The racing world was rocked to its foundation on Monday when the news broke Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was retiring from full-time NASCAR competition at the end of this season. Much has been written about the decision, and I have nothing to add but my personal perspective and thoughts on the matter. I watched the press conference Junior and Rick Hendrick held, and it appears Earnhardt will continue to be involved in the sport, even to the extent of running two Xfinity races next season. He also alluded to the possibility of sneaking out of the house on a Saturday night to run a late model at his local track. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see him popping into a TV broadcast booth on a semi-regular basis.
For NASCAR, already struggling with declining attendance and viewership, the loss of the 14-time Most Popular Driver in its premier series isn’t going to help. Along with the loss of Junior, the recent departures of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Carl Edwards have the potential of furthering that erosion of interest. More than any other form of motorsport, NASCAR is driver-centric. Formula One fans salivate over the technology of the cars, NHRA fans marvel at the raw speed, noise, and power of the Top Fuel and Funny Cars, and IndyCar fans thrill to the cry of “It’s a new track recoooooord” over the PA system at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But with NASCAR fans, the most often-heard question is, “Who’s your driver?” Although brand loyalty also built segments of NASCAR’s fan base, that factor isn’t nearly as prevalent as it was in the days when Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Dodge, Plymouth, and Mercury battled the Fords and Chevys. When I first got involved seriously in racing almost 50 years ago, many of the giants of the sport were still winning — Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, the Allison brothers, Benny Parsons and more. I watched the rise to success of Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin, the Labonte brothers, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon, Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip, and many others. What they all had in common was their legion of rabid fans (and even more rabid haters, in many cases). The next generation of stars are now past 40 (Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, and Jamie McMurray) or rapidly approaching that milestone. And while Mark Martin proved you can be competitive into your 50s, it’s not something every driver can or wants to do. What NASCAR must do, if the sport is to remain relevant, is to build the fan bases of its superstars of tomorrow — Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, and other youngsters. I think signing Monster Energy as the series sponsor was a good move in marketing to a younger demographic, but only time will tell.
This is another busy race weekend. NASCAR’s Monster Energy and Xfinity series are both racing at Richmond, the IndyCars are at Phoenix for the first oval race of their season, and Formula One visits the Sochi Autodrom in Russia for round four of 2017. And if you want to see some local dirt track racing, Rattlesnake Raceway in Fallon is hosting Modifieds, Hobby Stocks, Sprints, and other classes, along with Outlaw Karts. And for motorcycle fans, it’s the two-day annual Virginia City Grand Prix event.
Jimmie Johnson won his second race of the season Monday at Bristol, backing up his Texas victory for two in a row. Johnson has won three times at this week’s venue, Richmond, another short track. Kyle Busch leads active drivers with four Richmond wins, while Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. join Johnson with three apiece. Twelve active drivers have posted wins there, so it could be anybody’s race. Busch is hoping to bring in the first victory for Joe Gibbs Racing this weekend, and Clint Bowyer, back in a top car after a year in the wilderness, wants to capitalize on last week’s second place finish. Busch’s teammate Kenseth is on the pole for Sunday’s start, a good beginning to the weekend for the Gibbs organization.