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.

Drivers to watch in Clash at the Coliseum

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The 2023 NASCAR season will begin with Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the second race on a purpose-built track inside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Although a non-points race, last year’s Clash generated intense interest as NASCAR moved the event from its long-time home at Daytona International Speedway to Los Angeles. The race was rated a success and opened doors for the possibility of future races in stadium environments.

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

MORE: Toyota looking to expand NASCAR presence

Year Two will find drivers competing on a familiar landscape but still with a track freshly paved. Last year’s racing surface was removed after the Clash.

Drivers to watch Sunday at Los Angeles:

FRONTRUNNERS

Joey Logano

  • Points position: Finished 2022 as Cup champion
  • Last three races: Won at Phoenix, 6th at Martinsville, 18th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Won in 2022

Logano put bookends on 2022 by winning the first Clash at the Coliseum and the season’s final race at Phoenix to win the Cup championship. He’ll be among the favorites Sunday.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 2nd in 2022
  • Last three races: 3rd at Phoenix, 4th at Martinsville, 2nd at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Did not qualify last year

Chastain was the breakout star of 2022, winning a pair of races and generally putting himself front and center across much of the year. Can he start 2023 on a big note? If so, he will have to do so without replicating his Hail Melon move at Martinsville after NASCAR outlawed the move Tuesday.

Kevin Harvick

  • Points position: 15th in 2022
  • Last three races: 5th at Phoenix, 16th at Martinsville, 8th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 10th in 2022

Sunday will begin the final roundup for Harvick, who has said this season will be his last as a full-time Cup driver. He is likely to come out of the gate with fire in his eyes.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 13th in 2022
  • Last three races: 7th at Phoenix, 29th at Martinsville, 9th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 2nd in 2022

Welcome to Kyle Busch’s Brave New World. After 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, he begins a new segment of his career with Richard Childress Racing. He led 64 laps at last year’s Clash but couldn’t catch Joey Logano at the end.

Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 14th in 2022
  • Last three races: 23rd at Phoenix, 35th at Martinsville, 35th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 21st in 2022

Reddick ran surprisingly strong in last year’s Clash, leading 51 laps before parking with drivetrain issues. He starts the new year with a new ride — at 23XI Racing.

Ty Gibbs

  • Points position: Won Xfinity Series championship in 2022
  • Last three (Cup) races: 19th at Martinsville, 22nd at Homestead, 22nd at Las Vegas
  • Past at Clash: Did not compete in 2022

After a successful — and controversial — Xfinity season, Gibbs moves up to Cup full-time with his grandfather’s team. Will he be the brash young kid of 2022 or a steadier driver in Season One in Cup?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interstate Batteries extends sponsorship with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Interstate Batteries, which has been a Joe Gibbs Racing sponsor since the team’s first race, has expanded its involvement with the team for 2023.

Interstate, based in Dallas, will be a primary JGR sponsor for 13 races, up from six races, the number it typically sponsored each year since 2008.

Christopher Bell and Ty Gibbs will run the majority of Interstate’s sponsorship races, but Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. also will carry the sponsor colors.

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

“We’re extremely proud of our partnership with our founding sponsor, Interstate Batteries,” said team owner Joe Gibbs in a statement released by the team. “They have been such an important part of our team for over three decades now, and it’s exciting to have them on board all four of our cars this season. The best part of our partnership is the relationships we’ve built with everyone there over the years.”

Bell will carry Interstate sponsorship in Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the All-Star Race May 21, the Coca-Cola 600 May 28, at Texas Motor Speedway Sept. 24 and at Martinsville Oct. 29.

Gibbs, in his first full season in Cup racing, will be sponsored by Interstate at Daytona Feb. 19, Bristol April 9, Nashville June 25, Chicago July 2, Texas Sept. 24 and Charlotte Oct. 8.

Hamlin will ride with Interstate sponsorship March 26 at Circuit of the Americas, and Truex will be sponsored by Interstate July 23 at Pocono.

Interstate was a key JGR sponsor in the team’s first season in 1992.

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023 season

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR announced a series of rule changes for the 2023 season that includes outlawing the move Ross Chastain made at Martinsville and eliminating stage breaks at all six Cup road course events.

NASCAR announced the changes in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

Among new things for this season:

  • Updated penalty for a wheel coming off a car.
  • Change to the amount of time teams have to repair cars on pit road via the Damaged Vehicle Policy.
  • Change to playoff eligibility for drivers.
  • Cars could run in wet weather conditions on short ovals.
  • Expansion of the restart zone on a trial basis.
  • Choose rule will be in place for more races.

MORE: Ranking top 10 moments at the Clash

NASCAR updated its policy on a loose wheel. Previously, if a wheel came off a car during an event, it would be a four-race suspension for the crew chief and two pit crew members. That has changed this year.

If a wheel comes off a car while the vehicle is still on pit road, the vehicle restarts at the tail end of the field. If a wheel comes off a vehicle while it is on pit road under green-flag conditions, it is a pass-thru penalty.

The rule changes once a vehicle has left pit road and loses a wheel.

Any vehicle that loses a wheel on the track will be penalized two laps and have two pit crew members suspended for two races. The suspensions will go to those most responsible for the wheel coming off. This change takes away a suspension to the crew chief. The policy is the same for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

With some pit crew members working multiple series, the suspension is only for that series. So, if a pit crew member is suspended two races in the Xfinity Series for a wheel coming off, they can still work the Cup race the following day.

The Damaged Vehicle Policy clock will be 7 minutes this season. It had been six minutes last year and was increased to 10 minutes during the playoffs. After talking with teams, NASCAR has settled on seven minutes for teams to make repairs on pit road or be eliminated. Teams can replace toe links on pit road but not control arms. Teams also are not permitted to have specialized repair tools in the pits.

NASCAR will have a wet weather package for select oval tracks: the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Lucas Oil Raceway Park, Martinsville, Milwaukee, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix and Richmond.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said that teams have been told to show up at these events prepared for wet weather conditions as they would at a road course. That includes having a windshield wiper. Wet weather tires will be available. 

“Our goal here is to get back to racing as soon as possible,” Swayer said. “… If there’s an opportunity for us to get some cars or trucks on the racetrack and speed up that (track-drying) process and we can get back to racing, that’s what our goal is. We don’t want to be racing in full-blown rain (at those tracks) and we’ve got spray like we would on a road course.”

NASCAR stated that it is removing the requirement that a winning driver be in the top 30 in points in Cup or top 20 in Xfinity or Trucks to become eligible for the playoffs. As long as a driver is competing full-time — or has a waiver for the races they missed, a win will make them playoff eligible.

With the consultation of drivers, NASCAR is expanding the restart zone to give the leader more room to take off. NASCAR said it will evaluate if to keep this in place after the Atlanta race in March.

NASCAR stated the choose rule will be in effect for superspeedways and dirt races.

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR will do away with stage breaks in all six Cup road course races and select Xfinity and Truck races this season, but teams will continue to score stage points. 

NASCAR announced the change Tuesday in a session with reporters at the NASCAR R&D Center. 

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR stated there will be no stage breaks in the Cup road course events at Circuit of the Americas (March 26), Sonoma (June 11), Chicago street course (July 2), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13), Watkins Glen (Aug. 20) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8).

There will be no stage breaks for Xfinity races at Circuit of the Americas (March 25), Sonoma (June 10), Chicago street course (July 1), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 12), Watkins Glen (Aug. 19) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7).

There will be no stage breaks for the Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas (March 25).

In those races, stage points will be awarded on a designated lap, but there will be no green-and-checkered flag and the racing will continue.

The only road course events that will have stage breaks will be Xfinity standalone races at Portland (June 3) and Road America (July 29) and the Truck standalone race at Mid-Ohio (July 8). Those events will keep stage breaks because they have non-live pit stops — where the field comes down pit road together and positions cannot be gained or lost provided the stop is completed in the prescribed time by NASCAR.

NASCAR has faced questions from fans and competitors about stage breaks during road course races because those breaks alter strategy in a more defined manner than on most ovals.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said the move away from stage breaks at road courses was made in collaboration with teams and response from fans.

“When we introduced stage racing … we took an element of strategy away from the event,” Sawyer. “Felt this (change) would bring some new storylines (in an event).”

NASCAR instituted stage breaks and stage points for the 2017 season and has kept the system in place since. NASCAR awards a playoff point to the stage winner along with 10 points. The top 10 at the end of a stage score points.

It wasn’t uncommon for many teams to elect to pit before the first stage in a road course race and eschew points to put themselves in better track position for the final two stages. By pitting early, they would be behind those who stayed out to collect the stage points. At the stage break, those who had yet to pit would do so, allowing those who stopped before the break to leapfrog back to the front.