As the checkered flag falls on the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season in just a couple weeks, the career of one of NASCAR’s most favored drivers will come to a close. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been the sport’s flagship driver for numerous years now. He hasn’t been the most successful nor the most consistent, but his incredibly large fanbase has unwaveringly stayed behind him through thick and thin. The Kannapolis, NC native has won NASCAR’s yearly ‘Most Popular Driver’ contest since 2003, a 14-year streak. Earnhardt’s popularity has been great for the sport, but with his inevitable retirement nearing, some people have been wondering how the sport will do once he retires in less than a month.
Will the sport experience a decrease in attendance and ratings? Will Dale Jr. fans stick around and find a new driver? Will they leave the sport for good? Is NASCAR strong enough right now to lose such a popular figurehead?
Nobody can predict the future. Nobody knows whether the sport will survive losing Dale Jr. But if these recent weeks hold any indication for the future of NASCAR, there shouldn’t be any worry at all. It may sound crazy, but Earnhardt’s retirement probably couldn’t come at a better time for the sport.
Throughout the past few seasons, an unprecedented youth movement has swept across the sport. The list of drivers currently 25-years old and younger that will compete in the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season is both extensive and promising. It includes; Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Darrell Wallace Jr., etc. A majority of these drivers are all already well-known in the racing world, and they are all set to compete with competitive teams for next season. But the major positive is that they each have their own unique stories and personalities that combined with success, could carry them into the limelight of the racing world.
From a popularity standpoint, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney are already two major standouts. Elliott, son of former Cup Series driver Bill Elliott, is a talented 21-year old who many claim is the one who will replace Dale Jr. as the sport’s most-favored driver. Need proof? My ears are still ringing from the roar of the crowd after Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway. No, not really – but the thunderous level of exuberance that came from the stands Sunday evening certainly won’t go unnoticed.
Elliott was leading the race with three laps to go when he got spun into the wall by then second-place Denny Hamlin. After the race, Elliott and Hamlin had a near-confrontational conversation. As NBCSN interviewed Elliott, the crowd hollered and screamed in his favor. It seemed almost uncanny, because for a second the roar of the crowd for Elliott seemed eerily similar to any reaction Dale Jr. has ever gotten. It’s not the first time Elliott has received “Jr-like” cheers from the crowd, and after Sunday’s race it probably won’t be the last.
Then there’s Blaney, a reserved but well-liked 23-year old from High Point, NC. The high point of Blaney’s MENCS career so far came earlier this season when he earned his first career victory at Pocono Raceway. It was an impressive win for the young driver, since he was able to hold off a hard charging Kevin Harvick throughout the latter stage of the race. But that victory came after he almost shot himself in the foot after multiple run-ins with Dale Jr at the start of the year. There’s one thing you don’t want to do in NASCAR and that’s mess with Earnhardt, because his fans won’t be happy (just ask Kyle Busch). Many un-repeatable words were exchanged between the two on their radios, but luckily for Blaney their relationship has been gradually repaired throughout the season. Now the two are friends, actively hanging out with each other and having fun. With Earnhardt on his side and talent behind the wheel, Blaney definitely stands out as a bright light in NASCAR’s future.
But what about Larson? The Elk Grove, CA native really hit his stride with Chip Ganassi Racing this season. The No.42 Chevrolet has visited Victory Lane four times already this year whilst leading over 1,000 laps. But Larson’s popularity can be attested to the fact that he’s one of the most diverse drivers in today’s era of racing. Fans often find Larson competing in many other racing avenues, most commonly on dirt in events such as the Chili Bowl and others across the country. With fans across the world not only in NASCAR, Larson’s future could be the one that really helps NASCAR stay relevant in the racing world as a whole.
Sounds like a lot of budding star power, right? Well the list keeps on going.
Hendrick Motorsports, arguably the largest and most prestigious organization in NASCAR, will field two rookies in the MENCS next season. Alex Bowman will take over Earnhardt’s No.88 ride and William Byron will move up into the No.24 car. 19-year old Byron has quickly worked his way through the ranks of the sport, finding success quickly in both the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series. He gained a lot of fans and credibility in 2016 when he went on a tear winning seven races in his first year in the Truck Series. This season, Byron has been competing for one of Earnhardt’s teams in the Xfinity Series, earning three victories already. With Byron’s quick adaptability and deep talent, the door is wide open to what he could accomplish in his Cup career.
Then there’s Bowman, who will probably have the largest amount of pressure on his shoulders next season. The 24-year old will step into the seat that Dale Jr. is going to be vacating at the end of this year. But luckily for Bowman, he’s already felt the pressure that comes with driving Earnhardt’s No.88 car. When Earnhardt was sidelined last season due to his concussion, Bowman filled the seat for numerous races. His shining moment was at Phoenix International Raceway, where he lead numerous laps whilst staying in contention for the win all throughout the race. That race gave everyone a lot of confidence in Bowman’s abilities, and if it’s any indication on how he’ll perform in the 2018 season – Earnhardt and his fans should be eager to cheer him on.
From a far-reaching standpoint, NASCAR certainly has to be excited about Suarez and Wallace. They are two graduates of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, and they both have the potential to reach audiences that NASCAR’s typically had a hard time finding. Suarez, a Monterrey, Mexico native, made history last season becoming the first foreign-born driver to win a NASCAR national series championship. He’s competed full-time this season in the Monster Energy Cup Series in the No.19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Wallace, commonly called “Bubba”, made a major announcement last week that he’d drive the famous No.43 Richard Petty machine next season. Bubba will become the first full-time African American driver in the top-level of NASCAR since 1971. NASCAR has made great efforts to strengthen the diversity in the sport over the last decade, but nothing is more helpful than seeing it take place on the track in the Cup Series. Suarez and Bubba are both great talents and will certainly have a lot of say in NASCAR’s future.
The youth movement hitting NASCAR will certainly help the sport battle with losing Earnhardt, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any veteran drivers who can also take the reigns.
Martin Truex Jr. has undoubtedly been one of the biggest storylines in the entire racing world this season. Truex’s story is one of both triumph and tribulation. The 37-year old has experienced both spectrums of the sport, but has seemed to find his stride in recent years at Furniture Row Racing. This year he has absolutely dominated the Monster Energy Cup Series, winning seven races so far whilst leading over 2,000 laps.
Truex’s story off-track may be more compelling though, as his longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex has been in a strenuous battle with ovarian cancer throughout the past couple years. The two have shared their love in front of the racing world, as they are normally both teary-eyed in Victory Lane together after a win. Recently, Pollex’s time at the track has been limited as she is going through her second round of chemotherapy treatment. But the NASCAR world has taken her battle personally, and the community tends to rally around Truex and Pollex whenever she isn’t doing well. Their story, combined with Truex’s success, is easily one of the most-humbling in all of sports right now.
Then there’s someone like Jimmie Johnson, who some claim hasn’t gotten the recognition that he deserves for all he’s done in the sport. The El Cajon, CA native became only the third driver in NASCAR history last season to win seven Cup Series championships. At 42 years old, Johnson has said he still has a few good years of racing left in him. If he’s able to pull off an eighth championship, it would not only solidify his place as one of NASCAR’s greats, but as one of the greatest athletes of all-time in all of sports. Johnson has the possibility to sit alone at the top of the sport’s record books, and NASCAR can still thrive on his storyline for a few more years to come.
Or how about Kyle Busch, the driver who is loved by some, but hated by others. He’s definitely one of the most talented drivers on track, but some of his off-track antics have strayed many away from being a fan. Some think he’s hurting NASCAR, but every sport has to have their “villain” figure, and right now Busch is the closest thing we have to it – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Aside from drivers, it’s also important to look at how NASCAR is doing as a whole. The 2017 season has seen a lot of positives. The implementation of stage racing has completely changed the way drivers race. Daring strategy calls and bold moves which used to be saved for the end of the races are now coming into play at any point. The on-track action can always be improved, but it’s been pretty exciting this season. The sport has seen some very thrilling races in the last few weeks. Talladega was a wreck-fest, Kansas was a thriller and Martinsville was insanely entertaining. There seems to be a certain feeling of “hope” around the sport right now. Drivers are starting to show more emotion, tracks are starting to spice things up to add intrigue, NASCAR’s ramping up it’s efforts to look for ways to improve the sport, and the youth fountain continues to run strong.
Now it should be noted that Earnhardt does plan on sticking around the sport. Earlier this season, he announced a deal with NBC Sports to be apart of their broadcasts starting in 2018. His Xfinity Series team will also continue to compete next season, and Earnhardt has said he plans on doing one or two Xfinity races next year.
But long-story short, NASCAR certainly won’t perish at the end of this season. At a time when the sport is losing it’s most popular driver, its future may actually be brighter than ever.