After the checkered flag flew in the 60th Daytona 500, an absent figure from the NASCAR world re-emerged: A sense of optimism.
The sport’s biggest race of the year had been a thriller, dominated by youth and ending just as NASCAR could have hoped for: With a dash of controversy, a watershed victory, and another watershed moment in second place. Not only did the fresh, young face of Austin Dillon win the 500 in the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet – After making contact with race leader Aric Almirola that sent Almirola into the wall on the final lap – But rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. came home in second place, scoring the best finish ever for an African-American driver in the Daytona 500 and arguably launching his budding stardom to the next level.
Dillon’s victory and Wallace’s second place finish, combined with the domination of Ryan Blaney throughout the day and the overall competitive balance of the race between seasoned veterans and NASCAR’s new generation, created a buzz that the sport has needed. It has been ten years since the NASCAR “bubble” of the 2000s burst with the U.S. economy’s crash in 2008, and the decade since has, at times, been marked by a sense of pessimism and feeling of decline.
These feelings have brought about much hand-wringing over the retirements of NASCAR’s biggest stars of the 2000s. What, asked both outside observers and insiders alike, would the sport do without Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart? And if the sport was treading water over their retirements, what would happen to it once Dale Earnhardt Jr. stepped away?
But after the race, it was Earnhardt himself who took the opportunity to note that Sunday’s race could have turned the tide.
“It’s been a rough few years for NASCAR. I’ve had a new feeling though for a few months about our sport,” wrote Earnhardt on Twitter. “I think it’s finally turning the corner. I won’t be surprised one bit if we experience a resurgence. I’m even more confident after what I experienced the past two days [at Daytona].”
Some of the baseline for a resurgence could very well be coming from the hype surrounding NASCAR’s new generation of talent. Throughout the past decade, the sport has been hindered by its reliance on its biggest stars winning consistently to move the needle, which came with mixed results. Earnhardt experienced several winless seasons and only won once from 2009 until 2014. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart both experienced lean years without many trips to Victory Lane towards the end of their careers. Danica Patrick, who came to NASCAR in 2010 with much pomp and circumstance, never consistently contended for Top 10 finishes, let alone wins.
Now, the potential exists for someone else to take the mantle of NASCAR’s next transcendent star – And the Daytona 500 served note that the sport’s fresh, young faces could deliver, with Chase Elliott and Erik Jones contending for portions of the race in addition to the success of Blaney, Dillon, and Wallace.
In the face of this spirit, however, it should be noted that the sport is not yet out of the woods. Adam Stern of Sports Business Journal reported Monday that the Daytona 500 only mustered a 5.1 overnight rating – Down sharply from 6.5 in 2017 and a bad look for NASCAR, even with the continually-evolving climate of television viewership.
One would be a fool to say that the problems NASCAR has had since 2008 are behind it. Sponsorship continues to be scarce, and the market strongly favors established teams getting bigger and bigger pieces of the pie. Only 40 cars attempted the Daytona 500, meaning that no cars failed to qualify and the Can-Am Duels lacked the traditional drama of seeing who would make the race. And, of course, the mainstream public has largely tuned racing out, as the traditional culture of stock car racing has found itself on the outside of the reactionary, progressive culture in vogue.
But nevertheless, the Daytona 500 proved to be an example that, as long as the racing product is compelling and NASCAR’s newest stars give fans reason to believe that they will carry the sport into the future, happy days could be coming again for the world of NASCAR racing.