Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced this week that he’ll retire at the end of the 2017 season, the fourth very popular driver to step away since 2015. What impact will his retirement have on the sport as a whole, and is there a driver out there who can have the impact he’s had on and off the track? Who’s the heir apparent with fans as the sport’s most popular driver?
Matteo Marcheschi: NASCAR will struggle with this one. Some fans, though, seem to think this is the death of the sport as a whole. Obviously that’s just a bit of an exaggeration. While NASCAR may be down a few fans after 2017, sentiments will change and driver alliances will adapt. We’ll see Junior fans shifting to whoever takes over the #88 next year, or one of the crop of young drivers, like Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, or Chase Elliott. Speaking of Elliott, he seems to be the favorite to take over Dale’s place as the sport’s most popular driver in 2018 and beyond. He may not have the same impact as Dale has, but no driver will make that type of impact again for a long time, if ever. However, he has been arguably the most influential new face in the sport. Elliott, son of 16-time most popular driver Bill Elliott, may not be the only one vying for the title, though. Blaney and Larson also have large fanbases, and they, along with Elliott, are only growing more popular as fans take to the younger generation of drivers.
Clayton Caldwell: It’s a good question. I think everyone will point to Chase Elliott because of his dad’s popularity and the fact that Chase is an awesome driver who can win races and he’s a nice kid. With that being said, I’m worried about the lack of North Carolina drivers in the field. Sure Ryan Blaney is from N.C., but his family is originally from Ohio. Austin Dillon is too but he doesn’t carry the same mojo Earnhardt did. Who are these people going to root for? Chase Elliott is probably the most likely or whoever replaces Dale Jr in the 88.
Frank Velat: Chase Elliott appears to be the obvious choice here. Blaney, Larson, and Bubba Wallace are popular among fans but Elliott seems to have the kind of mass appeal that will carry him to the forefront. The retirement of Earnhardt may cause a small handful of fans to give up on the sport completely but the bigger issue is sponsorship. When the biggest name in the sport has trouble bringing in a full season of primary level dollars, it is concerning. It stands to reason that the 88 team may see fewer logos on it once Jr is done climbing aboard.
Michael Massie: Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be missed, but NASCAR will not die off just because he is gone. Richard Petty was extremely popular and when he retired, the sport kept going. I don’t remember this much of an uproar when Bill Elliott called it quits and he holds the record for Most Popular Driver Awards. One thing that I have noticed about NASCAR is that every great villain goes on to be the good guy. Darrell Waltrip was hated by fans while he was winning his championships, but fast forward to 1989 and he won the Most Popular Driver Award. A lot of people hated Dale Earnhardt, but came to love him in his later years. Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch are probably the three greatest “villains” the sport has right now and I predict that at least one of them will step up to become the driver synonymous with NASCAR.
Earnhardt Jr. will walk away on his own terms, but what will his final season look like? Can he be a title contender, or is he already a lame duck?
Caldwell: I think he’ll be average without a being a championship contender. I think he’ll rebound and make the playoffs but sizzle out during one of the first two rounds. Earnhardt hasn’t had the same success on the track with Greg Ives that he had with Steve Letarte. There’s no question about that. With the head injuries being a major concern and the distraction that is his final season, I believe you won’t see much from that team down the stretch.
Velat: He will contend for occasional victories and may land a big final win somewhere much like Jeff and Tony did. But I don’t see him contending for the title. That team is not where they need to be right now and unless there’s a major upswing in performance, just making the playoffs will be a longshot.
Massie: There are three restrictor plate races left on the schedule so that makes three races where you have to consider Earnhardt Jr. as the favorite to win. He will win a race or two and make the playoffs. He might even make a deep run, but a championship is not in the cards.
Amy Henderson: It depends. It’s not like Hendrick Motorsports is going to treat him like a lame duck; he’s not jumping ship for another team. If his team hits on something at the right time, he can certainly contend, but I haven’t seen any real indication that that’s going to happen. But I didn’t see it happening for Jimmie Johnson the last couple of weeks either, so…
Kyle Busch is insistent there’s a problem with Goodyear tires this season. Do you agree with him, or at this point is Busch grasping at straws compared to a problem with his driving style, Joe Gibbs Racing setups, or simply poor racing luck?
Henderson: I have a hard time believing this is a Goodyear issue—if it was, there would be other teams having the same issues much more often. It’s an issue with the No. 18 team adjusting to the tire they’re running with this year’s package. Busch has three options on who to blame for this one: his team, his driving style, or Goodyear. He took the easy route, but it’s probably not the correct one here.
Marcheschi: Kyle Busch is just looking for someone to blame. He can’t blame his team, another driver didn’t cause his issues, and the sanctioning body wasn’t involved, so he attacks the tire manufacturer. It’s interesting, though, that other teams haven’t exactly been plagued by tire issues. Busch has been the victim of several tire failures, but he shouldn’t be blaming Goodyear. Chances are that his team is pushing the boundaries with his setups, and they overstepped them a couple times. That’s not to say Busch should blame his team. There doesn’t need to be blame, period. The No. 18 team needs to go back to the shop, look at what happened, do their best to fix it, and come back to Richmond on Sunday with a decent idea of why their issues occurred. As for Busch, he should keep his mouth shut with his snap judgements and focus on winning, not on variables out of a driver’s control.
Caldwell: I think the setups are a big issue. Drivers 15-20 years ago used to claim that Goodyear played favorites but I find that hard to believe in today’s world. I think JGR is getting a little aggressive with the air pressures or the camber and it’s causing some issues. I appreciate Busch’s passion and desire to win every race possible, but I think he’s blaming the wrong people here.
Velat: These words may seem a bit strong but I personally have a hard time lending weight to Kyle’s complaints. Be it about tires, officials, competitors or something else, it seems as if he’s either celebrating a win or ranting about why he isn’t holding the trophy. He has a reputation as a habitual complainer and almost weekly does something to reinforce that label. I understand not winning is frustrating for a team like that but it isn’t always someone’s fault.
Daniel Hemric won the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus at Bristol despite winding up fifth in the final rundown. Should those special events with $100,000 bonuses be reserved to full-time-only XFINITY drivers so the cash can go to the winner, not the fifth-place finisher? Or were you OK with how this bonus program works?
Marcheschi: A million times, yes. NASCAR paints the Dash For Cash races as high stakes, but they really seem like a novelty to distract from the Cup driver problem. It’s as if they’re saying, “Hey, look over here at these regulars battling for fifth, because now it means slightly more than nothing!” I don’t understand why the program exists in the first place. To most of the top teams, $100,000 is pocket change. The whole program seems like a simple gimmick to try to make the series unique and interesting. Making it unique is a much more complex task than adding a relatively small monetary bonus, though.
Velat: At first, I’m sure the idea sounded good on paper. A race within the race. But isn’t it just basically like having different classes in sports car racing? You have Cup drivers, Xfinity drivers with Cup affiliation, and Xfinity teams with no Cup connection. It seems like an admission by NASCAR that the trophies are probably all gonna be hogged by the Cup guys. So they give the other 2 classes something to shoot for. It’s not a terrible thing but it won’t be enough to fix the issue in the long term.
Massie: Try explaining to someone watching their first NASCAR race why the guy that finished fifth just won a hundred grand. Try explaining to any baseball or basketball fan why the guys at the top level are messing around in the minor leagues. The whole thing does not make sense, and you cannot convince ‘em it is for sponsor reasons. When I go to local short track, there is no Kyle Busch or Joey Logano, but the cars still have sponsors and there are still people in the seats. Looks like a whole lot more empty seats at XFINITY races than full ones. The 10-race limit is a complete joke. If NASCAR wants the Cup guys to still be in there some, but not completely dominate, then make it so that only 10 of the 33 races on the schedule allow Cup guys. That way we will get 23 real XFINITY races and Kyle Busch will still get his ego boost from beating up on the little guys 10 times a year.
Henderson: I’m with the rest of the group—it just looks bad when NASCAR hypes up a bonus program (which I do think would be a great program otherwise) and the winner finishes fifth behind four cup drivers. I kind of like Michael’s idea, to only allow the Cup drivers to run certain designated races (and I’d like that better if those were races like Road America where they aren’t going to go anyway…) But they for sure don’t need to be in the bonus races. I know the argument is that fans want to see the big names, but if the regulars got the coverage and promotion the Cup guys do, they’d be big names in their own series.