Who… gets my shoutout of the season so far?
But with Hendrick Motorsports struggling a bit last year and Toyota prone to maybe taking a step back after dominating the last two seasons, the time was ripe for Team Penske to come into 2017 strong. And Keselowski undoubtedly has. Throw out the wild card Daytona 500, and his only finish out of the top five was at Texas Motor Spedway. He has two wins and almost won a third race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, before something broke on the car with a lap to go and he dropped all the way to fifth at the finish. He’s definitely the favorite to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title this year.
But the emergence of both Larson and Chip Ganassi Racing has been a big surprise to many. Larson has been fast since winning at Michigan late in the regular season last year, but some thought he’d need to leave CGR and go to a bigger team if he ever wanted to really compete for a championship.
However, CGR has been very impressive to start the season off. Larson is leading the point standings and Jamie McMurray is eighth, and on track to have more top 10s in a season since his 23 in 2004. With all of this success, it’s going to be very hard for a Hendrick or Tony Stewart to convince Larson to jump after his contract expires this year.
What… has been the main takeaway from the season?
Like a lot of sportswriters these days, I’ll admit to being a fan of professional wrestling. Maybe not as much as when I was maybe eight, or nine, or 17, but I’m still a fan. To me, this season of NASCAR so far kind of reminds me of the 1994-1996 era of the WWF.
In that time period, it had been years after the WWF’s peak, where the company was regularly featured on MTV and the top wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage became household names. But by 1994-1996, all of the company’s stars from the 1980s had left and fans just weren’t connecting to new guys like Bret Hart or Shawn Michaels. While Hart and Michaels were both gifted in the ring, they weren’t able to replace Hogan or Savage to a lot of fans, and revenue fell to historic lows in this time frame.
Barring some kind of insanity, this will be the first season without either Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart making a start in the NASCAR Cup Series since 1991. Though there’s still a very good possibility that Chase Elliott, Larson and/or Ryan Blaney will become mega stars, they just haven’t. Ratings are down even more this season from last year’s lows, and they are going to keep going down as last year’s ratings for Richmond and beyond got a bit of a boost due to Stewart returning from injury and, over the summer, the return of Gordon. If NASCAR was going to gain in ratings this season, they would have done so already.
The reality of the situation has been missed by a lot of people so far this season. Yes, there are fans who have been turned off by the constant changes to the race format. Stage racing was never going to dramatically change things, even if it came out of the gate with even more dramatic finishes it has given us. But the end of the day, however, the vast majority of fans need to have a connection to a driver and root for them in order to become invested. Or even root against; part of the appeal to Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Sr. was that everybody either loved or hated them in their primes. It would be easier for that to happen if marketing for the series focused less on the new big change in the sport or just fast cars, and instead focused more on the personalities inside of those cars.
The WWF would eventually recover in the late ’90s and become even larger than before thanks to the rise of Steve Austin. Right now, NASCAR needs to find at least one Steve Austin, and find it fast. If not, who knows what’s going to happen after Dale Earnhardt Jr. retires or when the television contracts run out; it’s obvious so far that both Fox and NBC grossly overpaid for a sport that’s losing fans by the year.
Where… was the best race of the first seven?
The race of the year so far has to go to the Daytona 500. This will go down in history as a race people will either love or hate, but it is the only race of the year so far where there was action just about every lap. Was it a “wreckfest?” Absolutely. Was it also a complete spectacle? Absolutely.
Martinsville Speedway’s Cup race was also a pretty good race, with action in every stage. A lot of races this season have been flat for the first two stages, but drama and excitement have ramped up late in the last stage. It’s better to have an exciting finish than a boring finish, but it’s also important that there’s a reason to watch before the finish. Stages haven’t helped that for the most part, both Daytona and Martinsville have been the only two races this year where somebody just tuning in for the finish were missing a lot.
What… is my fan ballot for the 2018 Hall of Fame class?
Ricky Rudd was the perfect example of endurance and perseverance of a race car driver to me. His consecutive years-with-a-win streak still hasn’t been broken. While Gordon broke his record for most consecutive starts, Rudd raced in dramatically different cars for a wide variety teams in more years.
Not many people know Robert Yates was involved in the sport before becoming an owner, but Yates was an incredible engine builder for many seasons. His engines powered David Pearson and Bobby Allison to championships, and his race team could have had more than one championship if bad luck and tragedy hadn’t have struck just about every year.
Joe Gibbs’ most successful driver was Stewart, but his best success story has been Kyle Busch. Before joining Gibbs, Busch had been a good young driver with Hendrick Motorsports who was lost in the shuffle between Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. Since joining Gibbs, Busch has won countless races in Cup and XFINITY Series competition, and has become one of the biggest stars in NASCAR. Only with Gibbs would Busch have been able to break out like he has.
Red Byron might just be the most unlikely champion in NASCAR history. A fine driver before World War II, Byron came home from the war with a bad limp due to Japanese shrapnel lodged in his hip during an air battle. But Byron was so determined to come back to racing he basically strapped his bad foot to the clutch pedal, and ended up winning both the inaugural NASCAR Modified Championship in 1948 and the inaugural Cup Series championship in 1949.
NASCAR’s top stars of the 1980s and 1990s were brought to life by the memorable calls of Ken Squier, who could make even a standard race at, say, Pocono Raceway, into a can’t miss event. Squier brought to life many of the dynamic personalities in NASCAR’s golden years, and no announcer has brought the same level of excitement to the sport since.
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