NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: “Chase”ing NASCAR’s Next Popularity Spike

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.

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

  1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: 572,000
  2. Jimmie Johnson: 358,000
  3. Danica Patrick: 340,000
  4. Chase Elliott: 301,000
  5. Kasey Kahne: 224,000
  6. Jeff Gordon: 206,000
  7. Kevin Harvick: 186,000
  8. Clint Bowyer: 185,000
  9. Kyle Busch: 153,000
  10. Joey Logano: 98,000
  11. Denny Hamlin: 93,000
  12. Brad Keselowski: 77,000
  13. Tony Stewart: 77,000
  14. Kurt Busch: 68,000
  15. Martin Truex Jr.: 64,000
  16. Jamie McMurray: 53,000
  17. Matt Kenseth: 37,000
  18. Austin Dillon: 26,000
  19. Ryan Newman: 24,000
  20. 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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wildcatsfan2016

Yeah some real emotion from Elliott plus it happening at a short track certainly got some fans attention which is a good thing.

In my opinion though, you can also attribute the failure for the new set of “young guns” to catch fire for NASCAR to the fact that NASCAR itself has created many of its own issues along with lousy TV broadcasts. As you pointed out, having Gordon, Stewart and now Dale Jr. retiring has meant that quite a few of those fans have retired along with them.

It isn’t the new drivers who are to blame for the lack of interest from the fans, it is NASCAR and its “leadership” that is at fault. Gimmicks galore, including a crapshoot champion and why exactly do you think fans feel any need to find another driver to follow?

Bill B

Amen! …regarding that last paragraph.

rg72

I always wonder what the drivers REALLY think about all these goofy gimmicks. I’m sure many feel the way most of us do but don’t express it out of fear of secret fines, unending pit road speeding penalties, failed inspections, and their sponsors suddenly being in conflict with the OFFICIAL NASCAR sponsors of XYZ.
You know they can’t be happy about reduced purses (which I’m sure is happening and mostly why the winnings aren’t made public anymore-not the company line that it’s because of the imploding charter system).

wildcatsfan2016

rg72, I’m sure they aren’t thrilled but since NASCAR carries its big stick of fines & penalties and just plain making a teams life miserable, they don’t have any choice but to keep with the “company line” and say how wonderful it all is.

Remember when the CoT was introduced and the drivers weren’t thrilled but were punished for saying anything? Then Mike Helton pretty much said, shut up and drive and all of the drivers then sang the same song — everything is wonderful. After that I stopped paying attention to what they had to say. Before all of that, I thought at least I could trust what the drivers were saying, even if I couldn’t believe NASCAR’s management.

Chels

Well, I do remember Kyle Busch saying the CoT sucks, or something to that effect, after winning a race in it. Before this season started, he also said, “We already have too many rules.”

I guess that makes Rowdy outspoken enough to be a FS contributor.

Al Torney

NASCAR and it’s media minions are hell bent on making Chase the new darling of the sport. If his fan club does the same thing they did with dad he’ll win the most popular driver handily. Just keep voting over and over. Dale Earnhardt was obviously more popular then Bill Elliott when Bill was winning the award. Just check the souvinier business. The sport doesn’t need a most popular driver. It needs more races like Martinsville.

These young guys appear to be good drivers but then they are in top notch equipment. They’ve shown they care run with the veterans they just haven’t been able to win, inexperience maybe?

Jeff

100% correct. Nascar’s intent to make Little Chasey the next darling of the sport was evident several years ago when they (out of nowhere) changed the rule of how old a driver could be to sign with a team from 16 to 15 and instantly he was signed by Hendrick. Does anybody really believe nascar and Hendrick wasn’t in cahoots on that one? Look for Elliott to be the next Jimmie Johnson of NASCAR, because they believe that’s what’s best for business.

Chels

I call BS, Al Torney! BS. The whole myth of the Bill Elliott fan club stuffing the ballot box was perpetrated by the pro-Earnhardt faction to excuse why Dale’s fans couldn’t give their driver the MPD. In fact, Bill’s fan club was run by a middle-aged Dawsonville housewife (now deceased), not a criminal mastermind, and it was much harder to do multiple voting in the days of the paper ballot and then the 900 number (which also included a fee for voting and a vote limit), than it is now with Internet voting. Furthermore, NASCAR has always encouraged multiple voting, with its one vote per email address per day “rule.” Any driver with a devoted fan base can benefit from the persistence of his/her fans. If a driver’s fans are too lazy or unmotivated to vote, that doesn’t mean that the winner cheated, only that he/she has the most fans committed to winning the award for their favorite.

Finally, if Bill’s fan club had been the main factor in his MPD awards, Bill could simply have called them off after Dale’s death in 2001. But he knew that the fan club did NOT control the fans, so he took his name off the ballot. And then the next year, he won again in spite of giving Junior’s fans a head start by arguing back and forth with the promoters whether his name should be put back on the ballot. End of story. Save your sour grapes for another issue. Elections are always won by getting the True Believers to vote, regardless of how much junk a candidate can sell.

Russ

Nascar needs something to bring new fans to the sport, not just hanging on to what they have. What that is I don’t have a clue, but neither does anybody else. But the people who know that Chase is Bill’s son are probably already watching.

wildcatsfan2016

Agree with that, Russ.

DoninAjax

They need fans that will stay fans. To quote Astro, “Rots of ruck, Brian!”

Matty H

Well said Wildcat

kb

We will hear about him at every turn now, the media swearing of course he has legions of fans. Again a lie, the majority no doubt are Bill fans FIRST!!!! Chase will be the clone of DALE JR and treated with kid gloves, always. The media is thrilled beyond words, so is Brian. They are dumb. He will be walking on water soon, watch for it.

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