No question about it… this offseason has been filled with more gripes about the state of stock car racing than you could fit into a complaint box a mile-wide. I’ll even admit to being one of the primary culprits; through all sorts of media, I’ve been squawking about how this sport is in a make-or-break year, the type of iceberg that’ll prove just how strong the NASCAR cruise ship really is.
But with the gloom-and-doom predictions two weeks from being tested with a dose of reality, it’s time to give NASCAR its due for a minute… with all the negativity, it’s high time to give a positive indicator as to the current strength of the sport, as well as a reminder of its potential, sometimes lost amidst the current of criticism rapidly approaching tidal wave status.
Well, that reality check came this weekend through the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona Grand-Am race. Years ago, this would be a race that stood on its own, drivers and teams just as famous, if not more so, than the winner of the Daytona 500 in an average year. Nowadays, ask 100 random race fans to name a full-time Grand-Am driver… you’d be hard pressed to get five of them to name one. But ask them who’s competing in the race… and they would be able to name plenty of drivers from another series.
Bobby Labonte. Jeff Gordon. Jimmie Johnson. Tony Stewart. These were all NASCAR drivers competing in the 24-hour race, becoming more and more popular for the stock car contingent to compete in each year. And the Grand-Am Series? They welcome them in with open arms… knowing the media coverage and fan attention their race receives with their arrival. Take the NASCAR drivers out of the equation, and for many race enthusiasts nowadays, this marathon would be little more than a blip on their radar screen. Even one of the drivers in this year’s winner circle, Scott Pruett, is likely remembered more for his short stint driving Cup by most race fans rather than his extensive success in road racing.
It’s that type of scenario that impacts all racing series nowadays. The IRL’s Indy 500? More notable if drivers like Robby Gordon and Stewart are trying that race along with the Coca-Cola 600 later in the day. Champ Car? Before being picked up late in the game by ESPN, there wasn’t even a 100% certainty the open wheel series would be covered by a TV network. Not only that, but the series’ biggest rising star – AJ Allmendinger – left the series to sign with Toyota’s Team Red Bull for 2007.
Allmendinger is just one of a long list of drivers from other series now looking to try their hands at NASCAR. This year, even the supposed “elite” racing series in all the world – Formula 1 – is losing two of its biggest drivers to the world of Ford Fusions and Toyota Camrys, as Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve will be trying their hand at stock cars. The IRL’s Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves appear to be a year away from making the jump.
That’s the allure of NASCAR today for you. We can always complain about the sport’s future… but there’s no doubt that nowadays, the best drivers, best sponsors, most fans, and more cash follows around the France family brainchild than any other racing series in the United States. And if NASCAR could somehow sustain its growth… F1 better watch out over the next decade.
Yes, we’ll complain until we’re blue in the face… but NASCAR remains on top of the world. And the potential is there to get even better.
Fingers crossed, we all hope it does.
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