NASCAR drivers may not earn the highest salaries in the sports world, but they’re very well compensated, especially in the last couple of decades. However, the driver with the highest net worth might surprise some fans.
It’s not as if successful racers are struggling to make ends meet these days. Some of the top drivers in the Cup Series can earn more than $20 million each season. In contrast, less successful racers will end their year making around $1 million give or take.
For reference, during the 2020 season, the top 10 richest drivers raked in a combined $120 million. According to Forbes, Kyle Busch earned more than any other driver with a total of $17.8 million. His total consisted of $16.1 million in salary and on-track earnings. In addition, Busch took home $1.7 million in endorsements.
NASCAR racers totaled more earnings in 2020 than they did the previous season. Yet last year’s combined $120 million for the sport’s top 10 drivers is nothing compared to a decade ago when they earned a combined $180 million.
NASCAR Peaked in the 2000s, and So Did Their Salaries
The salaries in NASCAR have decreased exponentially in recent years. The sport simply does not pull in the same amount of high dollar sponsorships as it did in the 2000s. The divide between NASCAR’s elite drivers’ salaries compared to average drivers is significant. That’s not unlike other sports. The cream of the crop will always receive higher earnings for their talent.
However, during the late 2000s, NASCAR was pulling in record crowds at raceways and on television. Hall of Fame drivers littered the track each week, including Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Sponsorship deals became more lucrative than ever. Therefore, NASCAR earnings increased significantly because of the sport’s growing popularity.
Around this time, NASCAR’s top drivers made so much money that they still remain on the top of the all-time richest drivers list. As of January 2021, Tony Stewart has career earnings of $90 million. Jimmie Johnson is worth $160 million. Additionally, Jeff Gordon has a net worth of $200 million. But Dale Earnhardt Jr. dwarfs the rest of the field in earnings.
Despite never winning a single Cup Series championship, and only being 30th on the all-time wins list, Earnhardt Jr. is worth an astounding $300 million today. So how can someone who had less success on the track than his peers earn that much more and become the richest NASCAR driver of all time?
The short answer: Dale Jr. filled the grandstands every time he raced. His fans’ unwavering support earned him the title of NASCAR’s most popular driver for 14 years in a row.
In addition, Earnhardt Jr. was no slouch on the track. He won 26 races during his 19-year career. Having his famous father’s last name helped as well. When Dale Earnhardt Sr. passed away in 2001, a large portion of his enormous following shifted their allegiance to his son. NASCAR also gained more new fans than any other American sport in the 2000s. Furthermore, Earnhardt Jr. was also able to cash in on his popularity to land numerous lucrative endorsement deals.
It was the perfect storm, and Earnhardt Jr. took full advantage. The peak of the sport mixed with Earnhardt’s talent, likable character and racing pedigree made him by far the richest NASCAR driver of all time.