Jimmie Johnson is most talked about driver by media in offseason

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Even though the NASCAR media corps has been decimated over the last six or seven years due to layoffs and beat eliminations, the sport still enjoys considerable press coverage.

In particular has been during the current offseason. With the season-opening Daytona 500 now less than three weeks away, the media has been covering NASCAR during the winter months almost as much as it did during the season.

Not surprisingly, defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has been the most talked about driver in print, online and on TV and radio during the offseason, according to a new study by Joyce Julius & Associates.

Since 1985, the Ann Arbor, Mich., firm has measured media attention, as well as the worth of that recognition.

And now, with its annual Top-15 NASCAR Driver Off-Season Media Coverage study, it showed Johnson had over 6,000 media mentions since he captured his sixth championship last November.

The resulting media exposure value translated to $10,260,981, according to Joyce Julius, putting Johnson at the top of the list.

Broken down, Johnson was referenced in 1,274 television programs, along with 4,499 Internet and 234 print articles during the two-month rating period. Most of the references to Johnson were about his sixth Cup title in eight years, that he’s now one title away from tying Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for most driver championships (7) and how changes to NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup format announced last week may potentially affect Johnson.

Interestingly, Danica Patrick is ranked second, although she had significantly more media references (6,787 to Johnson’s 6,007). But the value of Patrick’s impressions was less than Johnson’s composite, coming in at $9,773,385.

The difference, according to the press release announcing the results, was based upon “the size of the audience generated by the news media coverage to the cost of reaching the same audience through traditional advertising.”

Three-time Sprint Cup champ Tony Stewart ranked third with 5,008 references at a value of $7,271,414, primarily because Stewart fans wanted to know how his ongoing recovery from a terrible wreck in a sprint car race last August was going, and whether he’ll be ready for the Daytona 500 (he will).

Four-time Jeff Gordon was fourth, while in somewhat of a surprise, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was voted by fans as the sport’s most popular driver for the 11th consecutive year in 2013, ranked only fifth on the list.

The study began the day after the NASCAR Banquet in December and ended this past Monday following the Super Bowl.

“It was a fun exercise to see what kind of media coverage NASCAR drivers receive during the so-called off-season,” said Eric Wright of Joyce Julius and Associates. “I think what was most interesting was the volume of coverage some of the high profile drivers received. It illustrates what media magnets many of these personalities are, and it also speaks to how the sport of NASCAR is truly a year-round proposition.”

Here’s the overall list with media references and estimated exposure value:

1. Jimmie Johnson — 6,007 — $10,260,981

2. Danica Patrick — 6,787 — $9,773,385

3. Tony Stewart — 5,008 — $7,271,414

4. Jeff Gordon — 3,716 — $5,807,544

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 3,594 — $5,321,904

6. Kyle Busch — 2,709 — $3,926,871

7. Mark Martin — 2,507 — $3,890,383

8. Michael Waltrip — 3,259 — $3,752,516

9. Kevin Harvick — 2,269 — $3,619,404

10. Kurt Busch — 2,657 — $3,609,412

11. Austin Dillon — 1,989 — $3,191,690

12. Brad Keselowski — 2,363 — $2,854,773

13. Ryan Newman — 1,926 — $2,849,637

14. Kyle Larson — 2,155 — $2,748,901

15. Denny Hamlin — 2,081 — $2,508,700

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Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.