As NASCAR transitions to its next generation, today’s younger drivers not only are asked to perform on the track but show personality off it.
TV, Snapchat, podcasts and other forms of social media are viewed by some as intently as lap times. Social media elements have gained importance as fans look for someone to cheer with Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart having retired, Dale Earnhardt Jr. doing so at the end of this season and several other popular drivers likely not racing within the next five years.
To help his fans, Earnhardt recently listed 10 drivers they should consider following once he retires.
The youngsters on the list included Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Daniel Suarez.
Each has showcased their personality.
— Blaney has a podcast and has shared various adventures with Darrell Wallace Jr. on social media
— Dillon is the sports fan who wears the cowboy hat.
— Elliott, while more reserved, is well-known to fans who have followed the sport for years and watched him grow.
— Larson has said he’s the last true racer and lamented the frayed connection between NASCAR and grassroots racing.
— Stenhouse, although known more to some as Danica Patrick’s boyfriend, also has shown his love of sprint car racing and his fun side on social media.
— Suarez’s effusive manner makes it easy to see his personality.
One young driver on Earnhardt’s list who could be a mystery to some is Erik Jones.
Yes, fans have seen him since 2013 — when he won a Truck race at Phoenix at age 17 and became the youngest winner in series history at the time. He won the 2015 Truck title and become the youngest series champion at age 19. He was the rookie of the year last season in the Xfinity Series and vies for that title this year in Cup.
Yes, he’s been around, but who is Erik Jones? That’s a question Earnhardt would like to see Jones reveal.
“Super fast, raw speed — he’s got it,’’ Earnhardt said on his podcast, the Dale Jr. Download. “Great talent … He’s wearing this mullet so he kind of knows how to pick on himself and doesn’t take himself too seriously. I think he has a great personality. I would encourage him to show that more.
“When I’m around him at the race track, you do see a very, very focused, game-face kind of guy. But there is a side of him that’s the complete opposite that I think he could probably show the fans more to give them an opportunity to get to know him. But I think there’s going to be great things for Erik Jones in his future.”
Coming off a career-best third-place finish last weekend at Pocono, Jones is starting to show more of his personality. He recently tweeted a picture of his growing mullet.
“Why did I choose to grow it? I don’t know,’’ Jones said. “That’s a good question. It’s not something that was thought out. It was more spontaneous. I just didn’t feel like getting a hair cut for a long time. I guess I feel like it’s kind of a waste of time. It takes a lot of time for some reason to get your hair cut.’’
A cousin, who cuts hair, was at his recent birthday party. He asked her to cut it into a mullet and she did.
So, he’s trying.
But while Earnhardt would like to see more personality from Jones, the driver admits it’s difficult.
“When I’m with my friends and families, I’m hanging out and having a good time and laughing and joking, but when you get to the race track, I’ve always been pretty focused,’’ he said. “It’s been a little bit hard for me to relax when I’m here because I don’t feel it is a time to relax, but a time to get to work. I think there’s a time and place for it. I’m trying to find that balance.’’
While he does, he’s also looking for better results. In a season that has seen Blaney, Dillon and Stenhouse each score their first career Cup win, Jones searches for his.
The Michigan native has scored two top-10 finishes in the last three Cup races heading into Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway.
Such performances could put him closer to his first career Cup victory.
“We took a big leap in that direction of getting closer to being able to do it (at Pocono),’’ Jones said. “I think once you kind of get up there and run in that position, hopefully, it comes a little bit easier as time goes on.’’
And then maybe he’ll feel comfortable displaying more of that personality Earnhardt praises.
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