NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Dale Earnhardt Is Dead

Did You Notice? … Dale Earnhardt is dead? Look, I don’t mean to be insensitive. That crash at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500 shocked the world, left a nation in mourning and woke up millions to the depth of NASCAR affection across America. It left children without a father, provided a popularity boost to Earnhardt’s sport in a morbid twist and revolutionized safety for auto racing across the world. Seemingly every week, either on TV, in the stands, in the comments section on this website or in a national column we reference Earnhardt and “the good ol’ days” when his brazen on-track personality left fans on their feet. If only things could go back to the days of Earnhardt Sr., we hear, then NASCAR could get back on track. His son remains the sport’s Most Popular Driver, his daughter helps run a successful XFINITY Series team and grandson Jeffrey will be running for Rookie of the Year in 2016.

Yes, the man they called the Intimidator, love or hate him was a can’t miss at-track attraction on Sunday. I lived those days, as a fan before I worked in this sport and his presence was one of the reasons I grew up hooked. But there’s a sobering reality within all this Earnhardt nostalgia that continues to stick around wherever you turn: his death was 15 years ago. Let’s quantify that. In the sport’s quest to win back an 18-to-34 fan base, freshmen in college seeking sporting entertainment were hardly out of diapers when Earnhardt ran his final Daytona 500. They don’t know or care about the days of Dale Sr. because, you know, they weren’t really around to see them. It’s harsh but it’s also the truth as the sport looks to move on and carve another mountain of interest that rivals when Earnhardt helped bring the sport into mainstream America.

It’s like teenagers today who suddenly have an interest in golf. Did they get that from Jack Nicklaus? Arnold Palmer? Err, probably not. Twenty-something Jordan Spieth or even the tail end of Tiger Woods’ career are a far more likely reason they’re tuning in on Sundays. It’s a comparison you can make in virtually any sport; Michael Jordan was the NBA player of the ’90s but fewer fans tune in today without players like Kevin Durant and LeBron James. That’s why names like Earnhardt Sr., Richard Petty, and even Jeff Gordon in NASCAR are nice to talk about but not to bet your future on; they’re never going to run a points-paying race ever again. As I spoke about yesterday, life goes on and Father Time forces an evolution of the sport; past memories don’t produce future fans when the men making those memories cease to exist on-track.

Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr. will be age 41 this season and has but a handful of years remaining in the sport. Former car owner Richard Childress is 70 and hasn’t won a race in the Cup Series in over two years. The No. 3 car, driven by Austin Dillon hasn’t even made the Chase since its return. Earnhardt’s widow, Teresa, no longer owns a NASCAR Cup program or is involved with the sport. Even former Earnhardt replacement Kevin Harvick has gone on and won a title with another team, Stewart-Haas Racing. The writing’s on the wall….

That means it’s time to let go and look for a new charismatic star, a guy who’s capable of bringing the same “can’t miss” attitude to fans in the stands every week. So far guys like Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Dillon and other young guns have failed to draw in an audience. But their short-term failure shouldn’t keep a long-term focus on drivers that no longer exist. A belief in the future is the first step for NASCAR to move on from past expectations.

While we’re at it, let’s also address the reality of the Chase. The playoff system is often criticized by fans who yearn for the old way, a championship decided without eliminations and with points accumulated equally through all 36 regular season events. But once again, the sport enters 2016 in year 13 of the Chase format; that potential fan who’s a freshmen in college was in kindergarten the last time NASCAR decided a title without some sort of 10-race playoff. Matt Kenseth may still be around but his last championship in 2003 is headed further and further toward the history books. Add in CEO Brian France’s commitment to the Chase, expanding it into the XFINITY and Camping World Truck series for 2016 and the chances of an old system returning one day are slim.

No one says everybody has to like the Chase. But at this point the sport has cultivated a new generation of fans who know nothing other than the 10-race playoff system. Embracing the present, then seems a much simpler option than reaching out for a far-more-distant past.

Did You Notice? … The last four pole sitters of the Daytona 500 have been linked to current NASCAR storylines? Call it coincidence, call it conspiracy, the fact remains the Great American Race has been led to the green during this stretch by arguably the most noteworthy driver entering the race.

2013: Danica Patrick takes the pole during her first year of full-time Cup Series competition. The rookie then places top 10 in the race after attracting interest that causes a surge in ratings.

2014: Austin Dillon takes the pole in the first qualifying attempt for Richard Childress’ No. 3 since Earnhardt was killed back in February 2001. He winds up top 10 in the race, one of just four he’d earn all season in a disappointing rookie effort.

2015: Jeff Gordon takes the pole in his final Daytona 500, kicking off a retirement season that ultimately fell just short of a title. He leads the most laps in the Great American Race before fading back into the pack and wrecking out in the closing laps.

2016: Gordon’s replacement, Chase Elliott, a must have success story for NASCAR the next few years, debuts in his rookie season by winning the 500 pole. Elliott now has become a popular darkhorse pick for a race that often resembles Russian Roulette.

Of course, each of these storylines is good for the sport. It’s completely realistic to think the No. 24 car, part of Hendrick Motorsports would easily take two poles in a row; drivers are little more than trained monkeys here during single-car runs. The coincidence, though is remarkable by a sport that seems constantly surrounded by black helicopter theory.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off…

– We’ve seen a number of good drivers find rides at the last minute this season. The lone exception? Sam Hornish, Jr. He’s missing from Daytona after being released from Richard Petty Motorsports and honestly? He shouldn’t be. If Robert Richardson, Jr. can land a sponsor and a ride for the 500… does it just not pay to be a nice, quiet guy anymore?

Joe Gibbs Racing, as smartly pointed out by colleague Aaron Bearden this week hasn’t won the Daytona 500 since 1993. Toyota hasn’t won the race either since debuting on NASCAR’s top circuit in 2007. The manufacturer won the July race there only once. Obviously a lot of racing to go here yet but there’s a feeling the hottest team in the sport last year is due to get over that hump.

– Smart move for Jeb Burton to step back to the XFINITY Series. The 2015 Cup rookie struggled in underfunded equipment but should do better in his new ride with Richard Petty Motorsports. Remember, the aforementioned Hornish used his time back in the minors wisely and father Ward/uncle Jeff will undoubtedly push Jeb to retool and build his confidence.

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Charles Jenkins

Tom, I think the biggest thing that prevents a lot of “us” from moving on is the on track product and the outright manipulation of the races themselves. Dale Sr. and his competitors raced. They had a desire to win, a “second is just the first loser” attitude that I think is lost today. The excitement and on track product that was produced by that can not be matched by the sterile motor sports entertainment that we see in the NASCAR of BZF. I wish Chase and all the young guys success but feel the deck is stacked against them to ever rekindle what once was something to behold. I could be wrong, but that is this 40 year fans opinion.

janice

Charles – AMEN

Sport changes for the worse, in my opinion, on 2/18/01.

I too think Chase will have a rough rookie year. High expectations are on him in that 24 car.

I don’t worry about getting over dale’s death cause na$car doesn’t seem to care too much about the older demographic that grew the sport in the 80’s and 90’s. It’s all about the gimmick now. As des says over and over it’s a show. The circus wagon rolls from town to town.

Bill B

Agreed Janice.
People know when they are watching a sport and when they are watching a manipulated, gimmicky, circus. If NASCAR ever wins the younger demographic they seek it won’t be hardcore sports enthusiasts tuning in, it will be the reality television show crowd that loves manufactured drama and people acting badly.

Russ

Yes, but their dollars spend just as well as those of this guy who’s been following it since ’63. And they will be above ground a lot longer than I will, what they spend it on remains to be seen.

GinaV24

Charles, well said.

Janice, agree with you, too. NASCAR’s new emperor turned away from the actual premise that built the sport — fast cars and competition. Now they just make rules up and the fans are still supposed to eat it up. Looks like that strategy hasn’t worked too well – not for the “old” fans or whatever base they are trying to attract.

Bill B

“That means it’s time to let go and look for a new charismatic star, a guy who’s capable of bringing the same “can’t miss” attitude to fans in the stands every week.”

I will leave that up to the 18-34 nonexistent fan base that seems to be all that matters to NASCAR. That is understandable, but the trick is not to alienate/abandon the existing fan base while you’re setting things up for the future. On that count NASCAR has failed miserably. It also seems they have failed at attracting that 18-34 crowd as well by most counts.

No new driver for me. I am enjoying the freedom from being emotionally invested in this “sport” turned reality sport based entertainment television programming.

Matt

By sheer coincidence Dale’s last ride took place in the same event that marked FOX’s first NASCAR Cup broadcast. Those of us in that undesirable 34 years of age and up demographic recall the last words of that broadcast, DW saying “Gee, I sure hope Dale’s all right.” By that point those of us in the media knew otherwise but nobody was going to post a story that big and potentially inflamatory and hurtful without some further attribution. Later that day I wrote a piece called “Blood on their Hands” stating NASCAR’s indifference and inaction on SAFER barriers and the HANS device (recall two drivers were killed at NHIS in 2000) were to blame for Earnhardt’s death. Let’s just say that didn’t play real well in Daytona Beach. In the column I said something along the lines of how the “boys in the booth” had to know something was bad wrong before leaving the air (for a re-run of Cops on FOX). Fox’s Mike Joy wrote me to say that wasn’t the case and my accusation was unfair. I asked him if FOX was covering a basketball game and Micheal Jordan missed a three pointer at the buzzer and then collapsed to the floor and didn’t get up whether the network would have stayed with the story. He admitted they probably would have.

My purpose here isn’t to tear off band-aids on an event that a lot of people took very personally. I’m just saying that FOX set the tone that day for their coverage and it’s still the same, “info-tainment” not sport’s coverage. But your sub-34 year old fan has never seen an early season race not on FOX and has no recollections of the old Jenkins/Parsons/Jarrett (Ned not Dale) race broadcasts that makes the current crap acceptable? I really wish DW could at least lose that “Boogity, boogity” nonsense but my guess is that old fan favorite Little Digger and his vermin friends will make a comeback first. Back in the day the head of FOX sports was told fans didn’t care for digger. His response, “tough”. They were after a different demographic than current fans of the era. Going by their ratings, as they have sowed so have they reaped.

GinaV24

Amen, Matt.

janice

Matt – I’ve still got “blood on their hands” article

allisong

The conspiracy theory about the 24 winning the pole is easy to fall into, UNTIL you remember that the 24 car not only sat on the 500 pole last year, they won the other 2 plate qualifying events held last year, and by a wide margin. Alan G. knows how to build a plate qualifying car, that’s for sure.

GinaV24

Good point!

Earner

Did Jeff’s team not miss out on Dega qualifying (due to pit road games some were playing) altogether last year in one race?

P R Baker

Finally, someone dared to speak the truth about one of NASCAR’s biggest problems. I have never seen a sport that lives in the past like NASCAR does. I’ve even quit listening to Sirius/XM because I get sick of hearing “…back in the day…”. Let’s move forward.

tcfromaz

Please, no more halo wrapped numeral 3 decals.

GinaV24

“That means it’s time to let go and look for a new charismatic star, a guy who’s capable of bringing the same “can’t miss” attitude to fans in the stands every week.” Actually, no, it doesn’t. You can’t “force” people/fans whatever to have that kind of interest in those drivers that you mention or any other new driver.

NASCAR made it clear for a lot of years that those of not in their chosen demographic were NOT good enough. Well, our $ was good enough, so long as we were willing to spend it. They wanted us to keep showing up at the track and watching on TV, even while the product on the track was lame and not worth spending the $ on but they didn’t want to listen to our opinions if it disagreed with TPTB. Well, gee, NOW supposedly NASCAR wants us back? Yeah right. Not really. What they WANT is our $ but they still want us to just take whatever lameness and silly rules/gimmicks they dream up and adore it all again.

Loss doesn’t really have a timetable on it.

For me, like Bill B, I’m going to enjoy being a casual fan. I’ll watch when I want to and no, I’m not going to invest my emotions in another driver. For me, NASCAR has demonstrated a reason why their current product deserves that investment.

janice

Gina – people got on me to “pick another driver”when dale was killed. They never go that it’s not that easy. I haven’t made that emotional investment in anything since that time. Casual fan for almost 15 yrs.

GinaV24

Janice, exactly right. Why should you “have” to choose another driver to follow unless you want to. Last time I looked, NASCAR was supposed to be entertaining – not something you have to invest any more in than each person chooses to do.

Tim S.

Even if one likes the direction the sport has gone since Earnhardt’s death (I don’t), it’s very hard to get to know the newer faces, with the focus almost exclusively on the media-makers and big-money teams. Any time spent on the rest of the field is done with an air of, “the line at Chad’s pit box was too long so we’ll talk to this street urchin for a few minutes.” Also, fans don’t get to see a driver work his way up through the ranks of lesser teams. He’s chosen as one of the anointed by a big team, then dismissed if he doesn’t win three of the five races they enter him in. Afterward, he almost never gets a serious shot with an upper-level team again.

Earner

The on track product failed first..Then every gimmick in world was tried(as opposed to fixing on track product) & still did’nt work…Fix on track product & I suspect the version used last year(2 times)was watered down so brian can either say it didn’t work or change it back …”because we all want pack racing” …NOT

WJW1888

Fans are made, not born. See, genius suits at Fox (some of whom were friends and neighbors), the way a kid gets hooked on a sport is through his parents. I gave up on the NFL many years ago, and it is never on TV in my house. So guess what – my kids know very little about and couldn’t care less about football. My kids, who will very soon be in the magical age range, know a ton about NASCAR because that was what Dad was watching. By alienating “old and not in the targeted demographic” folks with gimmick after manipulation after gimmick, kids will not be exposed to the sport and certainly not care if/when the next star arrives. They’d rather watch YouTube videos of other people playing Minecraft. Bringing back the traditional fan is the way to capture the future fans…..

Capt Spaulding

come to think of it the COT sort of resembled a Minecraft car.

kb

I don’t blame the young guys racing one bit, they have their fans despite what some think. I blame the older fans have left because their driver retired or died. It is really that simple.

Bill B

Come on, “It is really that simple”?

You don’t think that anything has changed/happened in the last 20 years to turn fans off and drive them to be unwilling to double down on a new driver? Just a bunch of old fans leaving for no other reason than their driver died or retired. No problem with NASCAR itself.

kb

So sorry Bill, I felt at this stage of the game that the inclusion of the main source would not have to be mentioned, as the tone of this article is the old guys had this hold on fans and the younger ones don’t have it. To be debated, but it is not as cut in dry as this article seems to state. The article obviously left out the business model NASCAR embraces.

Bill B

Cool. That makes sense. I was pretty sure that you knew it wasn’t that simple so your comment was surprising to me.

TheNASCARJeff

As I sit here writing this on the anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death wearing a 7th Winston Cup sweater for the driver I had followed from 1979 until his death I am a tad offended. Dale was the face of the sport and after Petty retired it was the Dale Earnhardt show. Will he get the eighth championship, will he win the Daytona 500 and how many times and so on. As Cale Yarborough put it; “Dale could do things in a car you shouldn’t do but what most wish they could do.”

Drivers today are so afraid of making waves so the sponsor of the car doesn’t get pissed off that they are vanilla and have become walking commercial sound bites. A good example is Brian Vickers who found a doctor to clear him to race keeps saying the same sound bite over and over. He is “happy for the opportunity to drive the 14 car but sad that is it because of the situation.” blah blah blah.. his PR person did a good spin. Earnhardt would never have done that!

The FOX coverage is an embarrassment, they got rid of the wrong guy in the booth. The paring of Jeff Gordon and Darrell Waltrip only shows what we fans have known for a long time and even when he was a driver. DW is way out of touch and needs to retire..again. Boobity, Boogity, Boogity is a childish way of getting attention and I know he is aware that fans don’t like it. Cannot wait for the NBC coverage!

I agree that the last four pole positions at the Daytona 500 where fixed for story lines, ratings and to get asses in the seats. NASCAR and FOX should know that the fan base isn’t stupid. Putting Danica on the pole was to get her and the sport on every sports program, morning show, late night talk show and newspaper in the country.

I am still a tad peeved that you tried to trash Dale Earnhardt on the eve of the anniversary of his death, the man was a great driver and a hero to many. What he achieved with only a 7th grade education was remarkable. His story as a driver is UN-precidented and should not be forgotten.

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