Did You Notice? … NASCAR remains an aging demographic? At a time when all sports are trying to retain that crucial audience of 18-to-34-year-olds, getting younger remains racing’s biggest challenge.
As recently as 2017, 57% of NASCAR TV viewers were over the age of 55. In the sport’s championship finale that year, just 22% of viewers were between the ages of 18 and 49. Certainly, stock car racing prides itself on access, chiefly through social media platforms such as Twitter, but to be fetch, young people need to play fetch and latch onto the product. There’s evidence, despite the sport stabilizing in 2019, they’re still viewing the sport with skepticism.
NASCAR has combated that problem in recent years by increasing investment in areas like fantasy sports, gambling and video games (see: recent partnership with Penn National Gaming). But as the sport enters a new decade, focused on rebuilding itself on a national scale, the best way to attract younger fans remains simple: Engage them through the product on the racetrack.
And that’s where the competition remains stable — or should we say stale? — at the top. A grand total of just six drivers have combined to make the last three NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4s. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. have made three straight, winning two. The trio have combined to win 51 of the last 108 Cup races run, an impressive 47%, and perhaps came one Joey Logano bump at Martinsville Speedway from a championship sweep.
Of course, all three drivers share in common longevity within the sport. Their national profiles are well established and the youngest among them, Busch, turns 35 in 2020. Tom Brady, these guys are not, but they’re still on the verge of a mini-playoff dynasty.
So what about all those 20-something drivers NASCAR likes to trumpet? They’ve made a combined total of one Championship 4 appearance during this stretch (Logano, who happens to turn 30 this year). Chase Elliott? NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver has a grand total of six wins during four years at the Cup level. Ryan Blaney? He has yet to win more than one Cup race in a single season. Kyle Larson has had six years of hype and exactly zero Championship 4 appearances, all while lamenting how he can’t run dirt like NASCAR is just what he does for a paycheck. And for all the talk of how William Byron has improved, Hendrick Motorsports’ youngest phenom has yet to visit Victory Lane, period.
It’s a youth movement that’s been hailed as NASCAR’s driving force but remains stuck in neutral as it enters a pivotal 2020 season. At some point, the law of averages and Father Time dictates they’ll make a breakthrough. But the waiting game continues with consequences as the void of superstars grows ever larger. Jimmie Johnson is the latest in a long line of Hall of Fame veterans to announce his retirement; when he’s gone, effective the end of the season, it’ll be him, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth sent to the sidelines within a five-year period.
Those names paired with both popularity and brand recognition, the type you get only by winning major races and championships. It’s the one sticking point on the resume where Elliott, Blaney et al haven’t even come close. And when a young driver has broken through on a national stage? Like Austin Dillon in the 2018 Daytona 500? They’ve disappeared into the abyss, donning the Cloak of Invisibility you win with a 20th-place finish every race since.
It’s a big miss for a sport whose positive leadership has finally stopped the bleeding after years of mismanagement and misinformation from the top. It’s been 18 months since former NASCAR CEO Brian France’s DUI on Long Island and in that time, both TV ratings and track attendance have taken large steps toward stabilization. The sport’s new president, Steve Phelps, possesses the aggressive plan and leadership skills needed to save what was a sinking ship. Ideas like electric cars, a massive schedule revamp and street courses are now being considered within years of being laughed out of the room.
But the lifeblood of this sport remains the athletes themselves. People were driven to NASCAR in the 1990s with rivalries like Dale Earnhardt vs. Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt vs. Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt vs. … well, anyone? Gordon, Johnson, Stewart and others then carried the mantle in the early 2000s, a perfect blend of a plethora of personalities.
But there’s an open question as to who, now, will create the type of buzz those old battles created. Reigning champion Kyle Busch has tried. Oh, has he tried. But his battles with rivals like Logano, reignited in Sunday’s Busch Clash, haven’t driven the needle on a national scale. In fact, Brad Keselowski’s comments against his own teammate, Logano, had the most staying power from that season opening Demolition Derby. It feels like the national impression of these drivers, after a decade or more of competition, are both baked in and fully plateaued from a marketing standpoint.
It means now, for NASCAR to truly grow in 2020, these young drivers need to fight their way to the front. The sport’s next female racer, Hailee Deegan, anointed as a savior, is, in reality, years away from a spot at the Cup level. She can’t drive the bus before the next TV contract gets negotiated (just a few short years away). Instead, it’s Blaney, Elliott, Byron, Alex Bowman and more who need to prove they have staying power at the top.
A crop of talented rookies is poised to challenge them. Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick spent last year as the NASCAR Xfinity Series “Big 3.” They basically settled the title among themselves before all securing middle-tier rides and above for a promotion to Cup. Bell is perhaps the best positioned to win early, armed with millions in Toyota developmental support. But what the trio needs to show next is personality. The trio combine for just over 115,000 followers on Twitter; seven-time champion Johnson has 2.6 million.
Expanding their reach will involve some sort of success on Cup’s top level. Otherwise, they’ll join an increase crowd of 20-something drivers who are “just on the verge of success someday.”
Can 2020 be the year they stop being basic and take over the sport?
Did You Notice?… Quick hits before taking off …
- The Busch Clash never really translates into much in terms of the 2020 season as a whole. But winning a race like that has to give Erik Jones confidence after he spent much of the year languishing three steps below his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates. Jones essentially went from a contract year to … a contract year. Getting off to a strong start is crucial.
- Chevrolet’s strategy made it tough to gauge how they’ll perform in this Sunday’s Daytona 500. But their flop on fuel mileage in the Clash reminded observers how Ford and Toyota seem to play better and think more critically in the draft. Single-car speed is nice for that Camaro, but can they find the magic from last spring’s debut with this current drafting package? In that one, Elliott led the charge for a manufacturer flat out ticked off Ford had played the team card and run circles around them at superspeedways. They’re going to need that type of leadership and disciplined strategy to prevail in this year’s Great American Race.