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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beside the Rising Tide: Will Race For Food

Every once in a while, NASCAR fans get a glimpse behind the curtain into a decidedly wizard-free zone as of late at how things really work. No less an authority than Dale Earnhardt Jr., retiring as a driver after this season to start a career as a sports journalist, said in the brave new world of NASCAR drivers now earning their way up to the Cup level are going to have to accept making much less money than the sport’s current generation of stars. As per Junior, if a team is “only” getting 10 million dollars from its sponsors it can’t afford to pay a driver eight million of that and still expect to be competitive. They guy should know after all. While Earnhardt doesn’t own any Cup teams (yet) he does run a bunch of XFINITY Series teams. With a little help from his current boss of course.

Perhaps it was unrelated (though the timing was certainly more than coincidental) but Kevin Harvick said this week that Earnhardt’s popularity has stunted NASCAR’s growth. Harvick noted that Earnhardt’s popularity is out of proportion to any actual success he’s enjoyed, statistically speaking. (Junior stunting NASCAR’s growth? It simply can’t be. Recall NASCAR’s Cup series was smoking Winstons even in its infancy.) Obviously Harvick plans to keep racing a few years and he likely resents a fellow driver saying he and the rest of the current field are probably going to have to accept pay cuts to remain active or lose their jobs to up and comers with a better grip on financial realities.

As far as success in his era, Earnhardt Jr. has logged 26 wins. Harvick managed to win 36 Cup races (and a title) in the same period. That’s a significant but not overwhelming difference. The most successful driver in that period is doubtlessly Jimmie Johnson, who scored seven championships and 83 wins in a couple years’ less time. (Johnson started Cup racing full time in 2002, Harvick in 2001 and Earnhardt Jr. in 2000.) Kyle Busch, who started full time in the Cup series in 2005 has won a title and 39 Cup races though he remains as popular as sandpaper toilet tissue as a treatment for hemorrhoids. Harvick conveniently overlooks the fact that Bill Elliott won 16 Most Popular Driver awards, most of them long after his salad days as a racer. Somehow Elliott’s popularity didn’t stunt NASCAR’s growth so much there wasn’t a way for Harvick to cash in getting the big bucks to drive a stock car.

2017 Kansas I CUP DAle Earnhardt Jr helmet Russell LaBounty NKP
Dale Earnhardt Jr. leaves a lasting legacy in NASCAR but it has nothing to do with his statistics. (Photo: Russell Labounty/NKP)

Certainly Junior’s comments shed some light on the current status of Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch. Busch and Kenseth are former Cup champions. Kahne’s been plugging away at this Cup thing for 13 years and has won 18 points-paying Cup races along the way. Which is more wins than Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, David Suarez and William Byron combined. Busch won this year’s Daytona 500 and Kahne this year’s Brickyard 400. In the good old days, either of those wins would have been big enough to secure a driver’s seat for at least another season. But apparently the “what have you done for me lately” attitude in the Cup series is narrowing its focus.

In addition to Kenseth, Kahne and Busch all currently seeking employment, over the last few years we’ve seen three-time champion Tony Stewart, four-time champion Jeff Gordon and perennial contender Carl Edwards all hang up their spurs voluntarily rather than face another round on the Beaches of Cheyenne. One has to wonder if a possible impending pay cut made any of the three of them decide it was time to leave the circus (he said, shamelessly mixing metaphors). There could even have been an altruistic component to the decision (especially in the case of Gordon and team owner Tony Stewart) having to consider if in an era of dwindling sponsorship dollars if the team wouldn’t be just as or more competitive with a cheaper driver at the helm.

Perhaps the poster-girl for the new financial realities of Cup racing is Danica Patrick. Say what you wish about her level of talent and determination when it comes to racing, but it’s practically inarguable that any male driver who had the limited success she has had to date driving for a big team would have been out of a ride a long time ago. Sponsorship from GoDaddy bought Patrick into the sport and kept her front and center in NASCAR TV coverage. As long as GoDaddy kept buying (insanely bad) commercials during NBC and FOX race broadcasts they were going to keep interviewing the 23rd-place finisher after the race even if it meant ignoring the runner-up. But when GoDaddy decided to drop their soft core porn marketing strategy (as did Hardees and Five-hour Energy, oddly enough. A sign of the graying NASCAR fandom they’re marketing to?), Ms. Patrick was left outside looking in. She signed on with the healthy snack folks, but that blew up quickly and gave highlight to the one truth that nobody in NASCAR dared discuss for decades: sometimes a NASCAR sponsorship marketing strategy just doesn’t work. We’ve had hints that was the case by the number of major sponsors fleeing the sport but not hard figures expressed in dollar, cents and market penetration percentages. Back when sponsoring a successful NASCAR team was still a six figures proposition sponsors could elect to test the waters. But over the last decade sponsorship amounts went to the moon and even a big box home improvement warehouse had to wonder if their millions of marketing dollars would be better spent with a “buy one, get one free” lawn tractor sale. (As an aside, I have found that most consumers but NASCAR fans in particular will never switch brands when it comes to two things; beer and pickup trucks.)

Obviously a driver’s salary is only part of a Cup team’s budget. But if drivers newer to the circuit are willing to “work” for less money it could be a good first step lowering the now-obscene cost of racing at the Cup level. Other steps in that direction should be forthcoming, though they are likely to be difficult given that no other series, even amateur class racing with little to no prize money on the line, has never been able to enforce any successful spending limits. There’s always some individual or outfit that is willing to spend more than the rules stipulate to gain an advantage. Then other teams say they have no choice but to spend more money to keep up with that outfit.

Ideally, it’s in the best long-term interests of the sport to have a team be able to race competitively at about a tenth of today’s real costs. Finding sponsorship would be easier at that price point and as such there’d be enough fully competitive cars to fill the field weekly (perhaps with some even sent home after qualifying) and younger drivers looking to make their mark rather than their first million dollars before they’re old enough to legally buy a beer. Over the years NASCAR racing has been at its best when the drivers and teams focus on individual races rather than a season-long championship which may become an issue if NASCAR is once again forced to seek out a title sponsor. What the current title sponsor pays for series rights wouldn’t have covered a top ranked team a few years ago.

Team owners tend to stick around longer than drivers. While most drivers these days step aside by the time they are in their mid to late 40s, Roger Penske is 80, Joe Gibbs is 76, Jack Roush is 75, Richard Childress is 71 and Rick Hendrick is a boyish but still advanced 68. Not only do they qualify for “Senior Pricing” at the Olde Country Buffet, they can request early seating and a free treat for their service animals. Eventually these previous championship team owners are going to retire (one way or another) and all those decades of experience will leave the sport with them. I’m not sure any current fan who sticks around is going to be able to even recognize our sport within a decade, but perhaps that’s for the better.

In his highly visible position brought about by his popularity, Earnhardt Jr. has already seen at least one long-lasting change in the sport. With the HANS device and SAFER barriers now part of the NASCAR landscape the likelihood of a driver dying during a race weekend is greatly diminished though sadly that possibility can never be totally eliminated. But the fact drivers are now surviving impacts that might have been fatal back in 2000 means those same drivers are now suffering from the cumulative effect of multiple concussions over their careers. I doubt his father would have given any thought to the issue (Earnhardt Sr. was notoriously snarky about drivers’ concerns for safety saying that those complaining ought to tie kerosene-soaked rags around their ankles to keep the ants from eating their candy-asses) but Junior has bought the topic to the forefront with his announcement he was retiring after this season because of his concerns about future concussions and his health. Note that Earnhardt is hardly the first driver to retire due to multiple concussion syndrome (Irvan, Nadeau and Park come readily to mind) but given his high profile as a driver, for the first time the issue has been moved to the front burner. Many drivers facing retirement over the years have expressed a willingness to walk away and gratitude they’ve been able to leave the sport on their own terms and on their own two feet. Now they have to consider a health issue that may plague them the rest of their lives even after they hang up their helmets, and issues that could keep them from enjoying their retirement and time spent with the people they love as they occasionally pretend to glance at the “autobiography” someone else who knows all the big words is writing for them.

In his leveraging of his popularity to open discussion of cumulative concussion syndrome in NASCAR racing, Earnhardt Jr. has left his own indelible mark on the sport, a legacy that will doubtless alter the trajectories of championships and provide for better lives after racing for many future champions. All in all I’d say that’s a pretty credible legacy for Junior to leave behind when he retires. What’s your legacy going to be, Mr. Harvick?

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kb

Sorry, I am in the CAMP of JUNIORS CONTRIBUTIONS are wildly overstated. His whatever’s that people latch on to are due to his father, not he. That is a reality that Jr. lovers just can’t cop to. I do believe to a degree what KEVIN said has true merit, of course with the lovers of JR. the messenger is maligned. No fan of Kevin, can’t stand him actually.

NASCAR IMO is failing for their own lack of merit. They however wrongfully have pushed the EARNHARDT NARRATIVE on the masses (THAT MANY COULD NOT A GOOD DAMN ABOUT) at the expensive of other drivers, and I do believe that has hurt the sport to a degree.

Dale Sr. is dead, end of story..every year the sob…blah, blah, blah…that gets airtime the likes of nothing else, then cue the POOR DALE JR. BS over 16 years later!!!!! It’s gotta get more low key and not so in your face, every year. TOO MUCH! THERE is more to the sport than EARNHARDTS! Nobody is discounting anybody’s contributions, but the way the media carries on…THEY ARE THE ONLY ONE”S WHO HAVE CONTRIBUTED..and I am still hard pressed to understand the JUNIOR lore of greatness in Cup or his contributions to anything (???) Yes, yes restrictor plate races seemed to favor him to NASCARS great delight,,but really his time was some time ago…

The sport continued after Dale Sr. died, it will continue after Jr. retires…what happens next is all on NASCAR, there is a talent pool of young and old. IT IS NASCAR’S CHOICE TO SCREW IT UP!

The fans are not there because of NASCAR, everybody wants to support RACING, but sadly NASCAR SEEMS LIKE THEY DO NOT WANT TOO. GIMMICKS ARE THE ORDER OF THE DAY, LIKE THE WWE! The drivers, teams, sponsors and fans, DESERVE more respect from the people taking our money!!!!!!!!! IMO OF COURSE!

Lynne

I agree with you regarding the contributions of Junior, they are wildly overstated, it’s akin to a religion, one that I just don’t understand. I suppose it is because I am a relatively new fan, about 4-5 years, and honestly, I really don’t care too much about Junior, not at all to be honest. I appreciated the candidness of Harvick’s comments. If you want to build a fan base, embrace the here and now, and the future stars. I LOVE the new talent coming up in the ranks; that’s where the future of the sport is, and it should be featured more. Love seeing the young guns outsmart and outrace the veterans, that’s good stuff! IMO OF COURSE!

kb

:) :) :) :)

Damon

“but it’s practically inarguable that any male driver who had the limited success she has had to date driving for a big team would have been out of a ride a long time ago”

And yet Paul Menard, who had 8 top 10’s and an average finish of 24.6 in his first 147 Cup starts gets to drive at RCR for the next 7 years, all while winning 1 race in the next 239 starts at RCR, including his current 219 race winless streak in that span, yet he managed to parlay that into a partnership with the Wood Brothers/Team Penske for 2018, yet you call Danica out?

Bill B

OK you win. Both Menard and Patrick suck and should be sent packing. You happy now?

raceaddict

Menard brought dad’s sponsorship. He bought that ride, results be damned.

Ryan

The comparison of Junior’s wins to Harvick’s and thinking they’re equals as drivers is disingenuous. I think most agree the two tracks on the circuit that require the least driver talent to win at are Daytona and Talladega (see the careers of Michael Waltrip, Derrike Cope, Trevor Bayne, Bobby Hillin Jr., Jimmy Spencer, David Ragan, Greg Sacks, and Phil Parsons), which make up 4 of the 36 races on the schedule (11%). 10 of Junior’s 26 wins are at Daytona and Talladega, when if his restrictor plate track wins were proportional to the number of races on the schedule they had, he’d only have 3 out of 26. 7 of those 10 wins were pre-2005 when DEI had that monster restrictor plate engine program, which is also responsible for the only wins in Michael Waltrip’s career. They were more car than driver wins.

Harvick has 3 restrictor plate wins out of his 36.

janice

well mr. harvick does have a cup championship under his belt and 2 xfinity championships and was a championship team owner in the truck series. i’m far from a super fan of kevin’s, but he made you think. think about jr’s first years in cup, he drove for the family business, he showed up and got in the car, mr. party town earnhardt. his dad got killed, he started to crumble under the pressure of the sport looking to him for guidance. the war of the roses broke out between the earnhardt children and the widow earnhardt. kelly took over all of jr’s business interests, cause he doesn’t get it and she has always looked out for her brother. earnhardt children go over to hendrick. still the same thing. jr does what he wants, has some success, but it’s always someone elses fault. in walks letarte, not afraid to tell earnhardt he will go to meetings, he will be on time, he will interact with the team. had decent years. letarte leaves, back to square one with jr. jr hurt, leaves sport for 6 mos…..bowman did a good job of filling in. jr back, snooze of season. fans realize and just don’t bother with sub-par performance from the chosen one and the cars being same crap different day, leader takes off in clean air. remember too, a lot of jr’s popularity were his father’s fans. but alas, we too have gotten wiser with age.

these drivers in their late 30’s and early 40’s are paid a lot more than dale jarrett, rusty wallace and the labonte brothers. but salaries for drivers today aren’t seeing the return on investment. the young crop is like buying up a discount house. they’re drawn into the allure of working for a “big name team”. we’ll see where they are in 10 yrs. i think hendrick put byron in the 5 cause he lost out on keslowski.

it’s only a matter of time before we have another death in the sport. these hits are harder than ever, and luckily the safety measures have worked. but kahne sure looked like he got his bell rung hard sunday afternoon.

don’t forget about ricky craven….he had to leave, i remember he was back from injury, and just like irvan, the was carted off on a stretcher never to race again.

Bill B

All true but, are Jr.’s failures the reason for NASCAR’s persent issues? That’s what Kevin said.

janice

they could be part. i think the iroc cars have a lot to do, as well as the current version of the chase and the segment racing. i know sunday, when i came inside while working out in the yard, i’d check and they’d be talking about a winner. of course i couldn’t see the crawl to figure out it was a segment winner they were talking about.

i’d really like to know the “rumored” two manufacturers that are interested. would hyunda be one? they, and kia, seem to have a huge presence on the roadway, at least here in atlanta region.

russ

I recognize that I’m older, late 60’s and cynical about this. And like some people I watch it if I have nothing to do. Which seems like less and less every year. But I really don’t think the Chase is the major problem. Rather I think people don’t care about cars the way they did in the past. There is a reason that electric and autonomous vehicles are on the horizon.
And for me the whole broadcast/advertising/promotion thing is insulting to my intelligence.
I do agree that the stage racing hasn’t been an improvement.
Finally racing, by definition, is about who has the fastest car, not who gets a lucky break at the very end. Just my opinion.

dh

I think the “Stunted growth” was probably the wrong term, and what everyone hung on. The reality is, Dale Jr will be the “what if” candidate in nascar. And, he’ll also be forgiven because of all the hardships he’s had in his career. Whether it’s right or wrong, i think that had he won more, and had a championship under his belt – then it would be better for the sport. But Jr. Nation is strong – and we all know that his fan base is a strong contributor to the sport.

But i also agree with his analysis of other sports – look at Patrick Ewing- that guy was a beast, and one of the best centers out there – no one talks about him – know why? No championship. It’s really that simple, and i think he’s spot on with that point. Kind of a jerk thing to say during someone’s retirement year, but we all know that’s a part of who kevin is. But, i’m still a fan :)

tcfromaz

Janice, one thing is obvious reading your post, you don’t know what your talking about.

DoninAjax

Harvick’s “legacy” will be Talladega!

Bill B

Yes!!!! I will never let that dangerous, selfish act be forgotten.

As Bowyer’s will be Richmond.

SmarterThanYou

I have mixed feelings about Kevin Harvick’s comments. I agree that Earnhardt’s popularity is confounding, based as it is mostly on name and personality rather than actual accomplishment. Dale apparently appeals to NASCAR fans because he appears humble and approachable and is somewhat of a dim bulb, which is certainly something that the average NASCAR fan can identify with. The fact that Earnhardt responded to Harvick’s comments by saying they were “hurtful” is also telling. Most race car drivers are aggressive sorts who would have responded with anger and righteous indignation, but Earnhardt responds like a kicked puppy dog, which is also something that oddly endears him to NASCAR fans. But I don’t think Earnhardt has single-handedly stunted the growth of the sport.

I also disagree with Harvick’s contention that other sports are more successful because their most popular athletes are also their most successful. Take the Big Kahuna – the NFL. It is arguable that Tom Brady is the NFL’s most successful player and most dominant QB, perhaps of all time. Yet Brady is widely hated by the fans of teams other than the Patriots. In fact, one could say he is the equivalent of Kyle Busch in NASCAR, despised for his attitude of cockiness to the point of arrogance. He is admired, but certainly not loved. Or look at Tiger Woods’ dominance of golf for 2 decades. He was also admired, but never loved by the masses who preferred to cheer for a less talented Phil Mickelsen. And certainly Tiger’s fall from grace was cheered by many who saw it as his deserved comeuppance. Ditto LeBron James. There are plenty of fans who tune in to hope these athletes fail.

I do lay a lot of the blame for the disparity between performance and popularity at the door of NASCAR’s media whores. NASCAR media “experts” were continuing to list Junior in their ersatz “Power Rankings” last season, even after he had missed several races and was likely out for the season. He regularly gets more attention from social media, TV broadcasters and traditional media outlets than his more accomplished peers. Jimmie Johnson wins 7 championships, but is barely a footnote in any race unless he happens to win it. Why should anyone tune in to a NASCAR race to be foisted with the “Dale Junior Performance Report” when he is puttering along in 20th place with the likes of Michael McDowell and Danica Patrick? NASCAR put all its eggs in the Dale Junior basket and now is dealing with the fallout from that manipulation of the media and the fans, and for that, they have only themselves to blame.

Add to all this the self-inflicted harm NASCAR has done with all its gimmicks – the Lucky Dog, the wave around, the ludicrous stage racing with its 30-minute time-out periods, double-file restarts to end EVERY race and make aggressive restarts the ONLY qualification for victory. No legitimate sport makes major changes to its rules and championship format every season and in mid-season the way NASCAR does. NASCAR has no credibility. Old fans hate the new racing. New fans find it boring. And intelligent fans find it manipulative and gimmicky.

Yeah, NASCAR is in a heap of trouble, but most of it is self-inflicted. Earnhardt Junior is no superstar and should never have been treated like one, but he is hardly the root of the problem. I applaud Harvick for his candor and I think he opened a valuable dialogue, but I don’t believe he is entirely on target with his analysis either.

And to say Earnhardt has contributed in a big way to the sport by being knocked unconscious several times is also ludicrous, but Matt McLaughlin can’t resist adding his own bit of idiocy to any subject he discusses.

SmarterThanYou

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tcfromaz

If NASCAR is going to attract a new fan they have to be ready to admit that those fans don’t know about Sr. and don’t give a rip. Stop covering the wreath laying, candle light B.S. vigils that take place on the anniversary of his
A. birthday
B. Passing
C. the pass in the grass…et all
Make people stop selling those silly 3 numerals wrapped in halo’s and wings. Let him go.
OBTW here is betting Chase Elliott, with zero wins, replace Jr. as NASCAR most popular.

Dan

With all the sh*t Harvick has done over the years,from the Talladega thing, to parking his car in another’s pit stall, to throwing punches and shoving other drivers, to parking his burning car in the infield among people and walking away proves he’s a real piece of work. The comments he made recently? Honestly I for one expected no less. The ONLY legacy he’ll leave behind is being a bonehead.

bud sudz

Don’t forget about Greg Biffle, Matt (or maybe you did….)
Also, the six figure sponsorships would cover a car for the entire season. And, the car would have the same paint scheme, except possibly for the All-Star Race. And, the race times would be at 1:00 pm. And, the races would be shown on Network TV or ESPN. And, the directors and announcers would talk about every driver in the field and interview every driver who exited a race. And, the race cars somewhat resembled their showroom counterparts. And, if you lost a lap, you had to earn it back. And, the Busch Series and Truck Series ran unique schedules at unique tracks like Hickory, Myrtle Beach, Pikes Peak, Nazareth, Topeka, and IRP.

So, blaming Jr. for the lack of growth in NASCAR is not really seeing the entire picture.

salb

Wow. Amazing to me that so many find it impossible to like a driver simply because they feel he’s a good man. If the invective stated here is any indication, I commend Junior for managing to not become cynical and bitter. How about blaming Jimmie Johnson, obviously this era’s most successful driver, for not being more popular with the fans?

SmarterThanYou

There is a vast difference between “liking” somebody and being obsessed with a vastly overrated marketing machine masquerading as a race driver. Even Matt McLaughlin, who once referred to Dale disparagingly as “Dale Snodgrass” has drunk the Junior Kool-Aid. THAT is what is disturbing and is simply not evident in legitimate sports with legitimate stars of all personality types.

SmarterThanYou

Fair enough. I don’t consider a bit of intelligent self-interest all that admirable. I assume you hold Brett Favre in the same admirable light for doing the same thing in a far more visible sport.

Steve

My opinion has always been that Gordon & Stewart left the sport because of the ridiculousness that now is Nascar season and playoff format. The old guard of the sport got tired of the illegitimate, manufactured, circus that it had become. All the drivers hate it even though they will never admit it for obvious reasons, but you can see the frustration brewing race after race as they playoff drivers get closer to the championship.

Edwards was a head scratcher. He either was forced out by his sponsors for Suarez or he left due to the same reason Gordon/Stewart left. Tired of the circus. If it was the former, I will be surprised if we ever see him back in a Nascar race car again at any level.

Not to toot my own horn, but I said long ago Nascar put all their eggs in the Jr basket to the detriment of the sport. I think that’s what Harvick was referring to. For the amount of hype he gets vs his results, Jr has been overrated his whole career. We’ll see very quickly what will happen to the sport next season. Will Jr fans still watch even though he is in the booth and not on the track. Or will nascar take a big hit view wise? It will be interesting to see.

SmarterThanYou

And it never ends. Today’s official NASCAR site features the story: “Favorable Bristol Stats for Dale Jr.” NASCAR policy continues to be to force Junior on us at every track for every race.

Again, I don’t blame Junior personally, but I DO blame NASCAR for hyping this vastly overrated driver to the detriment of the sport as a whole. If this is the biggest storyline of the week at one of NASCAR’s most entertaining tracks, the sport has truly lost its way and deserves every loss of sponsorship and fan support it suffers.

Bill B

Don’t you think this is simply a case of NASCAR and the media catering to the largest fan base? If you write a story on Ryan Newman you get 30,000 “hits” on a website. If you write a story about Jr you get 200,000 hits. Not much more to it than that.

SmarterThanYou

But where does it leave the sport now? No Dale Junior, no largest fan base. Perhaps if NASCAR hadn’t taken the easy way out by catering to the lowest common denominator of fans, they would have something to look forward to in the future. Harvick is right: Earnhardt has hurt the growth of the sport and its future.

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