Gordon says NASCAR needs rivalries
HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) – The drivers keep saying how much the racing has improved in the opening month of the NASCAR season, yet there’s all sorts of evidence that defies their optimism.
Television ratings? Down. Empty seats? Plenty. Potholes and errant caution lights? Those, too.
And look who’s won two of the first three races: Jimmie Johnson, the guy who’s captured an unprecedented four straight Sprint Cup championships. His fast start heading into Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway has further dampened enthusiasm for a sport that once appeared on the verge of carving out its place among the Big Three of American sports: NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon has certainly noticed the warning signs.
“Yeah, you recognize it,” he said. “When you go through driver introductions and wave to all those people, it’s hard not to recognize where we’re at.”
Gordon said the sport needs some riveting rivalries, but it’s hard for anyone to get too mad at Johnson. He comes across as a genuinely nice guy who goes about his business in a workmanlike fashion, failing to stir either over-the-top support or raging animosity.
“I just think it depends on the rivalries and the stories,” Gordon said. “If you’re dominating, but you’re battling a Dale Earnhardt Jr. or a Tony Stewart, maybe a Kevin Harvick, then you can build that rivalry. The good guy-bad guy kind of thing, the Ford-Chevy thing, all that stuff.
“I think the stories are still there, the interest is still there,” he added. “But when you’re out there dominating and no one is really you’re enemy, then it pulls away from it a little bit. What we need is Kyle Busch and Stewart to be butting heads, banging one another and talking trash. That would be good television.”
Over the years, NASCAR attempted to spruce up its image by cracking down on salty language, nasty behavior and rough racing, but it may have turned off its traditional fan base in the process. The governing body seemed to signal that it went too far by encouraging its drivers to go back to bumping and banging – “Boys, have at it,” vice president Robin Pemberton famously commanded at the start of the season – and hopes for even closer racing by going back to spoilers in place of wings within the next couple of weeks.
Those steps are helping, by all accounts.
“The quality of racing has been really good,” Jeff Burton said. “No one is complaining about that.”