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 top-earner (Jeff Gordon was the last driver to surpass Earnhardt). Jimmie Johnson takes the title as NASCAR 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.
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.
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.
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.