NASCAR announced Monster Energy as the new entitlement sponsor in its premier series, replacing Sprint. Will Monster be a good fit for the series moving forward?
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Based on Monster’s (pardon the pun) track record in motorsports, the affiliation with NASCAR’s premier series will be a successful one. Based on sight of the company’s logo around the college campus where I teach, the brand has a loyal following among millennials. Ken Block has been a good ice breaker for the connection with auto racing, and we recognize what the company has done with Supercross competition. Despite the age restriction on marketing energy drinks to consumers under the age of 12, Monster will take NASCAR in some necessary new directions. We experienced the same kind of age restriction back during the Winston era, yet the sport grew and welcomed all manner of new fans. Brighter days lie ahead.
Phil Allaway, Newsletter Editor: Getting Monster Energy as the title sponsor is pretty much a best-case scenario; you have a company that has a long history with motorsports and actively loves it. Having said that, there’s probably going to be some changes. Some are pretty obvious; for example, cell phone reception at many tracks is now likely to be completely up to the tracks themselves because Sprint isn’t going to be around to boost signals anymore. Also, the Miss Sprint Cup representatives that we’ve gotten familiar with will be gone; I’m pretty sure the company that hired and trained Miss Sprint Cups (and Miss Winstons before that) will not be retained in favor of Monster Energy girls similar to what you saw during the press conference announcing Monster Energy’s deal. I’m sure that will be a bit of a clash, communications-wise.
Dustin Albino, Staff Writer: As far as the fan aspect, Monster Energy will associate youth and millennials into the sport once again. I wouldn’t call Sprint’s sponsorship stale; I thought it was a great sponsor and marketing wise gave NASCAR a lot of money. However, in the last few years of sponsoring the Cup Series, a lot of things went away on behalf of Sprint — for instance, the Sprint Fan Zone was big at the track for years but was eliminated it to lower cost. Monster will do unique things, but according to some reports, it is only providing $20 million next year, down from Sprint’s deal of $50 million. Not great.
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: As far as image, it’s a good enough fit, but I have some concerns as well. One, as Monster is a company that markets heavily to millennials, will we see even more gimmicks and manipulations in the sport to try and attract them? Nothing will alienate the remaining older fan base better than more things like the Chase and the caution clock. The top series, which has been identified as the Cup Series for more than 40 years, is likely already going to be completely (and unnecessarily, perhaps unwisely) rebranded. To me, the only other acceptable title would be Grand National, which also seems unlikely. I don’t like the loss of identity or the threat of even more silly manipulations, so I am definitely on the fence.
HScott Motorsports became the second team to announce that it will not return to NASCAR next season, along with Tommy Baldwin Racing. Will fans see fields under 40 next season, and is that a bad thing?
Frank Velat, Contributor: It is certainly possible, and I’d even say it’s likely to happen on more than one occasion. Perhaps it’s a matter of quality over quantity. Wouldn’t it be great if every team in the race had the realistic potential of finishing inside the top 15? However, there are drawbacks with this consolidation, the most obvious of which being jobs. Race teams can employ dozens of people, up to hundreds with bigger organizations. Every time a race team closes its doors, at least a few people go home not knowing where their next paycheck will come from.
Albino: There will be less than 40 cars, and NASCAR might fear that. From the team aspect, I understand why these teams are shutting down. Tommy Baldwin will remain part of the sport in some capacity, but Harry Scott shut everything down; that includes his K&N Pro Series East team, which has been a dominant force and a key cog in the sport’s development wheel. I didn’t think I would like the move from 43 to 40 cars in a race, but it turned out to be a decent decision. Anything under 40 is danger. Say it moves down to 38 teams; that is a five-car decrease, just over 10 percent gone in two years. Doesn’t sound good to me.
Henderson: It seems that smaller fields (not short fields, as they’re not considered a short field until there are under 36) will be a reality. By my count so far, the top series has lost four teams (Nos. 7, 15, 16 and 46) and gained two, maybe three (No. 77, new JTG Daugherty team, No. 33 team splits from No. 95). There are a couple other question marks as well. On one hand, anytime you lose a small team, it’s bad for the sport (kind of like a small, local business closing is bad for a town). But in terms of purely what fans see on Sundays, I don’t think it will be much different; it’s not like the broadcasts actually show most of those cars anyway. If it’s a case of quality over quantity, fans won’t see much difference.
Howell: It looks like a full field of 40 entries will be the exception to the rule in 2017. While it’s sad to see teams like TBR and HScott leave the sport, it’s an unfortunate aspect of NASCAR’s new business model. If there aren’t teams capable of joining the fray, we’ll certainly see fields shrink to 37 or 38 each week. Fewer cars mean less on-track competition, and that’s not always a bad development. How often do we acknowledge that there are 40 cars in any given race? Most audiences likely wouldn’t notice a decrease of two or three entries. Thinning the herd appears to be in NASCAR’s future. The sport will survive, even if some teams do not.
Silly Season has ramped up this postseason. Who’s made the best moves, who’s in trouble and what’s still left to go down?
Henderson: The best moves for the teams involved are probably Front Row Motorsports re-signing Landon Cassill, who’s super talented and who should be hugely popular on personality alone; Roush Fenway Racing scaling back for a year; and Germain Racing getting extra support from RCR in exchange for pawning Ty Dillon off on them (though it does make Casey Mears the only driver I can think of offhand who got dumped twice by the same team owner and once when he wasn’t even driving for him). Mears deserves better than the No. 33 car—I think he’d be a great fit as Cassill’s teammate at Front Row. That pair would be scary good on the plate tracks, and Mears is a good bit younger than Greg Biffle. I really hoped GEICO, which professed such confidence in its driver, had shown loyalty to him when it counted. As of now, there are more drivers than seats to fill, so someone’s going to be left out. Besides Mears and Biffle, Regan Smith, Matt DiBenedetto, David Ragan and Jeffrey Earnhardt are or could be looking. Based on their experience, I think Mears, Biffle, Smith and Ragan are better bets as all are winners at the top level. The young guys are talented, but unproven.
Howell: I’m thrilled to see Cassill with a done deal for 2017. Signing him was a smart move for Front Row. While it’s sad to see Mears out of the No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet, perhaps Dillon will add a bit of new energy to the team. It was good to see Chris Buescher find a home at JTG as well. Not sure if there are bigger fish to fry in Buescher’s career, but JTG will give him a decent opportunity to further his learning curve.
Allaway: I don’t know if anyone’s made a good move here. I guess Germain made the best move business-wise by placing Dillon in the No. 13 because it means the team gets more support. Who’s in trouble? Biffle. You may have seen him on Twitter having fun in the desert with sand rails and making juvenile jokes at ice cream shops, but this is someone that could either sit out 2017 or be stuck racing for a team like Go FAS Racing. Best-case scenario puts Biffle in the No. 34 next season.
Velat: Buescher landing his new ride is the biggest upgrade; though he lucked into his first career win, he managed several solid runs in his rookie season, including a handful of top 20s. I’m not sold that Dillon in the No. 13 is the best move for him; he was in a good position in the RCR XFINITY ride, but it seems the allure of a top-level opportunity proved too tempting. Biffle and Mears are still on the market (as far as we know) but I don’t expect to see either former winner rideless for too long.
With 2016 in the rearview, what will go down as the most memorable storylines of the year, and what stories are looming large on the horizon for 2017?
Allaway: For 2016, the biggest storylines were the season-long search for a Sprint replacement (solved, finally) and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.‘s concussion issues that led him to sit out nearly half the season. Both those stories usurped Jimmie Johnson winning his seventh championship. As for 2017, the likely storylines involve how Monster Energy will roll out its sponsorship, the new rules package, Earnhardt’s return to the seat and Erik Jones as a rookie.
Velat: The obvious one is Johnson’s seventh title, but Tony Stewart finishing his Cup career with a final win was huge. Stewart hadn’t been close to victory very often over the previous two years; for him to get one more was phenomenal. Rookies also returned with a vengeance in 2016 after several years of lackluster performance. Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney proved capable of winning, and I expect both to do so next year. Jones will likely continue the upswing in freshman performance with his ride at Furniture Row. Lastly, what will we see from Stewart-Haas Racing after it starts piloting Fords in 2017? The only driver at SHR who has won in a Ford is Kurt Busch. It’ll be interesting to see what impact, if any, the switch will have.
Albino: Stewart retiring was the biggest storyline of 2016, though it didn’t get covered as much as Jeff Gordon’s farewell tour. Much of that was to Stewart’s grace as he didn’t want to have the sendoff that Gordon had a year prior. Johnson winning a title went overlooked again. The biggest storyline for 2017 is the return of Earnhardt and Johnson’s quest of being the G.O.A.T. But that’s likely to go under the radar as the other seven championships have.
Henderson: The biggest story is Johnson’s seventh title, but that said, it wasn’t what it would have been even under the old Chase format, and that was a bit disappointing. At the same time, other than his win total (and there are some who think the driver with the most wins in a season should be the champion, and there is some merit there), Johnson’s season as a whole wasn’t very special. That makes it a little hard to reconcile with that championship moment at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The racing was, in general, very good, there was a new winner (Kyle Larson), a team pulled a manufacturer change and a legend hung ‘em up. As for next year, things are looking good—there are some new rules that should make races more exciting, Earnhardt is back, and JJ (that’s Jimmie Johnson, not the J-less JJ Yeley) will be chasing history.