Kevin Harvick believes if Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been more successful on the track, NASCAR wouldn’t be in the position it is today, facing decreasing television ratings and dwindling attendance.
Earnhardt is NASCAR’s 14-time most popular driver and has had an up-and-down 18-year career that’s featured 26 Cup Series wins but also several seasons where he was winless. It is that lack of consistent high-level success year to year that Harvick cited Tuesday on his weekly SiriusXM Radio show as the reason why NASCAR is experiencing a downturn in popularity.
“(Earnhardt) hasn’t been anywhere close to being our most successful driver,” Harvick said. “For me I believe Dale Jr. has had a big part in stunting the growth of NASCAR because he’s got these legions of fans, this huge outreach of being able to reach these places none of us have the possibility to reach. But he’s won nine races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports and hasn’t been able to reach outside of that. I know those aren’t the most popular comments, but those are real life facts that you look up and see on the stat sheet.”
Earnhardt, 42, announced in April that he is retiring from full-time competition at the end of the current season. And thus far, his final full season has been a struggle, with only four top-10 finishes in 22 races and nine finishes of 30th or worse. He ranks 22nd in the series points standings and will not qualify for the playoffs unless he wins one of the four remaining regular-season races.
Harvick, the 2014 Cup champion, is fourth in points and won at Sonoma Raceway in June to essentially lock himself into the 16-driver playoff field.
“It’s a funny situation when you talk about his last year and what you thought it would be,” Harvick said. “It’s the strangest situation that we have. In my opinion, this is where I think some of the growth in our sport has not reached the levels that it should’ve because our most popular driver hasn’t been our most successful driver.
“Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the most popular driver (award) for however many years in a row … But he hasn’t been anywhere close to being our most successful driver.”
Harvick said he is mystified why seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson isn’t more popular with fans. Harvick compared Johnson to other sports figures who’ve accomplished great things such as LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Peyton Manning, yet have considerably more mass commercial appeal than Johnson, who is often subject to loud boos during driver introductions prior to races.
“It’s really confusing to me,” Harvick said. “In my opinion Jimmie Johnson should be our most popular guy because he’s won seven championships. You look at the souvenir sheet every week and he’s (ranked) three, four, five coming off a championship year of what he sells in souvenirs. That part to me is a little bit confusing.”
Earnhardt responded to Harvick’s remarks Thursday, saying the comments were “hurtful.”
"I certainly hope that's not the case," Earnhardt said, via ESPN.com "I put a lot into this sport, and I know that I might not have met everyone's expectations, but I certainly exceeded my own and I'm super proud of what I've been able to accomplish.
"I hope that I brought something to the table and left a good impact."
Harvick previously drove for the Xfinity Series team Earnhardt co-owns, JR Motorsports, and Earnhardt said Harvick deserves a lot of credit for lifting the organization to greater heights. Harvick also replaced Dale Earnhardt Sr. at Richard Childress Racing after the seven-time Cup champion was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
"I have an incredible amount of respect for him," Earnhardt said. "I found some of those comments hurtful. I still respect him as a champion and ambassador for the sport.
"That's just the way it is, I guess. I hate that's how he feels."