Chase Elliott has won the NASCAR Most Popular Driver Award after each of the last four Cup Series seasons. Could that streak come to an end this year?
Voting for the National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) Most Popular Driver Award presented by Hooters for the 2022 NASCAR season opened up at 12:00 p.m. ET this past Tuesday, November 8, and it is set to conclude at 12:00 p.m. ET on Wednesday, November 30.
Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott is the overwhelming favorite to win the award, having won it after each of the last four seasons. He effectively took over as the annual favorite after the retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won it for a record 15 consecutive years from 2003 to 2017.
Bill Elliott, Chase’s father, owns the overall record himself, having won it on 16 occasions. He won it after every season from 1984 to 1988 and from 1991 to 2000 before winning it for a 16th and final time in 2002.
But could a legitimate threat be emerging for Elliott in 2022?
Trackhouse Racing Team’s Ross Chastain gained worldwide attention with his epic last-lap “Hail Melon” move at Martinsville Speedway to lock himself into the Championship 4 in just his first season with the team owned by Justin Marks and Pitbull.
The move, which notably took place during an NFL Sunday, made it to Number 1 on ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10 plays, an extremely rare occurrence for anything from a NASCAR race — especially considering it was competing against the NFL.
But the reality is that this isn’t going to be nearly enough to derail Elliott’s bid for a fifth straight Most Popular Driver Award, though Chastain will probably be in the hunt for second place.
The reason is simple. The average non-NASCAR fans who saw this pass on SportsCenter and therefore contributed to the worldwide attention it got aren’t going to vote, or probably even know how to vote, for the Most Popular Driver Award.
And they probably do not care.
While the reasons for their popularity booms were much different, it’s the same reason why Brandon Brown didn’t win the award for the Xfinity Series last year. No more than a few of those contributing to these popularity booms, if even that, are going to vote.
And while ratings were probably slightly higher for the season finale at Phoenix Raceway than they would have been without the “Hail Melon”, it wasn’t like records were close to being broken.
There were a lot of fans who believed that Kyle Larson posed a threat to Elliott last year, but Elliott still ended up winning. Larson won the championship in his first year with Hendrick Motorsports by recording the first 10-win season by any driver in 14 years.
Elliott’s fanbase, which consists of a massive amount of Dale Jr. and Jeff Gordon fans, will simply prove to be too much to overcome once again.
The 2022 Most Popular Driver is set to be announced during the NASCAR Cup Series Awards ceremony on Thursday, December 1 at Music City Center in Nashville, Tennessee.