Photo of Dale Earnhardt Jr. courtesy of Sarah Stierch
By Spencer Campbell
Denny Hamlin caused a bit of a stir in October when he opined that “NASCAR drivers should be making NBA, NFL money.” Hey Hamlin, you already are: The driver of the No. 11 Toyota Camry for Huntersville-based Joe Gibbs Racing Inc. took in $13.1 million in salary and winnings in 2016, according to a review of professional athlete salaries. That’s more than Carolina Panther Luke Kuechly and Charlotte Hornet Kemba Walker earned — and both are All-Stars. It’s difficult to make sense of pro sports salaries because more than just performance factors into contracts. Marketability, for instance. We asked Manhasset, N.Y.-based Marketing Evaluations Inc. to calculate the Q Scores — percentage of fans who feel positively about a player — of some of our state’s highest-earning athletes. The following chart compares Q Scores and salaries (excluding endorsements). NASCAR drivers are, on average, the most recognizable. Point: Hamlin. Counterpoint: Hamlin was one of the least popular athletes on our list.