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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