Dale Earnhardt Jr. was once again the center of attention in the Nascar universe last week. He won the pole for the Daytona 500 before a wreck during practice pushed him to the back of the pack to start the race. It was the 10th anniversary of his father’s death, which occurred in a crash on the final lap of Daytona. A moment of silence was planned for lap three of this year’s race as spectators held three fingers in the air for the late driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet.
On race day Junior ran near the front of the pack and was in the top five with only laps to go before a blown tire ruined his chances, sinking him to 24th place. It marked the 94th straight race for Earnhardt without a trip to victory lane. Despite his lowly finish, Earnhardt was the most mentioned driver on the Fox telecast with 91 mentions, compared to 86 for winner Trevor Bayne, according to Joyce Julius & Associates.
Such is life for Nascar’s most popular driver eight years running and the scion of the seven-time Sprint Cup champ known as the Intimidator. Despite his lack of success in recent years on the track, Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains Nascar’s highest-paid driver, earning $29 million in 2010.
Earnhardt moved to Hendrick Motorsports for the 2008 season with great expectations. Despite partnering with Nascar’s richest team, Earnhardt has only one win to show for his three years in the No. 88 car. He remains Nascar’s highest-paid driver thanks to merchandise sales that are the best in the sport and reportedly account for one-third of all Nascar licensed merchandise sales.
Other income streams include an eight-figure annual salary from Hendrick and a 50% share of his $4.9 million in winnings and bonuses in 2010 from Sprint Cup races. Earnhardt also has a bevy of personal endorsements, including Chevrolet, Nationwide and Wrangler.
Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon follows Earnhardt in the Nascar money standings with earnings of $25 million last year. DuPont, which has sponsored Gordon’s car for 18 years, cut back its commitment this year to 14 races, but the AARP Foundation picked up 22 races to promote its Drive to End Hunger campaign. Gordon partner Pepsi will be the primary sponsor for two races for the No. 24 car. Gordon has racked up $117 million in race winnings during his career.
It is a clean sweep for Hendrick at the top with five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, the third-highest-paid driver at $24 million. In its collecting of high-priced talent, Hendrick is like the New York Yankees of Nascar. 2010 is the third year in a row that the team has boasted the three highest-paid drivers in the sport. Furthermore, Kasey Kahne, No. 8 on our highest-paid list, will join the squad next year, replacing 52-year old Mark Martin in the No. 5 car.
Johnson signed a six-year contract extension with Hendrick at the end of 2009 that puts his driver’s salary on par with Gordon and Earnhardt. Johnson can’t match his teammates personal endorsements yet, but his profile has been raised with his on-track success and last year’s 24/7 Jimmie Johnson, a four-part HBO documentary.
Johnson counts Lowe’s and Gatorade as personal sponsors, and more deals are likely to follow this year. His dominating performance is starting to resonate with Nascar fans as his merchandise outsold every other driver save Earnhardt’s last year. Johnson raked in $13.4 million in winnings and bonuses last year, but that money is shared with the owners of the No. 48 car, who include Hendrick and Gordon.
While salaries at the top appear stable, the next tier of drivers might be headed for a haircut as primary sponsorship deals continue to get done at lower rates across Nascar. “As drivers get into renegotiations, salaries will be impacted and could be down 20% to 25%,” says Zak Brown, chief executive of Just Marketing International, a motor sports marketing company in Zionsville, Ind. As of now eight Sprint Cup drivers will be free agents after this year.