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.

Bump & Run: Should NASCAR further penalize Johnny Sauter?

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If you were NASCAR, would you give Johnny Sauter and Austin Hill any additional penalties for their incidents at Iowa Speedway? 

Nate Ryan: A points penalty for Sauter that would be on par with what Jeff Gordon received for wrecking Clint Bowyer at Phoenix in November 2012 (because that seems the most analogous situation to this, other than the crash happening under yellow rather than green).

Dustin Long: My initial reaction was to suspend Sauter, but then I went the opposite way and thought no further penalties should be issued because Sauter already had been penalized by being parked and finishing 27th in the 32-truck field. I finally decided upon points and a fine, which is outlined in the rulebook. While NASCAR lists intentionally wrecking someone as an infraction that could result in the loss of 25-50 points and a fine of $12,5000 to $25,000, I’d dock Sauter 40 points and fine him $20,000 because his retaliation happened under caution. Some might suggest NASCAR suspend Sauter but still allow him to compete in the playoffs (even though a prerequisite is attempting to start each regular-season event). That sounds like a waiver and that is not the intent of the waiver. While NASCAR can do whatever it wants, suspending a driver and then altering its rules so the suspension doesn’t prohibit a driver from competing in the playoffs would not be a good look. The requirement on playoff eligibility should be updated. 

Daniel McFadin: Sauter should be suspended for a race; he used his truck as a weapon on a defenseless truck under caution. But the suspension shouldn’t count against his playoff eligibility. He’s already made the playoffs. I support a provision that prevents taking that spot away. That should only be done if a winning vehicle fails inspection in the same race you clinched the playoff spot. If Hill receives any penalties it should just be a fine at the most. NASCAR will use their run-in for marketing for years to come, so no need to overdo it.

Jerry Bonkowski: There is precedent here: Sauter’s ramming Hill is a virtual carbon copy of Kyle Busch slamming into Ron Hornaday Jr. at Texas back in 2011. The penalty Busch received should be what Sauter receives: a $50,000 fine, probation until the end of the year, and if Sauter is involved in any other incidents this season, he should be suspended and become ineligible for the playoffs.

It’s Tuesday and there is still some question as to who won Sunday’s Truck race with Ross Chastain’s team appealing the NASCAR decision to take the win away after Chastain’s truck failed inspection. The issue is expected to be resolved by this week. Is this still the best way for NASCAR to address such issues with inspection after a race? 

Nate Ryan: Yes. There is no confusion: Brett Moffitt’s team was awarded the win, and Ross Chastain’s team has an opportunity to challenge it. Similar to the courts system, a ruling already has been made. Prior to NASCAR’s change in philosophy this year, the ruling on a win’s validity (even if it wasn’t stripped) was withheld for a few days. This is a better system.

Dustin Long: This is still way better than the old system where you might not know there was a different winner because of an infraction until Tuesday. At least this way everyone knew on Sunday. Got to let the appeal process take its course but at least everything will be resolved this week instead weeks later as could happen previously.

Daniel McFadin: Yes, it is the best way. No one wants a winner disqualification to first be announced mid-week. This accelerates the appeals process to where a final judgement can be settled upon before the race weekend begins. The fact that this is the first winner disqualification or disqualification in general through five months means the new system is having some sort of impact. This might not be something that happens often.

Jerry Bonkowski: NASCAR may have painted itself into a corner with taking the win away from Chastain. The reason is simple: how did his Truck pass pre-race inspection, yet failed post-race inspection? Did something break on his truck, which caused its ride height in the front end to fall below standards? Did it happen because of contact in the race? Is that Chastain’s fault? And what happens if Chastain wins his appeal? Then what? Unless NASCAR has iron-clad evidence that Chastain’s team cheated, if officials jumped the gun, Chastain’s win should be reinstated and policies and procedures should be reviewed and changed.

They ran both the Truck and Xfinity race on the same day at Iowa Speedway after the Truck race was postponed to Sunday because of rain Saturday night. Atlanta already hosts a Truck/Xfinity doubleheader. Should there be more of these doubleheaders with these two series or keep them limited so they remain unique?

Nate Ryan: It’s an idea worthy of merit; the quantity won’t affect their appeal. It mostly should depend on whether it makes sense for NASCAR, the tracks and the TV networks.

Dustin Long: Originally Iowa was to be a one-day show for the Trucks and they got held over because of rain and spent two days at Iowa. I think there are some cases for one-day shows for Trucks to save costs. Doubleheaders are fine but should be done when it makes sense not only for fans but for teams.

Daniel McFadin: Bring on more doubleheaders. It shortens the weekend and gives more bang for a fan’s buck with one full day of racing. Also, the Truck Series primarily competes on Friday nights, when most people are not staying in to watch TV. Putting them on a Saturday before or after an Xfinity race or on a Sunday before a Cup race (like at Martinsville in 2018 after a rain and snow delay) provides a better opportunity for fans at the track and at home to see the Truck Series. We’ll get to see a version of this next year with the Cup Series doubleheader weekend at Pocono. 

Jerry Bonkowski: Yes, yes, yes. This is the perfect example of why NASCAR should add more doubleheaders to its schedule. Not only do fans get more bang for their buck, the Truck and Xfinity Series will get more appreciation from race fans of one series who typically may not pay attention to the other series. The excitement we saw in both races is definitely a precursor of even more to come if NASCAR elects to add more twinbills.

Preliminary entry lists for Cup at Sonoma, Trucks at Gateway

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After a week off, the NASCAR Cup Series is back in action this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, just north of San Francisco.

Meanwhile, the Gander Outdoors Truck Series will compete at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis.

The Xfinity Series enjoys this weekend off before it returns at Chicagoland Speedway on June 29.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for this weekend’s Cup and Truck races:

Cup – Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3 p.m. ET Sunday on FS1)

There are 38 cars entered for the race around the twisting road course in Napa Valley’s wine country.

JJ Yeley will make his second Cup start of the season, driving the No. 51 Petty Ware Racing Ford.

Cody Ware will be back in the No. 52 Ford for Rick Ware Racing.

Justin Haley will make his second career Cup start, piloting the No. 77 Chevrolet for Spire Motorsports.

NASCAR on NBC analyst Parker Kligerman will make his seventh start of the Cup season in the No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota.

Click here for the preliminary entry list.

 

Trucks – Gateway 200 (10 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

A total of 31 trucks are entered in this race.

There is no driver listed yet for the No. 0 Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing Chevrolet.

Camden Murphy makes his second start of the season, driving the No. 8 Nemco Motorsports Chevrolet.

Daniel Sasnett makes his second start of the season, piloting the No. 32 Reaume Brothers Racing Chevrolet.

Bryant Barnhill makes his first start of the season and second of his Truck career in the No. 34 Reaume Brothers Racing Chevrolet.

Kyle Benjamin makes his third start of the season, driving the No. 45 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet.

Following his Truck Series debut at Iowa, Chandler Smith will drive the No. 46 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota.

Christian Eckes makes his second Truck start of the season, piloting the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota.

Click here for the preliminary entry list.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Five Cup or Xfinity drivers to compete in Saturday’s K&N West race at Sonoma

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Drivers in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West will have some extra company in Saturday’s Procore 200 race (4:30 p.m. ET) at Sonoma Raceway.

Five drivers from either the Cup or Xfinity series will take part in the event:

* Driving for road course powerhouse Jefferson Pitts Racing, Austin Dillon will make his 20th career K&N Pro Series start, his third at Sonoma (first since 2015). In prior races at the road course, he’s finished 22nd and sixth.

* Also driving for JPR will be current Cup rookie Ryan Preece, who will be making his first career K&N West start and first race start at Sonoma.

* Daniel Hemric will make his first K&N West start and fourth overall series start (first since 2015 at Watkins Glen). He has also never raced at Sonoma.

* Xfinity Series driver Cole Custer will be making third series start at Sonoma (previous finishes were ninth and 12th).

* Lastly, Noah Gragson will be teammates with Dillon and Preece at JPR and will be making his third appearance at Sonoma, finishing second in 2016 and seventh in 2015.

The K&N Series has long had a history of having Cup or Xfinity drivers take part at Sonoma. Over the last five seasons, that has included Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, William Byron, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Alex Bowman.

Appeal hearing for Niece Motorsports set for Wednesday morning

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NASCAR announced that the appeal for Niece Motorsports will be heard at 9 a.m. ET Wednesday.

The Gander Outdoors Truck Series team took the checkered flag first with driver Ross Chastain on Sunday at Iowa Speedway only to have the victory taken away when the truck failed inspection after the race.

Brad Moran, managing director of the Gander Outdoors Truck Series said after the race: “We have a procedures and rules in place, trucks are restricted on their ride heights at the front and rear of the vehicles. Unfortunately, the 44 (Chastain’s truck) was low on the front, extremely low.

“We have a process of what happens at that point. They do get an opportunity to roll around. They put fuel in the vehicle, they air the tires. Give them at least five to 10 minutes. Check them a second time. Unfortunately, the 44 did not rise on the front at all.”

The team stated it would appeal and blamed “minor damage during the event” for the truck being too low.

When NASCAR announced before this season that winning vehicles that didn’t pass inspection would have the win taken away, series officials also announced an expedited appeals process.

That will allow the appeal to be completed this week before the Truck Series races this weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway. Unlike other appeals, where a team or individual can appeal a penalty and then appeal again if they lose the first appeal, there is just one appeal hearing in an expedited matter.