Tuesday, May 7, 2013

What Makes a Driver Famous?

(This is a cross-post with StatsInsights)

We know that the most popular NASCAR drivers aren’t necessarily the ones with the most wins. Or the most points in the standings. Popularity of NASCAR drivers, as with anything else, is something that is elusive and tricky to quantify. That’s the subject of this post: What makes a driver famous?

This question matters a lot in NASCAR: popularity increases a driver's longevity by bringing in sponsorship money. Real dollars are at stake.

Using Google Trends as our proxy, let's consider the amount of search interest as an indicator of fame.  This is a reasonable metric because it suggests how many people are looking up this driver online, trying to find out more information. Of course, this could be due to negative reasons (e.g. a scandal) but we won’t filter out “good” publicity or “bad” publicity in this post: we just focus on which drivers are getting the most general interest, for better or worse, in online searches.

In the end, there are only a few basic factors that move the needle:

  • The Winners
  • Missing Races
  • Fights
  • Daytona
  • The Funnies

The Winners

For some guys, yes, it's about winning. This is Jimmie Johnson's trend. His top peaks are when he won a championship (points L, I, E) or a Daytona 500 (points M and A)

Figure 1: Jimmie Johnson

The winner this past weekend at Talladega was David Ragan. His peak in search interest is happening right now, based on this win.

Figure 2: David Ragan

Another driver for whom winning matters most is Brad Keselowski, who had a spike this past November when he won the Sprint Cup title:

Figure 3: Brad Keselowski

Danica Patrick, a Sprint Cup rookie, peaked in 2005 during her almost-win at the Indy 500. Nothing she has done in NASCAR yet has broken through that level of online interest. Her highest rank since then was just three months ago when she had a great Daytona 500. She didn't win in 2005 at Indy or this year at Daytona, but was in contention very late.

Figure 4: Danica Patrick

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s online interest has slightly dropped off in the last 4 years as his wins have been harder to come by. Notice the graph is much lower after 2009 than before. He is still considered one of the most popular and marketable drivers on the circuit, but this chart suggests perhaps there has been a slight drop in mainstream interest over the past few years.

Figure 5: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Paul Menard, has won only one Sprint Cup race, and you guessed it, that's his peak, back in the summer of 2011:

Figure 6: Paul Menard

Missing Races

A driver who showed a peak that did not involve a win was Kyle Busch in November 2011, when he was suspended for intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday:

Figure 7: Kyle Busch

Kurt Busch displays a similar spike in 2006 (point M) when he was suspended by Roush Racing for the final two races of the season:

Figure 8: Kurt Busch

Brian Vickers had a high score in 2006 when he won his first race, at Talladega, but saw a much higher peak in 2010 when he was hospitalized for blood clots:

Figure 9: Brian Vickers


Clint Bowyer is another driver, like Kyle Busch, who got the most online interest for aggressive action. The peak (point A) is from his fight with Jeff Gordon at the end of 2012.

Figure 10: Clint Bowyer

In Joey Logano's case, his fight with Denny Hamlin, and their crash at Fontana was his peak:

Figure 11: Joey Logano

Not surprisingly, Denny Hamlin also saw a peak then:

Figure 12: Denny Hamlin

Carl Edwards saw a peak in 2009, when his car was sent into the fence at Talladega, in a last lap collision with Brad Keselowski:

Figure 13: Carl Edwards


Mark Martin's peak came in 2007 when he was beaten by just inches in the Daytona 500:

Figure 14: Mark Martin

The driver who beat Martin was Kevin Harvick, and that Daytona 500 win was also his peak:

Figure 15: Kevin Harvick

Trevor Bayne's Daytona 500 win is far and away his most notable accomplishment, and the data matches:

Figure 16: Trevor Bayne

Ryan Newman's Daytona 500 win mattered more to his fame than any other of his many career wins:

Figure 17: Ryan Newman

Daytona is so important to NASCAR that each year's annual peak in interest comes from the Daytona 500 (points A, C, E below), not the championship chase races at the end of the year. And the ultimate NASCAR peak is that 2007 Daytona 500 (point L) when Harvick and Martin battled for the win.

Figure 18: NASCAR

The Funnies

Jeff Gordon's peak came just a couple months ago when that Pepsi viral video came out.

Figure 19: Jeff Gordon

Ricky Stenhouse became Internet famous only once people learned he was dating Danica:

Figure 20: Ricky Stenhouse

The Lesson Here

If a driver wants to gain attention, it really does come down to winning.  Especially at Daytona. Or being in a huge wreck. Or getting into a fight. Or getting suspended. Or dating Danica.