Rating Every Cup Driver’s Nickname

Where did all the great NASCAR nicknames go? In the late ’90s (before my time, I must admit) you could see the Intimidator take on Wonder Boy, and Ironman face off against the Rooster, the Mayor, and the Kid. Hotshot rookies got nicknames like Smoke and Little E before they even debuted in the Cup Series.

These days, it seems like we’re just stuck with a bunch of abbreviations: YRB, MTJ, Willy B, and CBell. Nope, that’s not gonna cut it. 

So here we go. I’m going to rate every Cup driver’s nickname with an A-F letter grade, put my rulings in the context of the awesome history of NASCAR driver nicknames, and offer my own suggestions where I find the official nicknames come up short. Remember, this is entirely subjective, but I’m completely right.

Ross Chastain, “The Melon Man” : A

Let’s get things started with a good one. Ross Chastain’s unique nickname refers to the fact he grew up working on his family’s watermelon farm in Alva, Florida. His victory celebration is smashing a watermelon on the start/finish line, and his paint schemes usually include some sort of watermelon pattern or motif. Chastain has turned “Melon Man” into his personal brand and that impressive level of dedication deserves recognition.

“The Blue Deuce” Austin Cindric : F

This nickname has been handed down more times than heirloom jewelry. Originally referring to Rusty Wallace’s Miller Lite sponsored #2, each subsequent driver of the Team Penske flagship has been the heir to the nickname “Blue Deuce.” After losing Miller sponsorship midway through Brad Keselowski’s turn, the car isn’t even blue any more. It’s time for a new nickname and a new legacy to go with the new driver of the #2 Ford.

Austin “Ace” Dillon : B-

Austin gets the nickname “Ace” from his grandfather, team owner Richard Childress, who always called Austin his “ace in the hole.” With an ace of spades logo, a Cars 3 tie-in character, and naming his son after his own nickname, Austin seems a little too fond of “Ace”, and that’s why I’ve bumped his grade down to B-minus – that and the fact that, at least to someone outside the extended Childress-Dillon family, it isn’t specific enough to Austin’s persona to be particularly memorable. 

Kevin “Happy” Harvick : A+

“Happy Harvick” was bequeathed to the Bakersfield driver during the early years of his career, and it has become an all-time classic. Whether or not it was the original intent of the moniker, across a difficult 2002 and 2003, “Happy” came to ironically refer to a driver who was always pissed off and looking to fight somebody. Although he’s cultivated a truly impressive collection of nicknames since – “the Closer,” “the Cactus King,” “El Toro,” and probably others I’ve forgotten, it’s Happy that stuck, and for good reason. Sarcastic nicknames are always the best.

Kyle “Yung Money” Larson : C

“The Kid” Mark Martin. “Wonder Boy” Jeff Gordon. Some of the best NASCAR nicknames of all time refer to a driver’s youth. But “Yung Money” Larson is not one of them. 

In the early 1990s when Jeff Gordon made his debut, he was noticeably younger than his competitors in an age when accumulated skill was considered more indicative of performance than a youngster’s raw talent. Calling Gordon “Wonder Boy” was a dig, one that suggested the clean-cut Californian wasn’t a man like his competitors. Mark Martin’s nickname “the Kid” was derogatory at first, too, but their fans reclaimed the names when they kept winning, and winning, and winning.

Larson’s nickname “Yung Money” can’t be used sneeringly by rivals, and something important is lost with that. Besides, for Larson to transition into a weekly front-runner, he had to temper down the youthfully exuberant driving style that won him fans, if not races, in the early part of his career. Larson is 28 years old, a veteran of the series, and a champion. It’s time for a more suitable nickname.

And if I’m really honest, I can’t get over the spelling of “Yung.” I’m not sure if it’s a halfhearted attempt at a 90’s rapper name (despite the actual hip-hop label being spelled out “Young Money”) or a poor-taste reference to Larson’s Japanese American heritage by way of the Chinese family name “Yung.”

“YRB” Ryan Blaney : D

I’m now going out of numerical order to clump the youth-related nicknames together, because I have similar thoughts about all of them. To the best of my knowledge, “YRB” was originally a joke at the expense of TV commentators who always seemed to introduce the Ford prospect as “Young Ryan Blaney” around 2016. Blaney has gone on record as a fan of the nickname that “keeps him young,” even if he admits he’s rapidly moving towards “Middle-Aged Ryan Blaney.” 

But Young Ryan Blaney is a vague nickname, maybe even less descriptive than “Yung Money” Larson. It doesn’t tell us anything about Blaney as a driver, whose old-school persona, low-key victory celebrations, and lack of off-track rivalries calls to mind legends like “Gentleman” Ned Jarrett and David Pearson, “the Silver Fox” . Unfortunately, the nickname I’ve been using for Blaney since about 2015: “Bleezy” (as in, derived from Blaney) doesn’t do that either. “007,” a reference to the margin of victory in both his Talladega wins, is decently well-suited to Blaney’s cool head, but can cause confusion since he drives #12. 

Well, Blaney is the driver who won’t do a burnout because he doesn’t want to tear up the race car. Why not call him “Mr. Clean”?

“That Jones Boy” Erik Jones : B+

This is the way to do a youth-based NASCAR nickname right in the 2020s. “That Jones Boy” was coined by legendary announcer Ken Squier during the 2017 Darlington throwback race and was quickly adopted by fans to refer to the young driver from Michigan. Yes, this situation isn’t all that different from “YRB,” but it has one notable difference: “That Jones Boy” is gently dismissive in a way that the other youth-based nicknames on this list aren’t, as if Squier can’t even be bothered to learn Jones’ first name. 

Do not underestimate how important a little bit of sass is to a great NASCAR nickname. 

Chase Elliott “Awesome Chase from the Same Place” : A-

Another great basis for a NASCAR nickname: the rhyme. Rhymes have brought us such classics as Ernie “Swervin’” Irvan and “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville,” and finally his son, “Awesome Chase from the Same Place.” 

It’s a long nickname for sure (it has to be, to achieve the rhyming couplet effect) but it firmly connects the younger Elliott into his family’s legacy as the most popular drivers in NASCAR history and proud sons of Georgia. Unfortunately, the half-grade deduction comes for the same reason. This nickname only makes sense in context. Admittedly, it’s context that very few NASCAR fans won’t know, but I think the sport’s most popular driver probably deserves a nickname that stands on its own.

“Bad” Brad Keselowski : B

Another great example of the rhyming nickname, at the peak of his career, “Bad Brad” Keselowski’s aggressive, full-contact driving style and brash, take-no-prisoners attitude more than justified the moniker. Keselowski was the heel of the late Chase era, a blackhat for the ages, the kind of guy you loved, or loved to hate. Unfortunately, with his buy-in at a struggling RFK Racing dropping the former champion to the back of the field to start 2022, “Bad Brad” could take on a whole new unfortunate meaning for the years to come, and so I’ve brought the grade down to reflect that potential. 

Alex Bowman “The Showman” : A

This would be rated a lot lower if I were making the list in 2020. Alex Bowman became “The Showman” purely because of the rhyme, which was also sort of an ironic joke when the Arizona native was a soft-spoken youngster bouncing between underfunded teams without a chance at victory. 

After joining Hendrick Motorsports, and particularly after his series of clutch race-winning performances since adopting the #48 at the start of 2021, “The Showman” nickname turned out to be remarkably prescient. Like “Bad Brad” Keselowski, a rhyming nickname that is also a good descriptor has to be rated highly, and after yet another clutch performance in Las Vegas, Bowman seems unlikely to slow down.

Bowman has also become a nickname collector: “The Grim Reaper” for the unfortunate curse he puts on the tracks at which he wins (to close down or lose race dates), “Hack,” after Denny Hamlin’s rant at Martinsville, and affectionately, “Bow bow” by some of his fans on Twitter. 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr “Wrecky Spinhouse” : B

I doubt any driver hates his nickname more than Stenhouse hates being “Wrecky Spinhouse.” It’s too long, too mean, and not really in the spirit of this list. I’d rate it lower if it weren’t so funny.

Cole “Cold Custard” Custer : B

Similarly, I’m only rating “Cold Custard” as high as I have because it’s hilarious. I mean, it’s so obvious. It’s right there. I’m sorry Cole, I’m sure you’ve had to put up with this your whole life. But your name really does sound like “Cold Custard.”

Aric Almirola “The Cuban Missile” : B

It’s a shame this one doesn’t get used more often, because it’s a racing nickname that’s also a clever historical reference. “The Cuban Missile” refers, of course, to the Tampa Bay native’s Cuban heritage, while also generally sounding badass. However, Almirola doesn’t like this label, believing that the reference to the non-American side of the Cold War crisis awkwardly implies opposition to the US armed forces. Aric was born on an Air Force base, and the Almirolas are a military family, a point of pride that he doesn’t want getting muddled. 

His sponsor Smithfield would probably prefer his nickname to be “The Cuban Sandwich” anyway.

Kyle “Rowdy” Busch : A+

This should be the gold standard for post-2010s NASCAR nicknames. It came from a Days of Thunder tribute scheme that Busch ran in 2007 – the first time he used his now-iconic #51 in the Truck Series, but his adoption of the Tom Cruise movie’s supporting character’s nickname has long since transcended its source material. It’s short and sweet, an accurate description of one of NASCAR’s longest-lasting bad boys, and also extremely marketable. Check your local convenience store for a can of Rowdy Energy, why don’t you? 

Yes, “the Candyman” offers an ironic juxtaposition between the aggressive driver and his family-friendly sponsors, and “Wild Thing” is also pretty good, even if it just says the same thing as “Rowdy” in twice as many words. A quick note on “KFB” – yes, that was one of the all-time great driver interview moments, and looks great on a T-shirt, but it should be a slogan, not a nickname. “KFB” should be NASCAR’s equivalent of YOLO, not yet another generic abbreviation nickname. Nothing will ever be able to top “Rowdy” Busch.

“Speedy Gonzales” Daniel Suárez : A

I think this one isn’t more widely used because it comes off as a bit. . . iffy. Nicknaming the only Mexican driver in NASCAR after a literal cartoon stereotype isn’t a great look. Or, it wouldn’t be, except for the fact that Suarez himself adopted the nickname soon after he moved to this country, because he felt it would energize his fans in Mexico, where the character is even more iconic than he is in the US. 

Although considering the awkwardness of everyone stumbling over themselves to call each other “amigo” when Suarez is around, it’s probably good that the TV commentators hold off on the Speedy Gonzales stuff for the most part. And it’s way above my pay grade to offer one-size-fits-all directives on cultural sensitivity in NASCAR, or to analyze the ways that Suarez presents his relationship to his native country in NASCAR media, even if I do find those subjects really interesting. Just like. . . follow his lead on this stuff. 

Yes, I’m giving this one an A because I studied anthropology and the Speedy Gonzales nickname is a great flashpoint to think about cultural interaction, perception, and performance in NASCAR. Plus, it’s just fun that he has a cartoon mouse on his pit board.

“Outlaw” Kurt Busch : Not Rated

Somewhere around 2012, Kurt adopted the nickname “Outlaw,” based on his propensity for running afoul of NASCAR’s rules and regulations. The nickname only lasted until 2015, when Kurt faced some serious legal trouble during which being known as “outlaw” came across as insensitive. When he returned to the driver’s seat, he removed the nickname from his name rail and asked his fans to no longer use it. Thankfully, Busch has appeared to put that troubled time behind him, and has grown into a mature fan-favorite driver after leaving the “Outlaw” persona behind.

“Sliced Bread” Joey Logano : B+

Mark Martin once called Joey Logano “the greatest thing since sliced bread” and the nickname stuck. It scores points for being unique and kind of silly, but doesn’t get the full ‘A’ because it no longer refers to anything specific about Logano. Yes, he made his Cup debut at age 18, but it took a few years for the Middletown, Connecticut driver to emerge as a weekly threat to win. “Sliced Bread” still calls to mind those early years of struggle at Joe Gibbs Racing, but that is a nice reminder of where Joey came from.

It must also be mentioned that some fans abbreviate Joey Logano as “J-Lo,” which, although it does fall afoul of my “no abbreviations” rule, is funny enough at least to mention.

Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. : A

From where we are now, it’s a little odd to think we used to call Bubba by his legal name. About halfway through his rookie season in 2018, the t-shirts and entry lists finally started to use the nickname his sister gave him in early childhood, and now you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who still calls him Darrell. Bubba’s nickname is a nice throwback to the likes of Fireball Roberts, Cotton Owens, and Smokey Yunick, and a reminder that NASCAR is still so cartoonishly Southern that there’s a dude named Bubba racing in 2022. Yes, this nickname falls into a different category than most of these, but the data does confirm that “Bubba” Wallace is by far the most widely known nickname of any on this list, and for that alone it probably deserves the A.

“Willy B” William Byron and “CBell” Christopher Bell : D

These semi-anonymous nicknames that don’t offer anything other than a way to say the drivers’ names faster deserve to be clumped into the same category. So I’ll take this opportunity to suggest a new nickname that could work for either of these talented rising stars: The Conqueror.

William Byron is known for not liking any shortened, nickname-y version of William, (he shut down “Billy the Kid” well early in his career) so why didn’t anyone take notice of his incredible rookie seasons in Truck and Xfinity and dub him “William the Conqueror”? I’m taking his win at the first race of new-look Atlanta as a second chance to label him “The Conqueror”, and giving him the William-based nickname he’s always wanted.

Christopher Bell might be more accommodating of any sort of nickname than his fellow baby-faced superstar, so yes, the only Cup winner from the state of Oklahoma can still be “the Conqueror”. His hometown? Norman. Actually, “The Norman Invader” would be a better Bell nickname, but it’s probably better for there to be only one NASCAR driver with a nickname referencing the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066.

Justin “Darkhorse” Haley : D

This ruling is a little harsh, I know. “Darkhorse” – one word, which I don’t love, (I’m a stickler for spelling, I’m sure you can tell) became Justin Haley’s nickname after a series of Truck Series wins where he wasn’t in contention until he was standing in Victory Lane. His lone Cup win to date, scored for underfunded Spire Motorsports in just his third career start, certainly adds to the “Darkhorse” story.

Sure, “Darkhorse” is fine, but I’m giving it a D because there is a much better choice staring us all right in the face. Justin Haley’s nickname should be “Lightning,” and I will die on this hill.

I feel I have established that the best NASCAR nicknames have a little sass to them. They’re clever jokes at the expense of a driver who can then re-appropriate them as a badge of honor. Yes, “Lightning” is a badass nickname on its own: it draws on associations with speed and power, and would be a great graphical effect to put on a paint scheme or t-shirt.

But the reason we should call Justin Haley “Lightning” is because his lone Cup victory came due to lightning storms in the area of Daytona International Speedway. It wasn’t even raining yet – that’s why all the other drivers who had been running up front pitted before a final restart that never ended up happening, leaving Haley in the lead under the red flag. For the rest of the day, lightning struck often enough and nearby enough that it was never safe to go back green, and Justin Haley became a winner in the Cup Series.

Kyle Busch proved with “Rowdy” that a driver adopting a relevant nickname from a character in a racing movie only adds to its legacy. For a driver to borrow the nickname “Lightning” from Pixar’s Cars franchise would still be perfectly legitimate in the eyes of most NASCAR fans, and it could help attract and maintain the audience that NASCAR needs most: kids – who, if the amount of Cars merchandise sold is any indication, are still fans of the 16-year old movie. That’s right, Cars is the same age now that Days of Thunder was when Kyle Busch became “Rowdy.”

If you take nothing else from this article, start calling Justin Haley “Lightning.” I’m going to make this a thing, I promise. 

#LightningHaley

But what about everyone else? Well, I’m going to come up with nicknames for them right now.

Denny “Snake Eyes” Hamlin

I refuse to admit that the Fedex “The Deliverymanator” thing ever happened, so in my mind Denny Hamlin doesn’t have a nickname, and that’s a travesty. He’s grown into a great heel, so a villainous-sounding name will suit him. He always gets unlucky when a championship is on the line, and he’s made all of his career starts in #11. I give you. . . “Snake Eyes” Hamlin.

Tyler “Lucky” Reddick

Well, it was between this and “8-ball,” but “Lucky” won out because it’ll stick even if he changes car numbers. Besides, he’s been so obviously close to that first career win every week for the last month, just for something to go horribly wrong. He’s also short and has red hair, so it’ll work even in a Bowman the Showman situation if he suddenly starts to win all the time.

Martin “T-Rex” Truex Jr

I refuse to admit “MTJ” is a nickname. Call him “T-Rex” instead because it sounds like Truex, and he’s old but still fierce. 

Cody “Senpai” Ware

As far as I know, Cody Ware is the only NASCAR driver who Tweets about anime.

Corey “The Hair” LaJoie

Nobody else’s sponsor used his hair as the paint scheme.

Chris “Bueschy McBueschFace” Buescher

Yeah, I couldn’t think of a nickname for Chris Buescher, so I was going to make a Twitter poll, but then this would have won anyway, so why bother?

“Air Force One” Harrison Burton 

Air Force One is a Harrison Ford movie. His name is Harrison. He drives a Ford. His car flew in the air in his first career start. I’m great at this.

Michael “Love” McDowell

KLOVE. Love’s Travel Stops. Both McDowell sponsors. Next!

Chase “Risky” Briscoe

He’s an exciting young driver, and this nickname almost rhymes. Good enough!

“Tie-Dye” Ty Dillon 

This only barely squeaks by my “no abbreviations” rule, but I guess I’d put it in the Cold Custard category of silly things that sound like drivers’ names, except it would be pretty cool to get Tie-Dye Ty Dillon shirts, or even a tie-dye paint scheme. 

“Odd” Todd Gilliland

I considered two options here, both of which are derivative of more famous drivers’ nicknames, but I think they’re both funny enough to stand on their own. Todd could be “Little G” as a reference to his father, Xfinity Series race winner David Gilliland, by way of a reference to early 2000s Dale Jr, but I gave the spot to “Odd Todd” based on the Bowman the Showman principle of nominative determinism – I’d love to see just how odd Todd could get.

That’s it! That’s every full-time Cup driver’s nickname. Some are great, some are terrible, most are somewhere in the middle. But if there’s one thing I want you to take away from this list, it’s–

#LightningHaley

Featured Image from NASCAR on NBC

Published by Jack Swansey

Originally from North Carolina, Jack has been a NASCAR fan since 2008, and his favorite driver is Bubba Wallace. At Wesleyan University, he studied film and anthropology and wrote his senior thesis about the fan culture of American stock car racing. When not watching NASCAR, Jack is probably looking for some other motorsport to watch, scouring antique stores for hard-to-find diecasts, or investigating the history of some obscure backmarker team or another. To fund his HotWheels collection, Jack works in television production.

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