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.

Rodney Childers fined $100,000, suspended for four races

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NASCAR has suspended Rodney Childers, Kevin Harvick‘s crew chief, for four races and fined him $100,000 for what the sanctioning body called modification of a part supplied by a vendor.

Harvick, who is out of the Cup Series playoffs, and the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 team were docked 100 points.

Harvick’s car and that of Martin Truex Jr. were taken to NASCAR’s Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C. after last Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway. There were no penalties assessed to the Truex team.

Harvick has been particularly critical of the Next Gen car in recent months, once referring to the “crappy-ass parts” provided by suppliers.

Harvick’s car erupted in flames during the Southern 500 Sept. 4 at Darlington Raceway. After he climbed from the smoking car, Harvick blamed the fire on “just crappy parts on the race car like we’ve seen so many times. They haven’t fixed anything. It’s kind of like the safety stuff. We just let it keep going and keep going.

“The car started burning and as it burned the flames started coming through the dash. I ran a couple laps and then as the flame got bigger it started burning stuff up and I think right there you see all the brake fluid that was probably coming out the brakes and part of the brake line, but the fire was coming through the dash.

“What a disaster for no reason. We didn’t touch the wall. We didn’t touch a car, and here we are in the pits with a burned-up car, and we can’t finish the race during the playoffs because of crappy-ass parts.”

MORE: AJ Allmendinger to return to Cup Series in 2023

Unless the team appeals, Childers would miss races at Charlotte, Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville and would return for the season finale at Phoenix.

NASCAR president Steve Phelps told the Associated Press that officials have not targeted Harvick. “I would say that’s ridiculous,” he said. “No one has a vendetta against Kevin Harvick or Rodney or anyone at Stewart-Haas Racing.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Harvick tweeted, “Seems strange…” A Childers tweet called the penalty “Shocker…..”.

NASCAR also announced Wednesday it has suspended Young’s Motorsports crew chief Andrew Abbott indefinitely for a behavioral violation during pre-race inspection. He must undergo anger-management training to be reinstated. The team races in the Camping World Truck Series.

Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup Series race at Charlotte Roval

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The lineup for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs Round of 8 will be decided in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

Entering the race, the final event in the Round of 12, Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman are below the cutline. Bowman will miss the race — and thus the cutoff — as he continues to battle concussion-like symptoms. Noah Gragson is scheduled to drive the No. 48 Chevrolet Sunday.

Cindric is tied with Chase Briscoe for the eighth playoff spot, but Briscoe would claim it on the tiebreaker. Byron is 11 points back, and Bell is 33. Hendrick Motorsports has appealed the penalty to Byron that dropped him below the cutline. That appeal is scheduled to be heard Thursday.

MORE: Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

Any playoff driver who wins Sunday’s race and isn’t already qualified — Chase Elliott qualified for the Round of 8 by winning last week at Talladega Superspeedway — automatically advances to the Round of 8.

Drivers to watch Sunday at the Roval (2 p.m., ET, NBC), the final road-course race of the season:

FRONTRUNNERS

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 1st
  • Last three races: Won at Talladega, 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Won in 2019 and 2020

Elliott is the clear favorite to win a second championship. He won Sunday at Talladega to advance to the Round of 8 and can relax Sunday at Charlotte having punched his ticket. Relaxing isn’t likely, however, as Elliott will be among the favorites to win.

Ryan Blaney

  • Points position: 2nd
  • Last three races: 2nd at Talladega, 4th at Texas, 30th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Won in 2018.

Blaney continues along a path that could result in him winning the Cup championship without winning a race. He came within an eyelash of winning Sunday at Talladega but fell victim to Chase Elliott’s last-lap charge. He should be a threat Sunday at the Roval, where he has four straight top 10s.

Kyle Larson

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 18th at Talladega, 9th at Texas, 5th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Won in 2021

Larson’s last win — and his last top-four finish — came at Watkins Glen seven races ago. He is 18 points over the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Austin Cindric

  • Points position: 9th
  • Last three races: 9th at Talladega, 15th at Texas, 20th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Sunday will mark his first Cup race. Has three top threes in four Xfinity starts.

Cindric hasn’t won since the season-opening Daytona 500 and is one of five drivers still in the playoffs who own only one victory this year. His ninth-place run at Talladega ended a streak of four straight finishes of 12th or worse.

MORE: NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

Daniel Suarez

  • Points position: 7th
  • Last three races: 8th at Talladega, 12th at Texas, 19th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Best finish in four starts is 13th

Suarez is 12 points above the cutline entering Sunday’s race. He has never led a lap at the Roval and has never finished in the top 10.

Chase Briscoe

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 10th at Talladega, 5th at Texas, 14th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Finished 22nd last year in his only Cup start

Briscoe is teetering on top of the cutline in search of a spot in the Round of 8. He hasn’t won since the fourth race of the year at Phoenix and had a poor performance at the Roval last year.

 

 

AJ Allmendinger to return to NASCAR Cup Series in 2023

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AJ Allmendinger is getting another shot at success in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Kaulig Racing announced Wednesday that Allmendinger, currently chasing the Xfinity Series championship, will drive full-time in Kaulig entries in the Cup Series next season.

Allmendinger raced in Cup from 2007 to 2018 but won only one time — at Watkins Glen International — across those years. He moved to the Xfinity Series part-time with Kaulig in 2019, winning on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. He won twice in 2020 and five times in 2021 and is a favorite to win the Xfinity championship this year. He has won four Xfinity races this season, including last Sunday at Talladega.

MORE: Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

Allmendinger, 40, will drive Kaulig’s No. 16 car in Cup next year. Justin Haley will drive the team’s No. 31.

Chandler Smith will replace Allmendinger in the Xfinity Series next year.

“It’s crazy how the last five years of my life have gone,” Allmendinger said. “More than anything, I love this organization. I know the fans get tired of me talking about all the men and women of Kaulig Racing. This is not a race team. This is a huge family.

“There will be tough times and growing pains, for sure. But I love what they’re about, and they believe in me. I’ll be OK whether it’s good or bad.”

MORE: Chase Elliott atop NASCAR Power Rankings

Team owner Matt Kaulig said Allmendinger is “one of the best in the world at every type of track. He’s done so much for Kaulig Racing and our program. He’s a gigantic part of what we’re building.”

Team officials said Allmendinger has a multi-year contract.

 

 

 

 

 

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Charlotte Roval

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Sunday provides a final chance for drivers to advance to the Round of 8 and keep their Cup championship hopes alive.

Talladega winner Chase Elliott is the only driver who has advanced to the next round. That leaves seven spots available going into Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe holds the final transfer spot by a tiebreaker over Austin Cindric. At least for now.

William Byron is 11 points behind both drivers, but Hendrick Motorsports will appeal Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas on Thursday. Should Hendrick win and Byron get those points back, he would move into a transfer spot.

There’s just part of what to watch for in Sunday’s race.

Favorites to be No. 20

This season remains tied for the most different winners in series history at 19, but there are a few candidates who could become the 20th different winner this year on Sunday.

Among the favorites to do so:

Ryan Blaney, who came close to winning last week at Talladega, won the inaugural Cup race at the Roval in 2018.

Martin Truex Jr., who has four career Cup wins on road courses, still seeks his first victory of the season.

Michael McDowell, who is coming off a third-place finish at Talladega, has had a career-high 12 top-10 finishes this season, including top 10s in each of the last four road course events this year.

Will history repeat?

Last year, the four drivers eliminated after the Roval were Kevin Harvick, Alex Bowman, Christopher Bell and William Byron.

Harvick was eliminated in the first round this year, but Byron (-11 to the cutline) and Bell (-33) are in jeopardy of being eliminated in this round again. Bowman stated Tuesday that he will miss his second consecutive race because of continued concussion symptoms. He will be among the four eliminated from title contention.

Bowman missed last weekend’s race because of concussion-like symptoms suffered at Texas. A decision on if he’ll be able to race at the Roval will come later this week.

Will chaos continue?

Consider what some of the former Roval winners have endured on their way to the checkered flag:

In 2019, Chase Elliott drove into the Turn 1 wall on a restart while the leader. He recovered to win.

In 2020, Elliott overcame a loose wheel to win for the second year in a row.

In 2021, Kyle Larson won after his team changed batteries and put the alternator belt back on.

Could a similar fate be in store for this year’s winner? Or will they have a cleaner day?

Entry lists

Thirty-nine drivers are entered including IndyCar driver Conor Daly, former Formula 1 driver Daniil Kvyat, former 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller and former 24 Hours of Daytona winner Joey Hand. JJ Yeley will drive the No. 51 for Cody Ware, who stated that he would skip this event because of his ankle injury at Texas the footwork needed on a road course.

Charlotte Roval Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are IndyCar driver Marco Andretti and former F1 driver Daniil Kvyat.

Charlotte Roval Xfinity entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Saturday, Oct. 8

Forecast: Partly cloudy with a high of 66 degrees. No chance of rain during the Xfinity race.

  • 10 – 10:30 a.m. — Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)
  • 10:30 – 11:30 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying (NBC Sports App)
  • 12 – 1 p.m. — Cup practice (NBC Sports App, USA Network coverage begins at 12:30 p.m.)
  • 1 – 2 p.m. — Cup qualifying (USA Network, NBC Sports App)
  • 3 p.m. — Xfinity race (67 laps, 155.44 miles; NBC, Peacock, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 9

Forecast: Sunny with a high of 64 degrees. No chance of rain during the race.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup race (109 laps, 252.88 miles; NBC, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)