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.

Will chaos (and rain) reign on Daytona road course?

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The biggest unknown for Sunday’s inaugural Cup race on the Daytona road course?

Ryan Newman says “there are so many unknowns that it would be fabricating for me to tell you if I knew what the biggest unknown was.”

But with all the uncertainties heading into the race (3 p.m. ET on NBC) on a new course for Cup teams — and no practice — Newman is counting on one near certainty.

“I hope it rains,” he said. “I hope you add in the extra that we have to bolt on rain tires and we get something that is just spectacular. I hope that. The reality is that could be the biggest unknown that we have. We’re in Central Florida in the middle of August when it pretty much rains every day. We’ll see. I don’t know. I look forward to it.”

Good chance he gets his wish.

The wunderground.com forecast for Sunday calls for scattered thunderstorms throughout the afternoon. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:24 p.m. ET. There is a 58% chance of scattered thunderstorms at that time.

Will rain tires be needed for Sunday’s Cup race on the Daytona road course? They’ll be available. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Goodyear will bring rain tires for the weekend and teams will run in the rain, provided it is not a downpour and there is not lightning within an 8-mile radius of the track. Cup teams have never run a race on rain tires.

Only three times in Cup history have rain tires been employed. Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin used them in a test in 1995 at Watkins Glen. Teams practiced and qualified on rain tires at Suzuka in 1997 for the exhibition race in Japan. Rain tires were last used in Cup for a practice session at Watkins Glen in 2000.

Rain or shine, the task of racing on a new course without practice will be challenging enough for competitors.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being difficult, this is a 10,” Kurt Busch told NBC Sports.

“I’m excited for the challenge, the uniqueness of it all, how it’s just crazy, basically.”

MORE: Starting lineup for Sunday’s Cup race

Said Chase Elliott, who won last year’s race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval after crashing: I’ve never entered a race where you literally just have no idea what to expect.

Patience will be key. But not all 39 drivers will practice that equally when the green flag waves.

“I’ve got laps around that track without the extra chicane but that doesn’t mean I won’t haul off into Turn 1 and blow through the grass,” Newman said. “You don’t know. It will be more patience than aggressiveness I promise you by pretty much everyone. Those that don’t, you’ll notice.”

Kevin Harvick, who swept the Cup races at Michigan last weekend, will lead the field into Turn 1 and he’s not sure what to expect.

“I think me leading everybody into Turn 1 at Daytona could be interesting because I have no freaking clue where I’m going as we go down there,” he said. “Most everybody in the field is the same way.”

Turn 1 on the Daytona road course is a left-hand turn off the frontstretch just past pit exit. That begins the six-turn infield portion of the 3.61-mile course before cars return to the oval in what is its Turn 1. 

Teams stay on the oval through the backstretch before turning into the chicane there and going back on to the oval. A chicane was added off what is Turn 4 on the oval to help slow the cars before returning to the infield portion of the course. That was done for fear that the high speeds would wear the brakes over the race.

“I think it’s going to take everybody a little bit of time,” Matt Kenseth told NBC Sports. “I think there are going to be some people who have raced road courses a lot that probably feel more confident than others and possibly be overzealous and just charging it hard right away, and there’s probably going to be other people who are careful and see how many people slide into things. … It should be really interesting. If I was a fan, I’d be all about not having practice.”

Here are Cup drivers entered for Sunday’s race who have competed on the Daytona road course (overall finish)

Clint Bowyer 2013 Rolex 24 (finished 16th)

Kurt Busch — 2005 Rolex 24 (27th), 2008 Rolex 24 (3rd)

Kyle Busch — 2009 Brumos Porsche 250 (10th), 2020 Rolex 24 (26th),

Cole Custer — 2018 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge (3rd), 2019 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge (9th)

James Davison — 2014 Rolex 24 (48th), 2015 Rolex 24 (29th), 2016 Rolex 24 (44th), 

Kevin Harvick — 2002 Rolex 24 (69th)

Timmy Hill — 2012 Rolex 24 (51st)

Jimmie Johnson — 2004 Rolex 24 (28th), 2005 Rolex 24 (2nd), 2007 Rolex 24 (36th), 2008 Rolex 24  (2nd), 2009 Rolex 24 (7th), 2010 Rolex 24 (21st), 2011 Rolex 24 (15th)

Matt Kenseth — 2005 Rolex 24 (27th), 2006 IROC race (10th)

Michael McDowell — 2005 Rolex 24 (42nd), 2007 Rolex 24 (10th), 2008 Rolex 24 (15th), 2011 Rolex 24 (7th), 2012 Rolex 24 (3rd)

Ryan Newman — 2006 IROC race (3rd)

Martin Truex Jr. — 2006 IROC race (6th)

Hailie Deegan: Road courses are ‘one of my stronger suits’

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Many drivers will be navigating the Daytona road course for the first time this weekend.

Hailie Deegan is not one of them.

Deegan, who competes in the ARCA Menards Series, will be in the field when the series takes to the 14-turn, 3.61-mile circuit for practice and a race Friday evening (5 p.m. ET on Trackpass).

“I’m pretty excited because this was not one of the races we had planned on our schedule,” Deegan told NBCSN’s Kelli Stavast earlier this week. “At the beginning of the year I saw all the races, obviously to see which ones you’re looking forward to, like your favorites and stuff and obviously this on wasn’t on there.  … I like road courses. I raced at Sonoma about twice (in ARCA Menards West). I was decent there, I qualified on the pole one of the times (2019) there against a lot of good drivers. It was a confirmation that, ‘Ok, we’re decent at road courses.'”

Deegan, who enters the race fourth in the point standings behind Michael Self, first got a shot at the road course at the beginning of the year. As a Ford development driver, she took part in multiple days of testing before competing in a Michelin Pilot Challenge race in a GT4 Mustang.

“I would not say I’m perfect at road courses,” Deegan said. “But I feel that’s one of my stronger suits. I’m trying to learn this whole stock car world. Circle track, everything like that, that’s all been a foreign concept. So everything I’m learning I’m learning for the first time. But when we go back to road courses, I grew up in go karting, I grew up racing off-road trucks on courses where you turn right and left. So that’s not a foreign concept to me. So I feel more comfortable on road courses, especially with us only getting an hour of practice and all the time I have on that track.

“I have so many days of practice from the beginning of the year on that track. Obviously, it’s a different car, a GT4 Mustang.  … It’s easy to drive, but hard to be fast in an IMSA car. (While) the stock cars are harder to drive, but you have that experience, I feel like you can have a little bit of an advantage over people.”

With eight races left in the season, Deegan will try to take that advantage to victory lane for his first career ARCA win. The last time she visited Daytona in February, she finished second in the season opener to Self.

NASCAR’s weekend schedule for Daytona road course

Daytona road course
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For the first time this weekend, NASCAR will compete on the Daytona road course.

All three of NASCAR’s national series and the ARCA Menards Series will take to the 14-turn, 3.61-mile circuit, culminating in Sunday’s Cup Series race.

This weekend takes the place of the race at Watkins Glen International for Cup and Xfinity.

Kevin Harvick will start on the pole for Sunday’s Cup race. Austin Cindric will lead the Xfinity field to green on Saturday.

Here is the weekend schedule for the Daytona road course.

(All times Eastern)

Thursday, Aug. 13

10:30 a.m. – ARCA driver-spotter-crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

11 – 11:30 a.m. – ARCA rookie meeting (teleconference)

11:30 a.m. – Noon – ARCA crew chief meeting (teleconference)

3 – 4 p.m. – ARCA haulers enter (screening in progress)

5:30 – 7:30 p.m. – Driver motorhome parking (screening in progress)

 

Friday, Aug. 14

9 a.m. – ARCA garage opens

9 a.m. – 4 p.m. – ARCA garage access screening in progress

2 – 3 p.m. – ARCA practice

3:30 p.m. – Xfinity rookie meeting (electronic communication)

4 p.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

4:50 p.m. – ARCA drivers report to their cars

5 p.m. – ARCA race; 28 laps/101.08 miles miles (MAVTV, Motor Racing Network)

6 p.m. – Truck Series driver-crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

7:30 p.m. – ARCA haulers exit

 

Saturday, Aug. 15

6 – 8:30 a.m. – Xfinity haulers enter (screening and equipment upload)

8:30 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

8:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. – Garage screening in progress

2 – 4 p.m. – Truck Series haulers enter (screening in progress and equipment unload)

2:50 p.m. – Xfinity drivers report to cars

3 p.m. – Xfinity race; 52 laps/187.72 miles (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

4 – 7 p.m. – Truck Series garage access screening in progress

4 – 8 p.m. – Truck Series garage open

4:30 – 5 p.m. – Truck Series rookie meeting (teleconference)

4:30 p.m. – Cup rookie meeting (electronic communication)

5 p.m. – Cup driver-crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

5:30 p.m. – Xfinity haulers exit

 

Sunday, Aug. 16

6 – 8 a.m. – Cup haulers enter (screening in progress and equipment unload)

8 a.m. – Cup garage opens

8 a.m. – 2 p.m.  – Cup garage access screening in progress

9 a.m. – Truck Series garage opens

9 – 11 a.m. – Truck Series garage access screening in progress

11:40 a.m. – Truck Series drivers report to vehicles

Noon – Truck Series race; 44 laps/158.85 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

2:30 p.m. – Truck Series haulers exit

2:50 p.m. – Cup drivers report to cars

3 p.m. – Cup race; 65 laps/234.65 miles (NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

6:30 p.m. – Cup haulers exit

NASCAR updates its COVID-19 guidelines

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NASCAR issued an update to teams to the sanctioning body’s COVID-19 guidelines this week.

If after 10 days, a NASCAR member is unable to produce two negative PCR tests, their return status may be medically reviewed by a NASCAR Consulting physician. Previously, a NASCAR member needed to have two negative tests more than 24 hours apart and a note from their physician to be cleared to compete.

MORE: Spencer Davis cleared to race after COVID-19 recovery

Truck Series driver Spencer Davis is the third driver to be cleared to resume racing after a positive test. He missed last week’s race at Michigan. Jimmie Johnson missed the Indianapolis race in July after a positive test. Brendan Gaughan is racing this weekend for the first time since he tested positive for COVID-19 in July.

NASCAR cites new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with updating the sport’s COVID-19 guidelines.

“As we’ve said since our return, NASCAR’s health and safety plans will continue to evolve, with the goal remaining the same – a safe event for both our competitors and the communities in which we race,” said John Bobo, NASCAR vice president, racing operations, in a statement. “NASCAR will continue to implement and execute a comprehensive plan to ensure the health and safety of our competitors and the surrounding communities.”

Here are NASCAR’s updated COVID-19 guidelines:

Confirmed Positive Cases – Symptomatic and Asymptomatic Cases. Confirmed positive cases may return to racing activities after they have received two negative test results taken at least 24 hours apart.

A. If after 10 days, a NASCAR Member is unable to produce two negative PCR tests, their return status may be medically reviewed by a NASCAR Consulting physician.

  • New CDC guidance of July 22, 2020, recommends discontinuing PCR testing after the conclusion of the 10-day isolation period for the onset symptoms for the initial COVID-19 infection, if a person is fever-free for a minimum of 24 hours without the use of medication.
  • Please note: Based on advice from consulting physicians, NASCAR counts the 10 days from the date of the first positive PCR test for COVID-19.
  • In its guidance, CDC research indicates that in no instances yet discovered has there been a case where the virus is able to self-replicate beyond the 10th day following a positive test among individuals who are not immunosuppressed and did not have severe disease (e.g. requiring ICU stay or ventilation), so an individual in this situation poses no harm to others.  In the event that the individual continues to be tested, it is very likely that the individual will continue to return positive results.
  • Based on this new CDC guidance, NASCAR consulting physicians would review the individual’s situation and determine if they appropriately fit the CDC requirements before being allowed to return to racing without two negative PCR tests.

B. They must also have written clearance from their personal physician to resume all racing activity.

Confirmed exposure to a positive COVID-19 person. Those exposed individuals are required to stand-down from competition and self-isolate. They may return to racing activities after they have received one negative test. NASCAR in its discretion may request a second test for clearance based on the nature of the exposure. Please note: a confirmed exposure is based on a totality of the circumstances as determined by NASCAR in consultation with their consulting physicians. Analysis will include: identifying people exposed over the last 10 days, accumulated time greater than 10 minutes, direct skin contact (shaking hands, etc.), lack of social distancing and the level of PPE use among the individuals involved in the contact.