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Who is NASCAR’s most popular driver? A familiar name wins again at annual awards banquet

Chase Elliott is NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver — again.

It’s the sixth straight year that Elliott, the driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy, has won this honor. But this might have been his most unlikely yet.

Elliott missed six races due to a leg injury and was briefly suspended for his role in a wreck at Charlotte. The fan-favorite driver, who won the 2020 Cup title, didn’t qualify for the playoffs.

But fans still voted Elliott as their favorite driver — over champion Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Ross Chastain and Kyle Larson.

“This award has always, in my eyes, been a reflection and an extension of my family’s place in the sport,” said Elliott, whose father, Bill, won the award a record 16 times. “I recognize my spot in line and recognize what they’ve done. And the reason why it’s special is because of the fans and how supportive they have been to my entire family and myself included.”

NASCAR Cup Series driver Ryan Blaney (left) celebrates with Chase Elliott (center) and Gianna Tulio after winning the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway.
NASCAR Cup Series driver Ryan Blaney (left) celebrates with Chase Elliott (center) and Gianna Tulio after winning the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway.

Elliott said that he “would love to forget” most of the competition aspects of this past season. He missed those six races early in the season after undergoing surgery for a fractured tibia — which he suffered in a snowboarding accident in Colorado.

Elliott began his news conference with reporters speaking about Blaney’s following and the popularity of retiring driver Kevin Harvick. He spoke about how grateful he is to be honored and reiterated how he feels winning it is an extension of his family.

“I don’t wake up in the morning and be like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re NASCAR’s most popular driver, you need to act a certain way,’ “ Elliott said. “I certainly respect the honor and don’t take it lightly. I understand my spot in line of my family’s heritage in racing, and it’s always been an extension of their presence here in NASCAR.”

2023 NASCAR Points Champion Ryan Blaney (12) signs autographs during the NASCAR Champions Car Parade in Nashville, Tenn., Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023.
2023 NASCAR Points Champion Ryan Blaney (12) signs autographs during the NASCAR Champions Car Parade in Nashville, Tenn., Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023.

Ryan Blaney gets emotional in Cup championship speech

Long before Ryan Blaney became this year’s NASCAR Cup Series champion, he just wanted to be like his dad.

His father, Dave, is a retired driver who raced in the Cup Series for 17 years. Blaney grew up watching him race and knew what he wanted to do at a young age.

“I wanted to be like my dad,” Blaney said in his speech. “I was super lucky to be able to see it at a young age. And just get the whole spectrum, seeing what it’s like as a driver, seeing how teams operated.”

Blaney then looked at Harvick, whose 11-year-old son, Keelan, races and is often seen with his father at the race track. Blaney said it’s “kind of freaking me out,” because he remembers standing next to his father during driver introductions when he was Keelan’s age.

He mentioned more of his family members and friends and choked up after mentioning his grandfather, Lou, who raced for 47 years.

“I really wish my grandpa could be here to see this,” Blaney said, emotionally. “I’ll share it with my dad. So, thank you.”

2023 NASCAR Points Champion Ryan Blaney (12) cruises along Lower Broadway during the NASCAR Champions Car Parade in Nashville, Tenn., Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023.
2023 NASCAR Points Champion Ryan Blaney (12) cruises along Lower Broadway during the NASCAR Champions Car Parade in Nashville, Tenn., Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023.

It was an up-and-down year for Blaney, who didn’t finish lower than second in four of the final six races. Earlier in the year, he was in the midst of a 59-race losing streak before winning at Charlotte in May. He noted the resilience of his team, especially later in the season when it seemed unlikely that this could be his year.

“We started off the year fairly decent, and won the (Coca-Cola) 600, and then we had two or three really bad months,” Blaney said. “It was really, really easy to throw it in the towel, call it quits for everyone in this group and everyone at Team Penske who were struggling.

“But they didn’t do that. They dug down and they figured out what we needed to do to be better.”

Nov 4, 2023; Avondale, Arizona, USA; NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Cole Custer (00). celebrates his championship victory following the Xfinity Championship Race at Phoenix Raceway.
Nov 4, 2023; Avondale, Arizona, USA; NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Cole Custer (00). celebrates his championship victory following the Xfinity Championship Race at Phoenix Raceway.

Cole Custer cherishes Xfinity title in return to series

Custer was the Xfinity Series runner-up in 2018 and 2019. He moved to the Cup Series but struggled, eventually prompting Stewart-Haas Racing to drop him back to the Xfinity Series.

Having raced at the Cup level for three seasons, he entered this season with high expectations. But six races in, Custer had just one Top-10 finish and found himself well outside the Top 10 in points.

The driver of the No. 00 Ford Mustang secured his first championship during the final lap of overtime at Phoenix.

“At this point, it could have been pretty easy to throw our hands up and start pointing fingers,” Custer said in his speech. “Instead, we dug in deeper as a team to truly figure out what we were missing.”

Nov 3, 2023; Avondale, Arizona, USA; NASCAR Truck Series driver Ben Rhodes celebrates after winning the Truck Series Championship during the Championship Race at Phoenix Raceway.
Nov 3, 2023; Avondale, Arizona, USA; NASCAR Truck Series driver Ben Rhodes celebrates after winning the Truck Series Championship during the Championship Race at Phoenix Raceway.

Ben Rhodes shouts out teammates after winning Truck Series

Ben Rhodes smiled as he walked up to the stage.

The hosts of this year’s NASCAR Awards ceremony had already poked fun at the Craftsman Truck Series champion during their opening monologue for his post-championship press conference, when Rhodes made headlines after strolling into the Phoenix Raceway media center noticeably “buzzed.” They noted the 5 p.m. local time start and joked it would allow Rhodes to get out in Nashville sooner.

Rhodes, who won just one race and posted seven top-five finishes, articulated a more concise speech on the third floor of the Music City Center, explaining his gratitude for his teammates who have helped him become a two-time Truck Series champion.

“I can speak for everyone on my team when I say they have incredible tenacity,” Rhodes said in his speech. “This season, for some reason, seemed to be especially arduous. And not once did I hear anyone complain, but rather they always ask what more they can do.”

Other honorees from Thursday’s ceremony

Ryan Vargas, a 23-year-old driver born with craniosynostosis, was honored as NASCAR’s Community Champion of the Year.

Kurt Busch was recognized for his retirement and was introduced by retired UFC fighter Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone.

Rich Kramer, who will retire as Goodyear’s CEO next year, was presented with the Bill France Award of Excellence.

Sherry Pollex, who died in September from ovarian cancer at age 44, won the National Motorsports Press Association’s Myers Brothers Award for her contributions to the sport.