CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jeff Gordon is mostly retired and Tony Stewart is almost out the door. Now Dale Earnhardt Jr. is sidelined for the rest of the year, exposing NASCAR’s glaring need for new stars to captivate the audience.
The three big names who have moved the needle for NASCAR the past two decades have a combined seven championships, 168 career Cup wins and five Daytona 500 victories. More important, they are the household names for NASCAR, the ones who move the needle and make people pay attention.
But Gordon called last year his last, only to be called back to the race car in late July when a concussion knocked Earnhardt out for the season. Stewart, meanwhile, has just 13 races left in his NASCAR driving career.
He was in vintage form Sunday night at Darlington Raceway, where he seemed to intentionally wreck Brian Scott in a move that earned him a post-race sit-down with NASCAR’s bigwigs. Stewart’s response to the incident? A wry smile and denial of culpability.
NASCAR will argue the sport is bigger than one, two or three personalities, and that the stable is full of young talent to carry stock car racing deep into the future. There’s some truth to that and it stretches beyond Kyle Busch and Joey Logano.
Kyle Larson is a week removed from his first Cup victory, a win that earned him a berth in NASCAR’s playoffs, and rookie Chase Elliott is a week away from securing his spot in the 10-race championship series. Austin Dillon could also make the Chase for the championship in next week’s regular-season finale, as could Chris Buescher, last year’s Xfinity Series champion who used a win at rain-shortened Pocono to slide into title contention.
Ryan Blaney won’t make the Chase, but the 22-year-old has been competitive and part of a new generation of drivers that NASCAR will have to rely upon once its superstars are in street clothes.
The problem, though, is that none of these new faces are the complete package. They seem fun on Snapchat and other forms of social media, but put them in a firesuit with a live television camera and all the sparkle is sucked right out of their personalities.
There are plenty of drivers with the talent of Erik Jones, William Byron or Daniel Suarez, but if they can’t make a fan base fall in love with them, then what does it matter?
Labor Day weekend has been celebrated the last two years in NASCAR as a throwback to its earlier days, when the racing was rougher and the men were tougher and drivers didn’t hide from fans or media in million dollar motorhomes. They didn’t complain about packed schedules, crowded garages or too many interview requests.
They called everything like it was and fear of sponsor backlash didn’t stifle many personalities.
So it was fitting to see Smoke mete out his own justice on Sunday, and to hear Kevin Harvick succicitly blast his crew after yet another race was lost in the pits. Across the border, on a road course in Canada, two teenagers waged a furious drag race to the checkered flag with a bid in NASCAR’s playoffs on the line for Cole Custer.
But John Hunter Nemechek didn’t care, bumped Custer’s Truck from behind, then the two bounced off each other’s doors as their trucks hurtled through the grass and to the finish line. As if that old-school finish wasn’t wonderful enough for every NASCAR fan who wistfully remembers the good ol’ days, Custer used a running start to leap into the air and knock Nemechek to the ground as Nemechek tried to collect the checkered flag.
Now watch, Custer will be punished by NASCAR for his post-race WWE impersonation, and future displays of raw emotion from young drivers will be throttled. It’s not that NASCAR needs the drama, the theatrics, the fisticuffs, to be successful. It’s just that people need a reason to care, and listening to a driver reel off a list of sponsors between praising downforce and tire wear isn’t the sexiest sell.
NASCAR needs new superstars, and NASCAR needs them to be engaging, entertaining and excited to be part of the show. Somehow, that message needs to be conveyed to these young drivers before the fan base leaves with Gordon, Stewart and all the other stars from that romantic time when NASCAR was fun.