With the 2018 season of NASCAR on the horizon, those in the business of racing were in an unfamiliar position juxtaposed to year’s past entering January: The usual talking points were gone.
For one, there was no groundbreaking, revolutionary announcement by NASCAR during January’s Media Tour concerning major changes to the sport. And for another, the sport’s transcendent stars of the past two decades are a non-story. Jeff Gordon is now removed from the starting grid, as is Tony Stewart, who retired from Cup racing at the end of the 2016 season. Danica Patrick is a story, but only for the fact that she will run her final NASCAR race in February’s Daytona 500.
By the way, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is no longer racing – That’s of no consequence, he’s only been NASCAR’s most-popular driver for the past 15 years.
Fortunately for NASCAR’s press corps, there quickly became no shortage of things to talk about on the annual Media Tour. When 2015 Cup Series Champion Kyle Busch criticized NASCAR’s focus on marketing its newest stars over its established veterans, it created a spark that lit the NASCAR world ablaze – And a storyline that will last well into this new season of racing.
It all started when Busch, 32, called NASCAR’s latest marketing approach “stupid” and “bothersome”.
“We’ve paid our dues, and our sponsors have and everything else, and all you’re doing is advertising all these younger guys for fans to figure out and pick up on,” said Busch, according to the Charlotte Observer. “Pushing these younger drivers is, I wouldn’t say, all that fair.”
Busch’s comments were much to the chagrin of NASCAR’s new generation. Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, in turn, pointed out that Busch has not done as many marketing spots to help the sport as he could. Cup rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. echoed Blaney’s statements.
Seeking to compete with other professional sports leagues and faced with an exodus of popular drivers, NASCAR has indeed shifted its marketing efforts to focus on its millennial drivers. Instead of drivers like Busch, Brad Keselowski, and Joey Logano – Drivers who rose to stardom after the NASCAR “bubble” burst in the late-2000s – The sport’s marketing and communications arms have made strides to make drivers like Blaney, Wallace, and Chase Elliott among others the face of NASCAR racing.
In spite of their efforts, the old guard has continued to monopolize the win column. Of the 36 races in 2017, only eight were won by a driver that has only competed full-time since at least 2013. Elliott, arguably NASCAR’s new most popular driver, remains winless in two full-time Cup seasons. Of the Championship Four in 2017, none were part of the Youth movement.
Nevertheless, the 2018 season now presents an opportunity that NASCAR can capitalize on. A season-long battle between youth and experience versus old(er) age and treachery could create an atmosphere of sustained excitement, and it can also galvanize the fanbase at a time where many fans are looking for a new driver to pull for.
As opposed to having a majority of fans cheering for a select few drivers – And NASCAR and their partners having to focus most of their efforts towards catering to those fans – The sport can now widen its focus to a larger, more diverse cast of characters. In NASCAR’s boom years, a wide variety of drivers were supported throughout the grandstands: For every Dale Earnhardt fan, there were fans of other veterans like Rusty Wallace or Terry Labonte, Mark Martin or Dale Jarrett. And for every Jeff Gordon fan, there were fans of other young drivers like Jeff Burton or Ricky Craven, Steve Park or Johnny Benson.
Now, the arrival of NASCAR’s new cast could very well make for diverse support among the grandstands yet again. Fans could find themselves in one of two camps: The camp of younger drivers like Alex Bowman, William Byron Jr., Daniel Suarez, and Erik Jones, or the camp of older drivers like Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, and Kevin Harvick. As NASCAR’s Generation War begins to play out on the track, it could also begin playing out in the stands – A phenomenon that would be very reminiscent of the rivalry between fans of Gordon and Earnhardt in the 1990s.
NASCAR’s newfound battle between the new, faster guns and the old sheriffs could do more than just make for a good talking point to begin the 2018 season. It can also galvanize race fans in a way that the sport has been looking for for the past decade.