Perhaps more than with any other sport, the most dominant NASCAR drivers are quite a different group from the four or five names that the wider sports-viewing world knows and recognizes. Take the NBA: Sure, the league's biggest brand endorsers are not necessarily the same as its highest paid, but global stars like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are at least in the top quadrant for salary. And in tennis, although sponsorship powerhouses Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are no longer the top earners on the court, both are in the top 10.
In the NASCAR world, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is the leading endorser, and arguably remains the sport's most widely recognized face (along with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson). But he was only its 15th most successful driver on the track in 2012, with $5.8 million in winnings. (For reference, that's still more earnings from his sport than David Beckham, Federer, or Phil Mickelson.)
Similarly, mega endorsers Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart made $7.2 million and $7.9 million, respectively, which only landed them at ninth and sixth on a list ranked by 2012 winnings. (Sometimes people ask why there aren't any IZOD IndyCar drivers on the Fortunate 50; it's because the purses aren't nearly as high as in NASCAR or European F1 racing. For reference, 2012's highest IndyCar earner was Dario Franchitti, and he only got $2,554,280. Then there was a steep drop to No. 2, Scott Dixon, who made $1,272,280, and third-highest earner Tony Kanaan with $711,580.)
NASCAR's richest, purely by race purses, were Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson (who, at least in 2012, was the only one of the sport's huge endorsement names that also dominated on the track), Matt Kenseth, and Denny Hamlin, in that order.
1. Brad Keselowski: $12,106,255
2. Jimmie Johnson: $10,469,436
3. Matt Kenseth: $8,802,779
4. Denny Hamlin: $8,330,410
5. Clint Bowyer: $7,993,802
6. Tony Stewart: $7,932,182
7. Greg Biffle: $7,416,099
8. Kyle Busch: $7,202,891
9. Jeff Gordon: $7,195,279
10. Kevin Harvick: $6,926,597