Amy Henderson · Thursday January 30, 2014
Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and puts together a list of five people, places, things, and ideas surrounding a piece of the sport. In the latest edition, Amy says that even when fans are disappointed in the sport, there is always something to cheer for if you look for it.
1. Young talent
As NASCAR’s biggest names are aging, there is a growing group of talented youngsters coming into the sport. Not only are there a whopping eight Rookie of the Year candidates in the Sprint cup Series, the most since 2008, there are some young drivers finding their places in the Nationwide and Truck Series as well. And these are not just drivers grabbing rides because they come with money. Yes, there are a few of those, but by and large, these guys are earning their way onto the sport’s biggest stage.
Is the picture for them completely rosy? No, because it’s still a struggle for them to find quality rides and sponsors in the lower series, especially Nationwide, where Cup drivers still make the series their personal playground, snagging the top dollars in the process. But slowly some new faces are peeking in the door and a few have shoved a foot in as well. Among them are a handful of second-generation drivers, and that’s good because it gives fans a natural replacement as old favorites retire. It also gives the up-and-comers name recognition among fans.
But the most exciting thing is that many of these drivers have the level of talent to makes their appearance in the sport noteworthy. Kyle Larson is one standout, drawing comparisons to the raw talent of a young Jeff Gordon. Austin Dillon is already a multi-series champion in NASCAR. Larson, Dillon, Justin Allgaier, Parker Kligerman, Jeb Burton, Darrell Wallace, Jr., Ty Dillon, Ryan Blaney, and Chase Elliott are among the young guns who already have wins in a NASCAR national touring series heading into 2014. Suddenly, from the perspective of driver talent, the future of the sport is looking healthier than it has in years.
2. New sponsors
There’s no denying that sponsor dollars driver the sport, and many teams across NASCAR are searching for funding, struggling to make ends meet. But there are some companies getting their feet wet in the sport, and that is a start. Nationwide Insurance announced Wednesday a seven-race deal with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the Cup Series. Chip Ganassi Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, Tommy Baldwin Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, Phoenix Racing, and BK Racing have all added new partners for some 2014 races. In an era where only a handful of race teams have sponsorship for a full season from a single company, every race that’s paid for is important.
That companies are seeing NASCAR as a potential for return on investment is encouraging. Race fans are notoriously loyal—they will choose a brand that sponsors a car when they can, and that’s good news for potential investors in the sport. The high cost of sponsorship is daunting, but more and more companies are making deals for just a few races, which gives them decent exposure without the expense of a full season. If it works for them, there’s potential for them to add races in the future, and that’s good for everyone. Teams with money can afford to be more competitive, and more competitive teams make for more compelling racing. And that makes fans want to support sponsors, who in turn are more likely to come into the sport.
3. Small teams making gains
One key to the sport’s success is to have new teams coming into the top levels and being able to work their way up the ranks. That’s gotten increasingly difficult in these days of the big money, multi-car teams, but some smaller teams are showing improvement and the ability to be more competitive with each passing season. Fans had the chance in 2013 to see what one small team could do with top-notch equipment when Furniture Row Racing formed a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing and signed a top driver in Kurt Busch. Busch was able to make the team the only single-car operation in history to secure a Chase berth. The alliance also paid dividends to RCR, who added two more teams, Germain Racing and JTG-Daugherty Racing, to the fold for 2014, giving them a chance to be contenders for better finishes.
Other small teams are also showing improvement. Fromt Row Motorsports had a win at Talladega in 2013 and as a result, has secured more sponsorship for 2014. Swan Racing has added a second car to its stable and has had some solid runs. Whether any of these teams rise to the level of the sport’s elite as the years progress remains to be seen, but it seems as though more of them are getting onto the right track, growing and improving a bit each year. Having more teams running well can only add excitement to the sport, giving race fans more teams to cheer for. And with fans comes notice, and with notice comes sponsorship. There are no overnight successes in NASCAR, but small teams need the chance to prove themselves as the years roll on.
4. Room for some innovation
It’s not a lot of room, and it might not even improve the racing when all is said and done, but it’s important for teams to have somewhere where they can try some different things to try and gain an edge. Rules changes for 2014 eliminate minimum ride heights, which some teams say will allow them to work with springs and eliminate the need for bump stops on the cars. Most crew chiefs agreed that the change is a positive for the sport, adding that teams are already running their cars as low as they can get them. The trick was getting them to get as close to the track as possible and still meet inspection height after all was said and done. Now that’s out the window and teams can simply work on ways to make the cars handle the best they can without having to worry about a penalty for a fraction of an inch.
Will changes allow teams to catch up with the top organizations? Maybe, in the short term. Whoever figures out how to make their cars handle the best will have an advantage. Who has that advantage will change as other teams try different ideas, but that’s all a part of the sport, and has been for more than six decades.
In a sport built on innovation, it’s still important for teams to have some leeway, some places to put their own stamp on history. While it’s important to make sure teams have a level playing field, letting them work to find speed is a necessary part of the game. It’s what separates teams, and what makes the sport interesting. Imagine a football team not being allowed to invent new plays…they’d all fall behind and the game would be less exciting for fans…that’s exactly what has happened in NASCAR recently.
5. The people
In the end, it’s the people who drive the sport. Sadly, NASCAR has become so celebrity driven that only a few people are well-known among fans, but there are so many people with so many different stories in the garage each and every week that every fan should be able to find someone compelling to pull for. For every over-exposed driver whose real personality has been lost in the shuffle, there’s someone whose story has hardly been told at all—and whose story is worth listening to. And to be fair, those over-exposed personalities still have plenty of stories, plenty of who they are that fans have never seen, either because they don’t look hard enough or because they don’t know where to look.
If a driver is asked the same questions time after time, he’s going to give the same answers, and nobody wants that. But it seems like nobody’s asking the other questions, and nobody’s asking some of the people any questions at all. For every “vanilla” driver, there is both a story that will transform everything you though you knew about him and another driver whose personality nobody even knows.
In the end, fans have to search a bit to find the right people to cheer for. That’s going to be different for everyone, after all. Once upon a time, fans felt as though they knew all the drivers personally because of the way NASCAR promoted them and the media covered them. Now as both NASCAR and the media focus on a small sliver of the garage and a small segment of that sliver, it’s not so easy to feel as though you’re choosing a favorite from a bunch of guys you know. But at the end of the day, the sport is full of genuinely good people who work unbelievably hard at sometimes thankless jobs. From the drivers you thought you knew to the ones you know nothing about at all, there’s something compelling. And no matter what the sport itself is, the people are, in the end, what really matters. No matter what the sport becomes, the people in it are worth cheering for.
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