1. What happened to loyalty?
It seems like loyalty in NASCAR is becoming a thing of the past as a changing business model takes effect. At least to the naked eye, drivers seem to be the most loyal of the driver-team-sponsor triumvirate. You don’t see drivers walking out all that often in comparison to teams making some tough choices: to stick with the driver who got you to this point, or to take that one, who brings a sponsor or some other goodie to the table.
Sponsors seem the most fickle as they search out a return on investment, seemingly less likely to endure a driver’s growing pains if there’s someone else available. And some are leaving the sport altogether.
For the most part, the days of the handshake deal are long gone. Heck, contracts don’t mean much either if the right carrot is dangled. It’s easier these days to swap drivers at somebody’s whim than it is to go to bat for a driver with backers.
Is that good for the sport? I don’t think so. It’s gotten so expensive that there’s been no choice but to get more and more of a corporate mentality within teams.
The problem is, that doesn’t resonate with the sport’s fan base. Art imitates life, and fans want to see hard work and loyalty rewarded, and when it’s not, there is disappointment.
It doesn’t feel any better to watch a driver lose a ride they helped shape, not because of skill but because of nepotism and cash on the barrel, than it does to see the same thing happen in a fan’s own life. There was a time when fans could admire the loyalty in the sport to the point that they actively participated by buying a sponsor’s product. It’s become a difficult cycle to break: fans are no longer loyal to sponsors, so those sponsors walk away because they don’t get the support from fans they once did, and the next sponsor in is even less relatable to fans.
Perhaps that’s the big question here is whether that cycle can be broken.
2. Can a driver earn a ride anymore?
This one goes hand in hand, to an extent, with the first question, because teams and sponsors aren’t going to bat for drivers as they once did. Look at Landon Cassill. He gave StarCom Racing its best-ever finish at Bristol, yet was “rewarded” with the team putting Joey Gase in the car for Talladega, a track where Cassill has shown strength and might have had a shot at improving on his Bristol race.
Why did it happen? Simple: Gase brings a sponsor.
Top 20 at Bristol for @StarcomRacing is exciting and all, but the real story is that we did it on the same right side tires for the last 125 laps of the race because we ran out of tires in the pits. What a car!
— landon cassill (@landoncassill) April 16, 2018
It’s a double-edged sword, because teams need sponsors to race, but at what point does it become a revolving door of well-funded but not especially talented drivers in rides that can be bought by the highest bidder rather than earned by the most talented driver? And what happens when the driver can’t perform at the same level as his equipment?
The promise of better equipment bought Ty Dillon a seat, but if the equipment is better, why isn’t the No. 13 team’s performance?
Meanwhile, Aric Almirola is the perfect example of a driver who was underestimated because of the cars he was driving. He has lived up to his Stewart-Haas equipment so far, but would he have gotten that shot if longtime sponsor Smithfield hadn’t gone along for the ride? Almirola is currently 11th in points and has more top-10 finishes than Jimmie Johnson. He’s absolutely earned the ride, so why do people still wonder why he’s in it?
Does this trend hurt the sport as a whole? Maybe. The top rides still employ the top drivers, and they’re not for sale the way the small ones just trying to stay afloat might be. But it might not be as much fun for fans to watch a race and wonder if it would be better if those rides were filled with talent and loyalty.
3. Are all the rivalries gone?
Long-lasting and well-known rivalries were once a big part of the NASCAR landscape. Loyal fans passionately backed their drivers, and, usually, good-natured rivalries grew among the fans as well.
Now, though? Rivalries are a rarity, if they exist at all. A couple of drivers wrecking each other because they’re pissed off is not a rivalry. The main ingredient in a real rivalry is respect. It might be a grudging respect, but it’s there, for the most part. David Pearson and Richard Petty raced each others’ doors off; it wasn’t about wrecking, it was about racing. Until recently, the sport has had great rivalries based on great drivers trying to outdo each other. And, yes, sometimes it’s gotten out of hand.
Take a look at what’s possibly the greatest rivalry in all of sports: the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. They’re bitter enemies on the field; there’s no team either wants to beat more than the other, and the fans are equally passionate. But, when a great Yankees player retires, other than at Yankee Stadium, he gets no better sendoff than at Fenway Park. The same goes for retiring Sox at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees made the Boston news this past week for sending flowers for a fallen Massachusetts police officer’s funeral. The rivalry is built on a foundation of respect.
But there just isn’t. The passion isn’t there from the drivers or the fans, and that’s a shame.
4. Is it the drivers?
There’s no way there’s just one factor to the falling ratings, and my guess is that the main one is stunningly simple: the huge swell in fans was due to a fad, and once it was over, they didn’t stick around. They probably weren’t going to from the start.
But the ones who did have now seen the rise and fall of an entire generation of drivers. Some big names have ridden into the sunset in the last couple of years: Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth. Their fans have been left reeling for a couple of reasons.
One, the older fans who rolled from Petty or Waltrip or Wallace or Earnhardt onto those drivers are finding the current crop either unrelatable or too old, maybe both. Kevin Harvick is an old-school racer that some of those fans might get behind, but then they’ll be faced with the same problem in a year or two.
— Kevin Harvick (@KevinHarvick) April 11, 2018
Fans are very loyal and grow very attached. They don’t want to go through all that again, especially not so soon.
Then again, the youngsters are harder to relate to. Many didn’t grow up working on cars or racing whatever they could to get by. They’re talented, they have great personalities, but they aren’t old-school.
Surely it’s no fun for fans to watch a driver they’ve invested a piece of themselves into walk away; it is even harder to see that driver pushed unceremoniously out of his seat in exchange for a younger, sponsor-drawing driver.
Without the emotional investment of a passionate fandom, even the best racing might not be enough to keep fans in the fold.
5. Can you ever go back?
At the end of the day, as the shadows grow long, fans are fighting a losing battle against time. The search for what the sport once meant entangles with a search for their own lost youth, and nothing can ever live up to the golden memories of the best years of our lives. That leaves fans searching for the impossible and NASCAR with no way to respond.
For NASCAR, going back to the way something once was means admitting mistakes were made in the first place. It also means tipping a difficult balance between fans of generations and new-school, attention-challenged younger fans. Who’s really the future?
For teams, once a sponsorship or driver decision is made, even if it becomes clear it wasn’t the right one, it’s too late to change their minds. Even if they could, there would be resentment and mistrust where once there was not.
What we’re all left with then, is a new reality to navigate. Maybe the biggest question ends up being, how many will even try?
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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