill Elliott, is now the driver with the largest fan base.

Former fans of Earnhardt Jr. have moved their support to Elliott.

“When Junior left, I wanted someone who was up and coming,” says Mike Williams of Cincinnati.

Adds Billy Agee of Springfield, Ohio: “At least 90 percent, I think, of the people I knew who were Dale Jr. fans went to Chase.”

Former fans of Gordon are making the same switch.

“I was with Gordon, a Jeff Gordon fan,” says Juan Reyes of Napoleon, Ohio. “I like the way (Elliott) drives, so I ended up picking him. The way he interacts with fans was big, too.”

Adds Frankfort’s Destiny Boarman: “When Jeff Gordon retired ... my Dad switched to (Chase Elliott) and so we all did, too.”

Chase Elliott.JPG
Chase Elliott was voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver in 2018. His father, Bill Elliott, won the same award 16 times. Stephen M. Dowell TNS

In recent years, NASCAR has not only seen Earnhardt Jr. (after 2017 season) and Gordon (2016) hang up their driving gloves, but so have Tony Stewart (2016), Carl Edwards (2016) and Danica Patrick (2017 as full-time driver).

That was essentially losing the five best-known figures in stock-car racing over a three-year period.

What’s left is a huge star-power vacuum.

When the Cup Series first started coming to Kentucky Speedway in 2011, fans wearing the colors of Earnhardt Jr. appeared to outnumber the fans of all other drivers combined.

Fans of Gordon and Stewart, both of whom had ties to the state of Indiana, appeared to be second and third then in fan allegiance at Kentucky Speedway.

Now, fan loyalties at Kentucky Speedway seem far more dispersed.

To my eye Saturday, there were more people wearing Elliott gear than any other driver. But no one had anything close to the level of support Earnhardt Jr. enjoyed.

Elliott, the Dawsonville, Ga., native, was voted NASCAR’s most popular driver in 2018. He is used to hearing cheers in driver introductions.

“It’s definitely nice to hear,” Elliott said Friday. “Anytime someone is happy to see you do good — or sometimes happy to see you do bad — at least they are happy to see you do something.”

The former fans of Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon at Kentucky Speedway Saturday who have switched to Elliott tended to site very different reasons for their choice.

Dale Jr. and Jeff Gordon at Kentucky
Jeff Gordon, center left, visited Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Kentucky Speedway garage area before the inaugural Quaker State 400 in 2011. The retirement in recent years of Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon removed the two Cup Series stars with the largest fan followings. David Perry Herald-Leader file photo

Those switching from Dale Jr. oft mentioned the fact that Elliott, like Earnhardt Jr., is trying to live up to a family legacy in NASCAR.

Bill Elliott — “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” — won 44 career Cup races, including 11 in 1985 alone. He was the 1988 Cup Series champion.

“The main thing, a lot like with Junior, even though he is an Elliott, Chase still had to prove something on the track,” says Brady Dryer of Findlay, Ohio.

Conversely, the former Gordon backers who are now rooting for the No. 9 car like how Elliott comports himself.

“(Elliott) is clean cut. He was raised right,” says David Compton of Meridian, Miss. “You don’t see any disrespect out of him. I don’t like the people with the mouths or the bad attitudes.”

Elliott came to the Quaker State 400 seventh in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series point standings.

Entering Saturday, he had won four career races, three last season (Watkins Glen, Dover and Kansas) and one (Talladega) so far this year.

The obvious path to adding to his already-large fan base would be even more winning.

“I think Bill was a little more aggressive,” says Randy Amonett of New Castle, Ind., about Chase Elliott’s father. “Besides that, I think they drive a lot a like.”

Not surprisingly, Chase Elliott says the two Cup tracks closest to Dawsonsville are where he hears the loudest cheers.

“Atlanta and Talladega are definitely big ones, for sure,” he said. “Obviously, Atlanta being in Georgia. Talladega (in Alabama) is about as close as Atlanta is for us.”

However anytime NASCAR runs in the southeast, Elliott says, he feels a lot of love. “We’re not far from Georgia here,” Elliott says.

A driver who can unite elements of the Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon fan bases has a unique appeal.

Says Frankfort’s Korey Carpenter: “I was a long-time Jeff Gordon fan. Now, it’s No. 9 all the way.”

Adds Findlay, Ohio’s Erica Dryer: “We were Dale Jr. fans. But I just like (Elliott’s attitude). He’s not a negative Nancy. He doesn’t whine. He owns up when he makes a mistake — and I like that.”

Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.