Ryan: The case for why Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s popularity hasn’t ‘stunted’ NASCAR’s growth

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So in the endless dissection of NASCAR’s meteoric rise and erosion of audience (has any other sport’s trajectory been so carefully parsed?), this is where we’ve landed.

Did the 14-time most popular driver in the Cup Series actually hamper stock-car racing’s growth over the past decade?

Kevin Harvick floated the thesis Tuesday during his SiriusXM Satellite Radio show, “Happy Hours”.

“Dale Jr. has had a big part in kind of stunting the growth of NASCAR because he’s got these allegiances of fans, this huge outreach of being able to reach these places none of us have the possibility to reach,” he said. “But he’s won nine races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports and hasn’t been able to reach outside of that.”

Just on its face, this seems a specious assertion.

Namely because Earnhardt’s reach already extends far beyond what any other NASCAR driver enjoys, even a past champion such as Harvick.

With the cadence and diction of a textile mill worker and the surname to accentuate his throwback bona fides, Earnhardt represents the last real connection to NASCAR’s Southern-fried roots for an old-guard fan base that routinely has voiced its feelings of disaffection amid modernization laying waste to some tradition.

And as a Twitter savant whose mastery of GIFs and quips, as well as the weekly host of a popular podcast, he is the most digitally savvy star in Cup whose effortless grasp of the trendy has continued apace since he became the first NASCAR driver to score a Rolling Stone profile.

In bridging the gap between the diehards that NASCAR desperately wants to avoid alienating and the youth that it desperately seeks to attract, who has been a better hope for expansion in the 21st century than Earnhardt?

There have been such declarations made before (such as NASCAR chairman Brian France’s 2010 comparison to a cornerstone franchise) that if Earnhardt had excelled, it would have been a larger driver of audience. But empirical evidence (such as Earnhardt’s 2014 Daytona 500 win and three wins later that season) also has run contrary to those assertions.

There is merit to Harvick’s postulation of success being tied to popularity in other professional sports. Undoubtedly, the most popular athletes usually tend to be the most accomplished.

But it never is as simple as some transitive property in which mass appeal spikes because of a title.

Michael Jordan was destined to dwarf his NBA peers in popularity years ahead of his first championship. The mammoth sales of his iconic Air Jordan high top sneakers started several years before he won a title.

An even better example might be Steph Curry, who signed a megashoe deal with Under Amour that began during the Golden State Warriors’ run of three consecutive NBA Finals. Sales have lagged so much for the two-time MVP’s shoes (part of a 60 percent overall decline since last year), it has become part of the narrative in a 10-figure drag on Under Armour’s market cap this year.

Peyton Manning, whom Harvick also cited as an example, became an A-list endorser long before a Super Bowl victory (and was known most of his career as much for the big games that he didn’t win).

LeBron James didn’t ascend to another level by winning his first two championships with the Miami Heat (conversely, you could say his brand actually was diminished by those who perceived he took the easy route to the title).

If you are independently popular without the benefit of a significant accomplishment, a championship is unlikely to make you even more transcendent – just like it isn’t accompanied by an automatic anointing of breakthrough renown.

Look no further than NASCAR to realize the limitations that unprecedented success can bring.

As Harvick noted, reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson isn’t the top seller in merchandise despite a record-tying seven titles and becoming the first to win five straight.

“It’s really confusing to me,” Harvick said. “In my opinion, Jimmie Johnson should be our most popular guy.”

He shouldn’t be so puzzled. These are the fallacies of applying pretzel logic to something that can’t be quantified – an “it factor” blend of charisma, magnetism and swagger.

It wasn’t seven championships that turned Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s father into the John Wayne of NASCAR. It was the mythology surrounding his blue-collar persona as the everyman laborer turned stock-car superman.

Earnhardt’s sway was built as much during the years in which he didn’t win championships. The fans who loved Earnhardt – just like those who found a special allure in Jordan and Manning – weren’t enamored with him solely for the results.

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While Harvick might be “totally shocked by the vibe” of Earnhardt Jr.’s final season because it didn’t bring record-breaking attendance and merchandise sales, that isn’t exactly an outlier.

The “retirement tours” of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart also had minimal gate impact for much of the past two seasons. You can posit that the drivers downplayed their farewells and dissuaded tracks from celebrations, but that doesn’t change the basic principle that fans didn’t flock en masse to witness their final laps.

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One category in which Earnhardt Jr. has made an indisputable impact? Candor.

His brilliantly concise explanation for the changing economics of driver salaries was notable for its honesty and insight but even more so because he was uninhibited in making the pronouncement. Because of his standing within NASCAR, Earnhardt is acutely self-aware that he can weather blowback with fewer repercussions than any other star, and he has chosen his spots carefully but shrewdly when making his points.

He will leave a void of honesty in the driver brigade, and it’ll be curious to observe whether anyone will have the gumption to fill it.

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Watkins Glen International president Michael Printup caused a stir in declaring the 3:18 p.m. start time for Sunday’s Cup race at his track was “absolutely ridiculous” and likely would end its grandstand sellout streak at three if kept in place for 2018.

Printup said roughly a quarter of the 4,000 fans he met with Saturday morning expressed dissatisfaction with the later start time and said they wouldn’t return because of it. In particular, he noted that fans making a 130-mile drive from Buffalo didn’t want to be on the road home late Sunday night (though those worries apparently didn’t hurt year-over-year turnout from the 2016 race, which started only 30 minutes earlier than this year).

It isn’t the first time start times have been a hot-button issue this season, which will feature nearly three times as many races (13) beginning after 3 p.m. as last year (five). NASCAR president Brent Dewar explained last month that a 1 p.m. ET start is too early for California and its population of close to 40 million. It also is probably too early for Texas, which has nearly 30 million residents.

It’s understandable that East Coast tracks would lobby for earlier starts to keep their tens of thousands of fans happy … but it also has to be weighed against the millions that are watching on TV, which is a major part of the revenue streams for NASCAR, teams and tracks, along with critical exposure value for sponsors.

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With four victories and a regular-season points championship in sight, Martin Truex Jr. essentially has earned a first-round bye in the 2017 playoffs.

In reality, he probably is safe all the way through to being a title contender in the season finale at Miami.

Last year, it took 78 points to advance from the second round – a per-race average of 26. Projecting the 15 playoff points he would earn for a regular-season title, Truex already is sitting on 16 points per race – a total that could grow over the next four races. That would mean averaging a top-25 finish would advance him from the second round.

In the third round last year, 113 points advanced Kyle Busch to Miami, an average of 37.6. With his projected playoff points, Truex can hit that total by roughly averaging a top-20 finish.

Anything can happen, as Truex said after his Watkins Glen win, but it also wasn’t bluster for him to declare, “We should essentially be a lock for” the championship round.

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No one knows the benefits of being based outside the Charlotte, N.C., hub of NASCAR better than Truex and his Denver-based team. Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser openly wondered in a Wednesday interview on SiriusXM’s “The Morning Drive” whether more teams should try it – or at least be open to the concept.

Though Furniture Row’s success has framed the conversation in a new way, this isn’t a novel idea. About a decade ago, there were brief rumblings about a team (Everhnam Motorsports frequently was mentioned as a possiblity) mulling a move to Indianapolis, which offers a centralized location and racing infrastructure. Many NHRA teams are based in Brownsburg, a small suburb just west of Indy.

Given the success of Furniture Row, which inherently can keep its trade secrets tightly held with greater ease in a far-flung locale, it seems a prospect that is worth reconsidering if only for a competitive advantage. As Visser noted, there also is the potential for audience growth and hometown allegiances (which would benefit NASCAR in bringing more localized media coverage).

But Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing have spent tens of millions on building and improving their enormous shops of plate glass and steel in the Charlotte area. To walk away from those investments would be staggering — and probably require a sweetheart package of tax breaks and financial incentives.

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Jamie McMurray has become one of the many Cup veterans more attuned to health and fitness this season, recently completing a 104-mile bike ride and entering training for a marathon.

“Everyone’s got their own story of why they’re doing this,” McMurray said as the guest on the most recent NASCAR on NBC podcast. “I found cycling at the beginning of the year as something that’s really important – fitness — for my profession, but it also gives me two to three hours a day where I can just clear my mind from everything,”

During the podcast, McMurray explained why he tweeted some of his biometrics after Kasey Kahne’s Brickyard 400 victory. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver also discussed why he observes social media without engaging in it and why the Cup Series Drivers Council didn’t work as he expected.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone.

It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.

NASCAR America: Matt Kenseth unable to realize potential due to team’s mistakes

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Sunday’s pit road mistake — having seven crew members over the wall when only six are allowed — not only knocked Matt Kenseth out of the race, it also knocked him out of advancing in the NASCAR Cup playoffs.

As a result, Kenseth lost out on his bid to earn a second Cup championship in what could potentially be his last season in the Cup series.

And it wasn’t the first time Kenseth has suffered through issues not of his making this season and in prior seasons.

On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Nate Ryan all gave their thoughts on what happened to Kenseth — and they didn’t hold back, either.

Click on the above video to hear what they had to say about Kenseth’s misfortune and how it could potentially impact his legacy going forward.

 

NASCAR America: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s picks for Championship 4

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On Monday’s editions of NASCAR America, Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave his predictions for which of the eight remaining championship-eligible drivers — including Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott — will make it to the Championship 4 round.

In addition to Johnson and Elliott, Junior also makes it known in the above video that he’s also pulling for Ryan Blaney. He may even throw in a surprise to his picks.

Our NASCAR America team of analysts go over Junior’s picks and give their take, as well.

We don’t want to spill the beans of who Junior is picking here, so click on the video above to find out, as well as what our analysts think about his picks.

 

 

 

Long: Kyle Larson’s playoff exit significant to title contenders

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Lost among questions about rules, confusion on pit road and chaos on the track Sunday was just how significant Kyle Larson’s departure from the playoff is.

The owner of four wins this season, Larson was one of the few drivers who typically could race with Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch on the 1.5-mile tracks and some even considered Larson the championship favorite if he made it to Miami.

“I think Kyle Larson was going to be the car to beat, and still will be the car to beat at Homestead,’’ said Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch. “Now that he’s not in the (playoff) mix anymore, it probably opens it up for the rest of us.’’

Said Kevin Harvick: “I think you eliminated the best car at Homestead. That’s a big deal. For everybody.’’

Larson entered Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway with a 29-point cushion before his title hopes ended when his engine blew with nearly 200 laps left. He finished 39th.

“It’s crazy,’’ Cole Pearn, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., said of Larson’s playoff exit. “You can’t ever be safe, for sure.’’

Sunday marked the first time since 2013 that Larson failed to finish a race because of an engine failure. His first two career Cup races ended early because of engine issues that season.

Larson’s departure was as shocking as Busch’s exit in 2014 when he entered the elimination race at Talladega second in the standings with a 25-point cushion to advance to the next round.

Now a spot many presumed would be taken by Larson is open for someone else.

WORK REMAINS

Jimmie Johnson overcame two spins to finish 11th and advance to the Round of 8, moving a step closer to an eighth championship.

Crew chief Chad Knaus, though, wasn’t pleased after Sunday’s race.

On the radio afterward, Knaus said: “That was a pitiful performance.’’

Knaus had more to say after the race, telling NBC Sports:

“We ran like (expletive deleted). It was a bad weekend. We managed to capitalize on some other people’s misfortune, which was great for us. We’ve got some work to do. I don’t know what’s going on. We definitely don’t have the speed that we need.

“Good news is we’ve got three really good race tracks coming up for us, at least historically. Very optimistic heading into Martinsville and going to Homestead this week to test, so hopefully we can hit on some stuff there to take to Texas. We obviously have run well there in the past. Phoenix has been a really good race track for us as well. We’ve got three great opportunities. Just got to do the best.’’

Knaus is right to be concerned. The second round was mistake-riddled for the team.

The pit crew failed to tighten all the lug nuts late in the race at Charlotte, forcing Johnson to back up partially into his stall to remedy the issue, costing him time and positions.

An error by the team’s spotter led to the crew working on Johnson’s damaged car before the red flag period had ended, leading to the team being parked. The team had hoped to run one more lap after being collected in a crash to gain at least one more point.

Then came Kansas’ woes with the lack of speed, an ill-handling car and a seven-time champion causing back-to-back cautions.

“It’s no real surprise that mile-and-a-halves have been a little bit of a struggle for us this year,’’ Johnson said. “We’re putting in the effort. These guys are working around the clock. I’m looking under every stone I can to try to find something as well. We just don’t have the speed yet.

“We’ve got a real opportunity at Martinsville. If we’re able to win there … it sets us up for Homestead.’’

COMMUNICATION WOES

The communication issues Matt Kenseth’s team had Sunday wasn’t the first time for that team and crew chief Jason Ratcliff in the playoffs.

In the penultimate race of the 2013 season, Kenseth struggled all weekend and then had a disastrous pit stop when there was confusion on if the team would change two or four tires. After the call was made for four tires, Kenseth had to back up because the car was on the air hose.

The result was a 23rd-place finish that left Kenseth so far behind Johnson needed only to finish 23rd or better in Miami to win the title. Ratcliff apologized to his crew on the radio after the race for the effort.

Sunday’s scenario was different but communication again proved key and a miscue will keep the team from having a chance to race for a title.

“That’s one thing about that pit stall (closest to pit entrance), makes it difficult,’’ Ratcliff said. “You get to pit road really quick. You have a little less time to communicate. Thankfully, we don’t fall under the damaged vehicle policy that much. Other than last week at Talladega we did. We missed a head count there.’’

So what happened?

“Two of them were holding tires (over the wall),’’ Ratcliff said of crew members. “We have a gameplan. We have a gameplan that has worked really good for us all year and … I don’t know if someone missed the call there or I didn’t communicate properly. Typically, it boils down to communication and that’s what happened there.’’

When Kenseth was told on the radio that he was being parked for having too many crew members work on his car while under the five-minute clock for crash damage, the former champion sounded incredulous that his — last? — chance to win a title ended in such a way.

With no plans announced for next year, there’s no guarantee Kenseth will be racing for a championship again. Now the goal becomes a win.

“We’ve had some great runs at Martinsville and there would be nothing greater than going there and finally getting that win with Matt,’’ Ratcliff said. “That would be special. Would it make up for not having a shot at Homestead? No, but it would be sweet to have that happen with just a few races to go in the season.’’

PIT STOPS

The final eight Cup playoff contenders include four former champions — Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. There has been a first-time champion in three of the last five years, which could be a good sign for playoff drivers Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. … With winning the pole at Kansas, Truex Jr.’s team earned the first pick of pit stalls also at Martinsville this weekend because qualifying is on the same day as the race there.

Memorial service to be held Friday for Furniture Row Racing team member Jim Watson

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A memorial service for Furniture Row Racing crew member Jim Watson will be held Friday in Lincolnton, North Carolina, his family announced Monday.

Watson, who served in a number of roles for both the No. 78 of Martin Truex Jr. and No. 77 of Erik Jones, passed away Saturday night after suffering a heart attack in Kansas City, Kansas, where the teams were preparing for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup race.

Watson was 55.

MORE: Furniture Row Racing crew member dies of heart attack

MORE: Long: Tears turn to cheers for Furniture Row Racing

The memorial will be from 4-6 p.m. ET Friday at the Warlick Funeral Home, 125 Dave Warlick Drive, in Lincolnton.

Watson’s obituary was included in the announcement of the memorial service:

Watson was born Sept. 27, 1962, in Kenosha, Wis., to Betty Paulus Watson and the late David Harrison Watson. He is survived by his wife, Laurie Ann Watson; a daughter, Brittany May Watson; his mother, Betty L. Watson; brother, Mike Watson; stepchildren, Eric James Conover and fiancé Claudia Rodriguez, and Matthew Sean Conover; Michael Patrick Conover, and wife Michele, and Nicholas Ian Conover; three grandchildren, Patrick Michael Conover, Michael Winston Conover, and Coleton Daniel Conover; nieces, Jennifer Watson and Katie J. Ballou; and many other uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that memorials be made to hatsalive.org.