Did You Notice? … The chorus of cheers as Chase Elliott emerged from his vehicle at Martinsville Speedway Sunday night? The way the crowd erupted when he took the lead at Talladega Superspeedway a few weeks back? If you weren’t looking, you might have assumed Dale Earnhardt Jr. was pushing his way toward the front.
He’s not. But his future replacement as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver sure is.
Elliott, the son of “Million Dollar” Bill, the 1988 Cup champion, took a big step towards becoming his own man Sunday. Confronting Denny Hamlin after the No. 11 Toyota spun him out, the mild-mannered Georgian mustered up an emotion we saw maybe a handful of times from his father throughout a long career.
He got mad.
— Ricky Craven (@RickyCraven32) October 29, 2017
Minutes after getting spun out, Elliott was slamming into Hamlin on the backstretch like bumper cars gone wrong. Fisticuffs didn’t follow but a flurry of words sure did, establishing a rivalry sure to carry over into Texas and the rest of the season.
The contact is not all that dissimilar to a handful of other flare-ups we’ve seen in this sport as of late. Brad Keselowski vs. Kyle Busch. Matt Kenseth vs. Joey Logano. Logano vs. Busch. All of them have briefly ignited passion amongst the fan base.
But Busch, as villainous as he’s been, doesn’t captivate an audience like Dale Earnhardt once did. If you hate Busch, you really hate him; he’s yet to earn that Earnhardt-like universal respect. And Logano? He may be young but socially, Sliced Bread has yet to slice through indifference on social media. That’s especially true this season, with Logano’s hot Team Penske partnership cooling off with a playoff miss and one encumbered victory.
I think back to Talladega, where Logano was just doing his job but a block may have blocked Earnhardt from a shot at the win. Think even further back to 2010, his “firesuit in the family” moment where dad got involved and that has formed an awkward first impression tough to break.
Compare that to Elliott, who, despite failing to win, continues to blossom as one of the sport’s most well-known names. Last October, Tom Jensen wrote a piece chronicling the top 20 most popular NASCAR drivers on Twitter. So I researched, in the wake of Martinsville’s mayhem, how many new followers these drivers have attracted in the past 12 months. Keep in mind a driver like Kyle Larson, who has broken through into the top 20 this year, was not included because his total from October 20, 2016 was not listed. (My guess is he’d slot somewhere around seventh to 10th on the list).
NASCAR Driver Twitter Adds Over The Last Year
- Dale Earnhardt Jr.: 572,000
- Jimmie Johnson: 358,000
- Danica Patrick: 340,000
- Chase Elliott: 301,000
- Kasey Kahne: 224,000
- Jeff Gordon: 206,000
- Kevin Harvick: 186,000
- Clint Bowyer: 185,000
- Kyle Busch: 153,000
- Joey Logano: 98,000
- Denny Hamlin: 93,000
- Brad Keselowski: 77,000
- Tony Stewart: 77,000
- Kurt Busch: 68,000
- Martin Truex Jr.: 64,000
- Jamie McMurray: 53,000
- Matt Kenseth: 37,000
- Austin Dillon: 26,000
- Ryan Newman: 24,000
- Trevor Bayne: 12,000
As you can see, Elliott ranks fourth on the list. He’s running circles around Truex, the year’s most dominant driver, and the sport’s likable Cinderella story. Former single-car team, driver left for dead four years ago after his team cheated, plus there’s longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex’s well-documented fight against ovarian cancer. You could make an ESPN 30 For 30 out of any one of those individual stories.
And yet, Truex is the equivalent of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs of the 1990s and 2000s. That was a good team, clean-cut and without any hint of drama. It also failed to produce the same type of ratings and viewership for the league compared to when Kobe Bryant, LeBron James or Stephen Curry started challenging for titles. You need that it factor, and for whatever reason Truex hasn’t caught on.
Even Elliott’s 20-something rivals have not lit the fuse on star power. Blaney, also in the sport’s Round of 8, has dazzled inside and outside the media center. His friendship with Darrell Wallace Jr., soon to be the first full-time African-American Cup driver since 1971, breaks the mold. The duo is hilarious on social media and showcases the type of personalities needed to capture iPhone-obsessed millennials.
And yet, despite successful moments in 2017, the duo combined has over 400,000 followers less than Elliott. It’s because this 21-year-old comes armed with all the puzzle pieces. He’s from the south, with an accent to boot, roots that motivate NASCAR’s core fan base. He’s connected to the older generation through his father, the sport’s Most Popular Driver when Dale Jr. was still in high school. A spot with NASCAR’s signature team, Hendrick Motorsports, makes him feel like the Chosen One.
Some may still quibble with the way Elliott had the red carpet laid out for him. But when you’re handed those prime opportunities, you have to capitalize. Early in 2017, it felt like the pressure was getting to him, near-misses at the Daytona 500 and elsewhere creating a set of unrealistic expectations. Elliott hasn’t been an automatic, which to some degree has made him more likable.
Then, at Martinsville, seeing Elliott mad meant maturity. He’s not sitting on the sidelines bummed out at the one that got away. He seems ready to reach up and grab it, leading 341 laps during this playoff and posting three runner-up finishes. Only Kyle Busch and Truex have led more. Seeing Elliott come up to lap Jimmie Johnson, the nine-time Martinsville winner, made you feel like we’re on a verge of another changing of the guard.
Some say that’s what NASCAR needs, a whole new set of personalities to hit the reset button. They’ve lost Gordon, Stewart and Edwards among others the past few years; Earnhardt will follow suit in November. Perhaps the only way forward is to embrace the fall, work on life after these stars the same way golf needed to look at life after Tiger Woods.
Blaney, Wallace, even Erik Jones have been doing the work on the track to set that stage. But none of them can move the needle like Elliott, or so it seems. And now, with that one spin, there’s a whole legion of fans taking a second look. Moving forward, there’s a true rivalry with a driver in Hamlin that isn’t going anywhere for years to come. And there’s a storyline (winless driver, six runner-up performances, when’s he going to get it?) that has the potential to last beyond these aging retirement tours.
Martinsville was up a smidgen in the ratings this week, from 1.52 to 1.61 on NBCSN. That’s not perfect but considering the horror story of television this year, it’s a start. Clips of Elliott-Hamlin, a fan trying to fight Hamlin and the frenetic finish have been played all over social media.
It’s clear this young man could be handed the keys to the castle known as stock car racing. The key is what this sport can do once he turns the ignition and whether fans will follow.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Lost in the Martinsville mayhem was a wreck and downright miserable performance from AJ Allmendinger. A performance of dead last at one of his best tracks brought into focus what a terrible year it’s been for JTG Daugherty Racing. The ‘Dinger’s average finish of 22.4 is nearly five positions worse than 2016 and teammate Chris Buescher has outraced him. He’s signed through 2020, the team preaching stability, but I’m beginning to think 2018 will be a make-or-break year for the No. 47 group.
- On the flip side, that top-five run for Clint Bowyer was huge in resetting the ship over at the No. 14 of Stewart-Haas Racing. You’re looking at one new teammate there, possibly two and Bowyer entering the last year of his deal with limited sponsorship. The sniping on the radio the past few weeks shed light on how frustrated the No. 14 team has been since missing the playoffs. They need to end this year right because next year, the free agency/sponsorship focus could be on them.
- Heading to Texas, the focus may be on Truex, the intermediate master this season. But keep your eye on the back half of the Round of 8. Johnson has made TMS his personal playground and won this spring. I don’t make a habit of betting against the No. 48 when they’re against the wall (keep in mind Earnhardt Jr. ran fifth here, too.) There’s also the nothing-to-lose case of Blaney, who led 148 laps here and was dominant at points in the spring. No one’s talking about him, a guy who’d be 11th in points without the postseason but is one upset win away from a title shot.
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