Dale Earnhardt Jr. still No. 1 in souvenir sales, but Austin Dillon, Kevin Harvick make big gains

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. may soon start hearing more footsteps of Austin Dillon closing in on him.

Maybe not so much on the racetrack, but certainly in online souvenir memorabilia sales, according to a story in the Daytona Beach News-Journal.

While Earnhardt is going for his 12th consecutive Most Popular Driver Award this season, he also continues to be No. 1 driver on the NASCAR.com Superstore list of online souvenir and memorabilia sales.

But Dillon is climbing fast, going from 22nd last season (his last in the Nationwide Series) to 10th this season (his rookie Sprint Cup campaign).

Blake Davidson, vice president of licensing and consumer products for NASCAR, explained Dillon’s surge in an email response to the News-Journal.

“There was a lot of anticipation and excitement about having the No. 3 back on the track,” Davidson said. “Here we had a very talented, up-and-coming driver in Dillon behind the wheel of a car owned by his grandfather, Richard Childress, with the number that Dale Earnhardt made famous.

“Those are great storylines. Dillon had already won two NASCAR Nationwide Series championships, so he’d built a sizable fan following before he arrived at the Sprint Cup Series.”

Citing figures provided by the NASCAR.com Superstore, the News-Journal reported that seven of the top 10 drivers with the hottest selling merchandise changed positions from the 2013 year-to-date listing.

The biggest climbers in the rankings were Dillon (up 12 spots), Kevin Harvick (five spots) and Jeff Gordon (one spot).

Dropping in the rankings from 2013 to 2014 were Tony Stewart (two spots), Danica Patrick (two spots), and one spot each for Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards.

We don’t know if it’s a coincidence or not, but four of the top eight drivers on the list race for Hendrick Motorsports.

In addition, eight of the top-10 drivers are powered by Chevrolet. Sixth-ranked Kyle Busch (Toyota) and ninth-ranked Carl Edwards (Ford) are the only non-Chevy drivers on the list.

What are the hottest-selling items?

“Die-cast replicas and apparel (t-shirts, hats, jackets) are the two most popular categories,” Davidson told the News-Journal. “The die-cast is kind of like our sport’s jersey — it represents an authentic replica of what is on the track. Those have always been a major item for fans.

“We offer the very same hats that drivers are wearing themselves, so that creates a connection between the fan and driver. (And) the Daytona Rising Collection gives fans an opportunity to take home a piece of track history, including the actual seats where they may have once sat to watch the Great American Race.”

Here’s the breakdown, with this year’s rank, driver name and last year’s year-to-date sales ranking (source: NASCAR.com Superstore):

1) Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 1 in 2013)

2) Jimmie Johnson (No. 2 in 2013)

3) Jeff Gordon (No. 4 in 2013)

4) Kevin Harvick (No. 9 in 2013)

5) Tony Stewart (No. 3 in 2013)

6) Kyle Busch (No. 6 in 2013)

7) Danica Patrick (No. 5 in 2013)

8) Kasey Kahne (No. 7 in 2013)

9) Carl Edwards (No. 8 in 2013)

10) Austin Dillon (No. 22 in 2013)

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Neuville wins Rally Australia; Ogier takes FIA WRC title

Sebastien Ogier. Photo: Getty Images
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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) Belgium’s Thierry Neuville won Rally Australia by 22.5 seconds on Sunday as torrential rain added drama to the last day of the last race of the World Rally Championship season.

Neuville entered the final day with an almost 20 second advantage after inheriting the rally lead Saturday when his Hyundai teammate, defending champion Andreas Mikkelsen crashed and was forced to retire for the day.

His lead was halved by Jari-Matti Latvala early Sunday as monsoon-like rain made conditions treacherous on muddy forest stages on the New South Wales coast. The rain stopped on the short Wedding Bells stage where Neuville was almost 5 seconds quicker than his rivals, stretching his lead to 14.7 seconds entering the last stage.

COFFS HARBOUR, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 17: Thierry Neuville of Belgium and Nicolas Gilsoul of Belgium compete in their Hyundai Motorsport WRT Hyundai i20 coupe WRC during Day One of the WRC Australia on November 17, 2017 in COFFS HARBOUR, Australia. (Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)

That stage was full of incident. The driver’s door on Neuville’s Hyundai i20 coupe swung open in the middle of the stage and Neuville had to slam it closed as he approached a corner.

Latvala’s Toyota then crashed seconds from the end of the stage, allowing Estonia’s Ott Tanak, in a Ford, to take second place overall and New Zealalnd’s Haydon Paddon, in a Hyundai, to sneak into third.

Sebastian Ogier was fourth after winning the final, power stage but the Frenchman had already clinched his fifth world title before Rally Australia began. Neuville’s win was his fourth of the season, two more than Ogier, and was enough to give him second place in world drivers’ standings for the third time in five years.

Ogier owed his drivers’ title to his consistency: he retired only once and finished no worse than fifth all season.

Neuville admitted the last day was touch and go as the rain made some stages perilous, forcing the cancellation of the second to last stage.

“That was a hell of a ride,” Neuville said. “Really, really tricky conditions.

“I kept the car on the road but it was close sometimes. I knew I could make a difference but I had to be clever. You lose grip, you lose control and the car doesn’t respond to your input.”