New wave: NASCAR faces changing landscape with departure of star drivers

The starting grid for Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400, the final race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season, will include the final four drivers for the championship: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr.
Dale Earnhardt jr

It will also include Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick and Matt Kenseth.

The lineup for the 2018 Daytona 500, the first race of next season, probably won’t include that trio — all names that resonate with the NASCAR fan base and the larger sports community.

Add their departures to the recent farewells of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, all big NASCAR winners and fan magnets, and it’s clear that the sport is continuing to swim through the rocky shoals of major change.

It’s a popular NASCAR strategy to sell the attributes of the young drivers who have landed good rides at stock car racing’s top level, and there does exist a promising lineup of not-quite-ready-to-shave newcomers. But not since the sudden loss of icon Dale Earnhardt Sr. in a fatal accident on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 has the sport been hit with the rapid-fire loss of such a list of prominent names.

In a sad way, the death of Earnhardt Sr. and the investigation and safety advances that followed kept the sport on the public’s radar, enhancing interest that carried over from the go-go 1990s, when races were sold out and optimistic boosters were saying NASCAR might challenge the National Football League.

Those dreams looked like so much cheap veneer when the Great Recession came along seven years into the new century. A perfect storm of negatives – a sour economy, often flaccid competition and domination by one driver (Jimmie Johnson) – led to attendance and television ratings declines.

Now, after the retirements of Gordon and Stewart and the unexpected early departure of Edwards to life on the farm in the Midwest, NASCAR faces a second wave of losses.

The most damaging is the retirement of Earnhardt Jr. Despite never reaching the Everest-like heights of his father, Junior became a superstar in his own right, building his own fan base of younger, hipper spectators while also inheriting many of Senior’s old-school disciples.

Junior carried NASCAR where it rarely had been — to the pages of Rolling Stone and Playboy, to the New York Times bestseller list, to the stages of entertainment awards shows where he rubbed elbows with the really rich and famous. The sport benefited, particularly as Junior matured from a rambunctious kid with big-boy toys to one of the most thoughtful, respected spokesmen in the sport’s history.

Junior’s souvenirs rocketed to the top of fans’ must-have lists. Through the years, through a series of high-profile sponsors that have included Budweiser, Mountain Dew and Nationwide Insurance, fans have stormed his souvenir locations at tracks while less-popular drivers could only watch in envy. Now those fans watch Budweiser’s artfully-produced farewell video saluting Junior’s great moments with tears in their eyes.

On Sunday, fans will see Junior on the track for probably the final time and some will be expected to join him in the departure. Junior’s departure will be a challenge for track promoters.

“Certainly with promoters, any time you’re losing your most popular driver it’s something you have to embrace and develop strategy around,” Homestead-Miami Speedway president Matthew Becherer told USA TODAY. “It’s happened in the past. We’ve navigated it successfully as an industry.”

Kenseth’s leaving will be quieter, the way he would want it, but his absence next season will leave another big hole. A perennial frontrunner and a former champion, Kenseth could be counted on for entertainment, both on track with late-race charges and off-track with his unique take on the issues of the moment.

And then there’s Patrick. In five years at the Cup level, she has been a disappointment in competition (no top-five finishes in 189 starts), but she brought new sponsors and new eyes to the sport as the most prominent female driver in its history.

The future also is a bit uncertain for former series champion Kurt Busch, whose option was not picked up by Stewart-Haas Racing for 2018. Busch is likely to land somewhere for next season, but his absence would remove a shrewd driver with 29 Cup wins to his credit.

The 2018 newcomers won’t be responsible for shouldering the full load of fan interest, of course. Reliables like Johnson, Kyle Busch, Keselowski, Truex, Harvick and others remain on the scene, and relative youngsters such as Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott are demanding their own slices of the pie.

But William Byron (19 years old), Alex Bowman (24), Erik Jones (21) and Darrell Wallace Jr. (24) move into prominent rides next season and will be expected to produce relatively quickly, not only on track but also in the broader public picture that helps drive the sport. Losing Earnhardt Jr. in this context is a huge blow.

“I think there is a lot we’re all going to be waiting to see,” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told USA TODAY. “It’s a clear changing of the guard. I think we’re going to wait and see what the real impact is. I’m cautiously optimistic, but I don’t know what the forecast is.”

Jones, a product of the Toyota driver pipeline, has his assignment, Wilson said.

“Once you make ‘the show,’ if I’m Erik Jones and I’m sitting in that 20 (car) seat, he knows he needs to win next year,” Wilson said. “He knows anything short of winning next year will be a disappointment. I don’t know that there’s more pressure, but there might be a different kind of pressure. I think there’s pressure on NASCAR in some respects to help build the popularity and such for these young drivers.”

To NASCAR’s credit, it has addressed some of its issues. Stage racing, while anathema to some traditional fans, has added spice to the competition and demanded a new level of study and strategy from those along pit road. Officials have shown the willingness to tinker with the Cup schedule, moving Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the final week of the regular season next year while handing the important first playoff race of the playoffs to Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the neon city that shares its name.

But how things shake out for NASCAR’s short- and long-term future remains a question fresh drivers like Byron and Bowman will help answer