It’s safe to say that there are plenty of young guns in NASCAR. The Charlotte Motor Speedway media center on Thursday was proof positive as the first several press sessions were dominated by up-and-coming talent: Travis Pastrana; Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.; Austin Dillon; Joey Coulter, Danica Patrick, and Joey Logano were among the steady stream of new faces. This weekend’s Nationwide Series roster reveals even more names that fans will be hearing for a long time coming, as did last week’s Truck Series event. It’s a great time for fans because there are so many new personalities in the sport. Not to mention, the talent level is exciting.
So why aren’t we seeing more of these talented newcomers?
Unfortunately, there are several realities at play that keep the deck stacked against many incoming drivers, and it has little to do with their talent. Lack of sponsorship is obviously a major factor, but it’s not the only factor. Some things are theoretically fixable: a lack of exposure in the lower series, for example. But others are not so changeable, like the age of the current crop of Cup stars.
It’s not that no new talent has come onto the Cup scene recently. Patrick is running a partial schedule in preparation for a top level full-time gig next year. Logano is in top-flight equipment. Dillon almost certainly will have a top ride waiting for him when he’s ready to move up. But for every Danica Patrick, there’s a Justin Allgaier, a James Buescher, a Johanna Long; drivers waiting in the wings for a chance that may or may not come.
A driver needs two things to come together simultaneously to get a foothold in the Cup Series: a competitive ride and sponsor dollars. And having both is no small feat. Sponsor money is at a premium right now. For proof, look no further than the No. 17 team of Matt Kenseth, which has struggled for funding this year. Kenseth is a veteran driver and a series champion-a known quantity who has delivered sponsors to victory lane on a regular basis.
In this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately era of sponsorship, drivers have to bring more than wins to the table-a name, a face, something besides the talent and record that used to all but guarantee a ride long term. 2011 Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne, another proven commodity who also possesses a pretty face and a fan-friendly personality, has struggled to find enough sponsor money to race the full Nationwide Series schedule, let alone his Cup schedule.
In an era where sponsors often have the lion’s share of say in who drives the car, drivers need a hook. Danica Patrick’s hook is her gender as well as her looks. Logano was dubbed the best thing since sliced bread by, among others, Mark Martin. Dillon is the grandson of one of the most successful team owners in NASCAR history and drives a racecar with the number 3 on it, the number that Dale Earnhardt made famous, and which still draws fans to Dillon with his family connection to Richard Childress. Pastrana is an X-Games favorite, and is likely to have backing to go as far as he wants in NASCAR.
Meanwhile, the hook for drivers like Stenhouse, Allgaier, Buescher, Long, and others is only their talent. Not that the others don’t have just as much of it, but for many young drivers, talent is _all_ they’ve got. It should be enough, but the cold, hard fact is that it’s not. Once upon a time, getting to victory lane was the most important thing a driver could do for a sponsor, but not so anymore. Whether it’s making television commercials, corporate visits, or having a strong social media presence, drivers are often selected for something other than driving fast.
But money isn’t the only obstacle on the road to NASCAR’s top level. The driver base in Cup is getting younger in general, and while that’s good news to a degree, it also means that not a lot of seats will open up, and those that do will be difficult to come by. Not only does this go back to the money issue, but owners will sometimes take a known quantity from another Cup team, even if that driver doesn’t have a massive winning record behind him because he knows how to drive and communicate the Cup cars, and won’t require a learning curve. Because so much of the Cup crop is unlikely to retire for ten or more years, attrition isn’t something the young guns can count on. There are some exceptions, of course. Jeff Burton’s eventual retirement will open a door for either Austin Dillon, or, more likely, his younger brother Ty.
The side of the coin that can be changed is the amount of exposure that drivers coming through the ranks get. While NASCAR is doing more to promote the Nationwide and Truck Series, they need to start with the K&N Pro Series, Modifieds, and even the local tracks, and there is still work to do even in the national touring divisions. A driver with a large fan base has a leg up on an unknown, and NASCAR could play a vital role in helping drivers grow that fan base. There are plenty of avenues to profile these drivers through television broadcasts (making a deal for more races at those levels to be broadcast live would be a huge start), NASCAR’s own Website, and social media. By introducing more budding talents to the media sooner, NASCAR could give fans someone new and different to follow.
However, while the lack of turnover at the Cup level is frustrating to the drivers waiting in the wings, it’s a huge boon to the Nationwide and Truck Series, especially since those series now have their own championships, with the Cup drivers ineligible, the chance to build the ever-important fan base within themselves. With more focus from the television broadcasts, the drivers in those series could really be budding superstars, even more than some of them are now. It’s exposure that’s the key, and it would behoove NASCAR to make sure they get it. If those series can draw fans to races for their own drivers, it could only boost the sport’s fragile economy. And that’s no small thing.
Though there are obstacles for up-and-coming drivers to get into NASCAR, it’s a good problem to have, because it gives NASCAR the opportunity to promote them and grow their fan bases so that they come to Cup and attract sponsors. Good sponsorship means more money for teams, more money for teams means more competitive racecars, and more competitive racecars means a better show for fans. Plus, for the fans disgruntled with the current crop of Cup drivers, it’s a chance to get to know and cheer for someone different, with a different personality. And in the meantime, if NASCAR plays their cards right, the popularity of their racing from the local series up to Nationwide could get a huge boost as fans turn to those drivers as new favorites.
The youth movement is alive and well in NASCAR. And it’s worth getting into.
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