With the sultry heat of the summer melting the tarmac of the New York City sidewalks, the ads promoting new movies are out in force. Whether they come from the sides of city buses, giant store display windows that burst out of the glass, or a plethora of ads on any channel you care to watch, the message is hard to miss – summer is the season of the movie blockbuster.
I’m not talking nourishing cinematic fare here, either, with exquisitely scripted prose and Oscar potential. I’m talking about the empty-calorie laden goodness of a full-on action movie. You know, the sort of flick where the hero defeats the bad guy, saves the world against innumerable odds, gets the hot girl, and still has time for a ton of pithy quips – all in a nice hour and a half package. For those sorts of summer hits, it’s all about the final box office numbers and that critical opening weekend. And to be the next summertime hit, nothing brings the dollars pouring into the movie house coffers like a top notch A-list star. The bigger the actor or actress, the more popular the movie is likely to be; and the more top names you can put on the poster or in your trailer, the better off you’ll be.
So, in the spirit of the mindless but oh-so-enjoyable summer movies, if our favorite NASCAR stars were to replace the ones on the silver screen, who’d be on the A-list? Who would sell out movie houses in every state? Who would win Oscars, and who’d win the decidedly less glamorous Emmies? Who would be the rising stars, the break out names, and who would be the fading icons in need of a hit? And – in pseudo-honor of Kathy Griffin and her excruciatingly painful “Life on the D-list” show – who’d prop up the pile?
As always, here’s a few ground rules to begin with. I’ve considered only the top 50 drivers in the current Sprint Cup standings and – although in some cases past performance is taken into account – I’m basing these grades more on recent history. Popularity is, of course, a critical factor, as is marketability and perhaps just a smidgen of author bias. After all, in a list such as this it would be hard to not be just a little less objective than on other more weighty issues in the NASCAR world these days…
The Oscar Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
There can really be only one name in this category, and that’s Dale Jr. He’s the biggest crossover star in the sport today, and if you ask the average person who doesn’t have any interest in NASCAR to name one driver, even money says it’s the kid from Kannapolis they name. In box-office terms, crowds would be waiting on line around the block the length and breadth of this fine country to watch a movie with the No. 88 taking center stage.
The Oscar-Nominated Superstars: Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson
With eight championships between them, Gordon, Smoke and Jimmie J are deservedly in an elite category. After Junior, you’d have to say this list would see the punters pack movie houses everywhere.
The Bona Fide Box-Office Luminaries: Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch
Some might raise eyebrows at Busch’s inclusion over other names, but in a decade, we might just be looking back at 2008 as the first of his multiple championship campaigns. He’s scary good, and what’s more, he’s with one of the best teams in the business: so it’s only gonna to get better. Kahne is in based on his immense popularity and good looks, while Martin makes this category because a superstar is exactly what he is.
The Established “Big” Names: The Biff (Greg Biffle), Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton
Four more solid names in today’s NASCAR world would be hard to find. For the most part, this quartet are a threat wherever they run; and in the NASCAR stratosphere, they’re right at the top of all the director (owner) wanted lists.
The Break-Out Stars: Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards
So far, Hamlin and Edwards have multiple wins and multiple Chase appearances in their relatively short careers, and both have the potential to become a Sprint Cup champion in short order. But remember, potential is one thing – delivering on it’s a whole other issue altogether. Time will tell if these budding stars can make it stick, or if they simply fade slowly into obscurity. Bowyer is a step behind in terms of success, but the same tenet applies to the amiable Kansas native.
The Aspiring A-listers: Martin Truex Jr., David Ragan, Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya, Brian Vickers
The five drivers on the Aspiring A-list represent an interesting mix. Montoya, you sense, could go A-list with the right role (read: equipment) – and to a certain extent, so could Newman. Ragan and Vickers are improving fast, and so is Truex; but for DEI, despite its history, the road to success proves a whole different matter altogether. Depending on where he lands – whether it’s Hendrick, Childress, or back at DEI – that will determine whether this is a list that Truex could be even higher on next year.
The Fading Former Stars: Kurt Busch, Bobby Labonte, Elliott Sadler
This is not a category you want to be in – and it’s a tad harsh, perhaps. But for Kurt Busch, when you’re not even remotely the most famous sibling in your family, you’re no longer in the A-list category. Labonte may be on the verge of better times with Petty Enterprises, but it’s been a long time since he’s had any at all. However, it’s E-Sad who’s faded further than most these past couple of years. Five top 10s in 50 races is not the stuff of racing legend. The amiable Virginian better be hoping some of his teammate Kahne’s recent magic rubs off.
The Matinee Idols: Casey Mears, Jamie McMurray, Reed Sorenson
Mears and McMurray are the very definition of Matinee Idols, who are traditionally adored in far greater levels than their talent necessarily deserves. With Roush needing to contract a team, McMurray is most under threat, but Mears cannot afford to continue to sit 30th in the standings given his equipment and his newly acquired free-agent status.
The Independent Film Actors: Robby Gordon
As always, the lone wolf is in a category all of his, well, lonesome. Gordon’s not A-list, and – based on his stats – probably not really B-list; but given the rest of his racing resume, the driver of the No. 7 car is a big name regardless of team and manufacturer affiliation.
The Classic Movie Stars: Bill Elliott, Kyle Petty, Ken Schrader
The three names on the list make this category based on years of accumulated experience and success. While they don’t win like they used to and often don’t run even remotely close to how they once did, these three all still have plenty of loyal fans, and even they know there’s still plenty of cachet in the “power of a big name.”
The Sequel Actors: Dave Blaney, Joe Nemechek, Michael Waltrip
Front Row Joe is a superb nickname, but Finish Line Joe would be better (if not quite as snappy). Blaney’s never had the luck while Waltrip – perhaps he deserves his own category – is here because he’s more often C-list than A-list (and that’s especially so if you’re a regular watcher of This Week in NASCAR).
The “Foreign Film” Stars: Patrick Carpentier, AJ Allmendinger, Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr.
A diverse list, including a Scot with a movie-star wife, a French Canadian and an Allmendinger. This group resides on the C-list for good reason: they’ve got no track record of success yet, but the operative word in that sentence – of course – is yet.
The Straight-to-DVDers: Michael McDowell, Paul Menard, David Gilliland, Travis Kvapil, David Reutimann
Urgh – the worst category based on this article, as the five drivers named above finish up the bottom of this pile. What you can say, however, is that there are only two ways to go from here: up or out. However, for all of them time is still on their side…
The Lifetime Movie (ahem) stars: JJ Yeley, Regan Smith, Scott Riggs, Aric Almirola
When your level is Lifetime, well, that says something, doesn’t it? (P.S.: Before I enrage some of you, hi Shereen! I know… Lifetime produces gripping drama and fine movie programming).
The Long-Time Achievement Award: Dale Jarrett
DJ is in a class of his own: a top of the list star. After a disappointing season, the transition to the booth will ease the pain of not mashing the gas week in and week out.