Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has been the biggest personality in Nascar for more than a decade. He’s clinched the fans' most popular driver vote for 14 straight years. His merchandise sales lap the competition annually, and he’s been the highest-paid driver in the sport for eight straight years.
But concussion symptoms caused Earnhardt to miss the final 18 races of the 2016 season and the prize money that comes with it, ending his run as Nascar’s top-earner (Jeff Gordon was the last driver to surpass Earnhardt). Jimmie Johnson takes the title as Nascar’s highest-paid driver in 2016 after he clinched his record-tying seventh Cup championship with a win at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the final race of the season. Johnson earned $21.8 million by Forbes' count from salary, bonuses, prize money, endorsements and licensing.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson rank head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field when it comes to their annual earnings. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images )
Winning the Cup isn’t nearly as lucrative as it used to be. Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team earned a $1.9 million Sprint Cup bonus, while the 2015 bonus was $4.7 million for champion Kyle Busch. Blame the new charter system, which has created more parity in the distribution of purses and bonuses.
"The last time I stood on stage, it was 7-and-a-half [million],” said Johnson in November before clinching the title. “It's a huge change." Johnson has his years mixed up as it was $5.2 million in Johnson’s 2013 title year, but it was $7.2 million in 2008 for Johnson title No. 3. A huge change, indeed.
The contracts for Johnson and his longtime car sponsor, Lowes, are both up in 2017, but expect at least two-year extensions for both with a decent chance of three for the 41-year-old Johnson, as he shoots for an eighth title to break his tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr.
Johnson’s earnings are supplemented by personal sponsorship deals with Gatorade, Chevrolet, Seiko, and Blue Bunny. He’s put some of those riches back into his eponymous foundation, which has doled out $9.5 million since 2006 to help children and families in need. The current focus is on K-12 public education.
Despite missing half the season, Earnhardt was barely nudged out by Johnson with earnings of $21.1 million. Earnhardt drives the most valuable real estate in the sport with a car that can command $1 million per race from sponsors. The hefty price tag pushes his salary to the top of the charts. Earnhardt and Danica Patrick have the highest endorsement incomes in Nascar. Nationwide, Chevrolet, Axalta, Taxslayer, Goody’s and Wrangler all have personal sponsorship deals with Earnhardt.
Like Johnson, Earnhardt’s contract with Hendrick expires in 2017, but he’s taking it slowly before committing to racing beyond this year. Earnhardt wants to see how he feels back in the car after last year’s layoff. "I've done everything I ever thought I would do," Earnhardt recently told ESPN The Magazine. "I've done more than I thought I was capable of doing. I look at my trophies and can't believe they're mine."
Denny Hamlin ranks third with $15.2 million. Hamlin held off Martin Truex Jr. by .011 seconds last year to win the closest Daytona 500 in the history of the sport. It was the first Daytona 500 win for Joe Gibbs since 1993 in what is the richest event in Nascar. Hamlin has personal sponsorships with Nike's Jordan Brand, Coca-Cola, Sports Clips, Toyota and the Greenbrier resort.
Rounding out the top five are Kyle Busch ($15 million) and Kevin Harvick ($13.9 million). Two of the sport's legends cracked the list in their final seasons on the track with Carl Edwards at sixth ($12.3 million) and Tony Stewart No. 8 ($12 million). Sandwiched between them is Patrick, who earned $12.2 million thanks to her vast off-track earnings.
The top 12 drivers in the sport earned $168 million in 2016 from salaries, endorsements and their share of purses and licensing. It is a significant decline from 2013 when we estimated the top 12 at $192 million.
The retirement of Gordon is part of the fall, but driver salaries are also getting squeezed by the slowdown in sponsorship dollars flowing to teams. Less sponsor money means lower salaries. The drop-off in earnings is steep after the top 12. The sports' leading teams, Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, Stewart-Hass and Penske attract the most sponsor dollars, allowing them to field the best drivers and win the most. Nascar's top 12 earners all came from the four teams above, who won 30 of the 36 races in 2016 and all but two of those races in 2015. The four power teams have captured 12 straight Cup titles.
The charter system is intended to create more parity and help the little guy by spreading out the purse and bonus distributions deeper throughout the driver pool, instead of the bulk directed towards the top finishers. Each charter team receives a fixed plan amount, plus a historical plan amount based on the past three years of performance for the car. But for now, the top-earners are concentrated among four teams.