Daytona 500: How vital is NASCAR at 70?

By Steve Hummer - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Born in 1948 as a confederation of moonshiners and roughnecks, NASCAR turns 70 at the drop of a white flag at Daytona on Sunday.

The drivers who turned laps on the hard sand of Daytona Beach in February of ‘48 — back when winners (in this case Red Byron) were literally more colorful — would scarcely recognize the grand sweep of the modern Daytona 500.

But the drivers today — a more buttoned-down, geographically diverse class, to be sure — also have reason to wonder about the relative health of their septuagenarian sport. From a peak at the beginning of this century, when Forbes hailed NASCAR as “America’s fastest growing professional sport,” big-time stock car racing more recently has endured eroding television ratings, declining attendance and a drain of marketable stars.

NASCAR’s biggest series opens its season with uncertainty in its title — the Monster Energy company has remained mum on any plans to underwrite the series beyond this year.

And, despite the denials of the founding France family, rumors of a potential NASCAR sale will not go away. “Many believe a sale or major consolidation is the best hope for a sport in dire need of reimagining and innovation,” declared a Sports Business Daily story this week.

When asked about the current state of their sport, drivers have offered the kind of stubborn commentary common to any 70-year-old: We may not be what we used to be, but we’re still here, still kicking, and that’s a major accomplishment.

“The sport’s not going away tomorrow,” 2012 series champion winner Brad Keselowski said. “We’re still on the airplane, we just might not be sitting in first class seats. I’m thankful for that.”

Said Kasey Kahne, who was shuffled to a lesser team this season amid shrinking sponsorships, “When I first came into it, you’d go to any race track and the grandstands would be packed. I thought it was unbelievable. We don’t have as many of those anymore. There are certain tracks we have full houses. I wish there were more people at the race who are involved and intrigued by it and want to be a part of it. I wish we could get back to that (peak time) for that excitement level. But I still think the racing is very good.”

When asked about his sport’s future at the 2017 championship race in Homestead, the ruling France, Brian, stated, not surprisingly, “Well, I’m really more optimistic right now.”

France touted fairly recent format changes — the evolution of the chase to the championship playoffs, stage racing built into every event in order to goose competition. He pointed to the potential of a new wave of young drivers, including a dash of diversity, as a remedy for the retirement of stars like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon.

“We like where we’re at and we like where we’re going,” France insisted.

In the alternate universe of racing, the biggest of events happens at the front end of the season rather than at the finish. And Sunday’s Daytona 500 highlights the changes NASCAR is undergoing, even at the ripe old age of 70.

The most popular No. 88 car is on the pole Sunday, but instead of Earnhardt at the wheel as he had been for the previous 10 years, it will be his 24-year-old replacement Alex Bowman. Dale Jr.’s presence will be merely ceremonial, as the race’s grand marshal.

The No. 43 car made famous by Richard Petty will be piloted by Bubba Wallace, the first African-American driver to win a national series NASCAR race since 1963.

Danica Patrick reportedly is making her final NASCAR run Sunday. Mexico’sDaniel Suarez, after compiling more top-10 finishes in his single season last year (12) than Patrick did in six years (7), will be starting his second Daytona 500.

The turnover of drivers has been running at a high RPM, leaving the sport hungry for a new star upon which to anchor. Chase Elliott, the son of Dawsonville legend Bill Elliott, is the one being most groomed for that position. His ascension awaits one little detail — winning his first race.

Even as the sport sought its bright new face, it was a 37-year-old journeyman, Martin Truex Jr., who won the series championship in 2017.

“We all have different pressure that’s put on us. This new generation, there is different pressure,” said the elder statesman of drivers and Elliott’s teammate, seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson. “There are a lot of big names that have stepped down, some shoes to fill, a fan base to kind of feed into.

“There’s a lot of good there. These guys are ready for the challenge.”

In the meantime, ideas for other changes that might jumpstart NASCAR are in no short supply.

Shorter races: “I think that’s common among fans and among drivers and anyone — some of these races that are four-and-a-half hours long are just too long,” said 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray.

A more sensible season (which currently will run from February 18 to November 18): “I think we should race more under a shorter time span. If we raced twice in a week in the summer months especially — when the weather’s great and kids are out of school — I think that’s a great opportunity,” Keselowski said.

“There’s no reason in my mind for us to compete so frequently with NFL in the fall months. I’d like to see our schedule condensed time-wise, even if it meant more races. I think it would be very healthy for our sport.”

A willingness to shake up things: “We need to create events. We need to create moments,” Kevin Harvick, 2014 series champion, said. “For example, I think there needs to be a rotation of the championship race. I don’t think that we should go to Homestead/Miami every year. I think it gets stale. It’s a great race track, but it’s not all about the race track. It’s about the event. How many times have you had a crappy Super Bowl but everybody goes to the Super Bowl because it’s an event? Those are the types of things we need to create.”

Better leadership: “What would I change? I would change it to where the leader of the sport was at the racetrack every weekend,” Keselowski said. (He is not the first to criticize France’s frequent absence from the track).

What sprung from a three-day meeting at Daytona Beach’sStreamline Hotel between Bill France Sr. and various other racing figures more than 70 years ago is in a continuing state of flux.

By the way, the Streamline, the place where NASCAR was born, is newly renovated and billed as a boutique hotel, featuring deco style with a modern flair.

Things change.

You adapt. And adjust to the new realities.

“(Racing’s) not as big as it was in 2006, but it’s always really big,” Harvick said. “You’re going to go to the Daytona 500 and you’re still going to have 100,000 people (if not more) in the grandstands. It’s all relative.”


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By Steve Hummer

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution