NASCAR is standing at a crossroads and while they have taken some steps towards taking the right path, some of their future is out of their control. NASCAR needs the next Tom Brady and Derek Jeter and they need them soon.
Okay, NASCAR doesn’t literally need the next Tom Brady and Derek Jeter because there isn’t a lot of room in the world of racing for legendary football and baseball players. That being said, NASCAR does need drivers that embody everything that athletes like Brady and Jeter posses.
NASCAR needs someone that is going to transcend the sport and take them into the future, wherever that future might end up.
Article continues below ...
A quick look at the current state of NASCAR provides a glimpse of what NASCAR is missing. The NFL has the Patriots and Tom Brady, the NBA has LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers and NASCAR is searching for something to step into that void.
NASCAR used to have it, they had it when Dale Earnhardt was the face of the sport. Earnhardt won seven championships during his NASCAR career and he did it with a hold-no-prisoners attitude. The amount of people that passionately loved and revered Earnhardt was only matched by the overwhelming number of people that hated him. The thing that made Earnhardt different though was the fact that he had the respect of those who loved him and hated him.
The closest thing in NASCAR since Earnhardt was Jeff Gordon. Gordon was successful and hated by many but it wasn’t the same as Earnhardt. The general level of respect for Gordon did not come until much later in his career. After Gordon it was Jimmie Johnson, who I would argue still doesn’t have the respect that Gordon had, much less Earnhardt. After Johnson the next closest thing is Kyle Busch and he is still lacking across the board when it comes to success and respect.
Today’s NASCAR product has a bunch of elements that it needs to take the sport to the next level but it doesn’t have any of those elements in large enough doses.
NASCAR has villains in Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano but none of them win enough to elevate them enough to make it matter. When Jimmie Johnson was winning all of his championships he lacked the brashness that Busch is hated for and in some ways that hurt NASCAR. Johnson and Brady are similar in the way they have success, championships and an aurora of cheating and doubt around them. Brady seems to face the negative stuff head on while Johnson and NASCAR focused their efforts on ignoring it and forcing Johnson into a hole that he simply didn’t fit in.
While not as important as villains, the Derek Jeter-esque driver is also important. Dale Earnhardt Jr. might be the face of NASCAR and beloved by more fans than any other driver but he is far from being successful. Danica Patrick might be mainstream and known by many non-racing fans but her success is even less than that of Earnhardt’s. NASCAR needs their popular drivers to win titles and multiple races each season.
It’s crazy when you begin to understand how Dale Earnhardt Sr. was the hero, the villain and the face of the sport all rolled into one package.
NASCAR has rivalries but there aren’t enough of them and the current platform doesn’t allow for them to thrive. Yes, NASCAR is different in that all 40 drivers are going against each other every week whereas LeBron James and Steph Curry will play a few times a season and not meet again unless it’s in the NBA Finals. That being said, there should still be room for healthy feuds and rivalries to grow. NASCAR working on making the on-track product better will help with this but it won’t be the enough. NASCAR needs to figure out a way to elevate their rivalries and their drivers in a better way and create an environment where rivalries can develop.
This new format where every lap and every moment supposedly matters could be a step in the right direction, if it does what NASCAR thinks it’s going to do.
NASCAR does have a little bit of parity right now. Below is a look at NASCAR’s champions since Jimmie Johnson won his five consecutive titles.
2011 – Tony Stewart
2012 – Brad Keselowski
2013 – Jimmie Johnson
2014 – Kevin Harvick
2015 – Kyle Busch
2016 – Jimmie Johnson
Five different champions in the last six years is not a bad thing for the sport but it’s also not enough. 40 drivers hit the track each weekend and of those 40 drivers, 12 have a legitimate chance of winning. After that there are five or six that you wouldn’t be shocked if they won and then a couple more where you would only be a little shocked. After that there is almost half of the field where you would be completely surprised if they managed to win a race.
This is where parity falls short in the sport today.
There is nothing wrong with coming to the track each weekend and having 25 or 30 cars capable of winning races. Even if that number jumps from 12 to 20, it would be a huge improvement for the sport. The more even the field is, the more competitive the on-track stuff is going to be and the more the skill set of the drivers will be placed front and center. Kyle Busch should not be looked down upon when he runs well just because he happens to be on the best team in NASCAR at the moment. However, that’s what happens when four of the 12 drivers who are always winning races are associated with the same team.
If more drivers were in the mix every weekend it would help all of the above categories. Creating parity makes the product better, it makes drivers more marketable, it helps potentially create more heroes and villains and it allows for the development of rivalries.
NASCAR is down from where it was 15 years ago and it’s scary to think about where they could be in 15 years should this trend continue. While NASCAR can’t go to the store and buy all of the things that they need, they can do a better job of accentuating what they currently have while continuing to make tweaks and adjustments.
If the racing version of Tom Brady walked through the door tomorrow and brought with him a plan of parity, NASCAR would be on their way back to the top. Until then, we wait and we hope.