As the sport gathers for its traditional version of the halfway mark — Daytona’s spectacle under the lights this Fourth of July weekend — the answer to that question, a lynchpin to its future direction remains increasingly unclear. From the season’s very first race, when Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 only to fall off the grid ever since stock car racing has turned into a wishy-washy first date, so full of mixed messages you leave with no clue whether they like you or not.
Of course, in NASCAR’s defense it could say exactly the same thing about its fans. Attendance has been more up-and-down than your local Six Flags roller coaster: solid increases at places like Daytona, Charlotte and yes, even Fontana — not to mention a rare sellout coming at Kentucky — offset alarming losses at once-automatic sellout zones in Dover and Bristol. Ratings, up through the sport’s first 16 events, are only so because of a natural boost at both Daytona and Las Vegas; neither race had to deal with a giant pothole or the U.S. vs. Canada hockey game, respectively, from 2010. And while the sport’s target age group, men ages 18-49 are seemingly tilting upward for the first time in years, the time they spend at the track continues to dwindle. Walk through any infield sans Talladega and you’ll feel like you’re part of the Sahara Desert, not the 24/7 Friday-Sunday party it used to be.
Competition-wise, the races have taken on a bit of a familiar feel. NASCAR’s “fourth quarter” is almost always great — even the fuel mileage finishes have come attached with their own bit of specialty drama that keep people guessing until the final lap. But in the first three quarters (i.e., two-plus hours) too much “passing the time” instead of “passing cars” comes into play, combined with some aerodynamic issues that remain exacerbated — not eliminated — by the Car of Tomorrow. The new front ends give those vehicles greater identity, but that’s not enough. How can they do more?
At least fans will have a postseason fight to look forward to. Indeed, Sprint Cup’s Chase for the Championship appears to be a study based on equality. Carl Edwards leads, Jimmie Johnson is the slight favorite, but in reality the race is wide open. Johnson’s six-peat could be stymied by anyone from Kevin Harvick, to the cantankerous Kyle Busch to even a certain Most Popular Driver making noise. The problem is, for all the talk of “wild cards” and “wins,” the faces in the crowd remain the same. Barring an upset by Kansas victor Brad Keselowski, the Chase will have no first-time participants for the second year in a row.
So what about the new guys, you ask? After all, there is a “next generation” busting at the seams to get its chance. Bayne’s upset win is just one example of a trend, the ringleader within a handful of talented youngsters finally on the cusp of Sprint Cup success. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has won in the Nationwide Series, remaining perhaps the prohibitive favorite to take the season points title, while Justin Allgaier is right on his heels. Youngster Cole Whitt is second in Truck Series points, posting five top-10 finishes as a rookie while Austin Dillon sits comfortably in title contention as a sophomore. Yes, there’s even (cough, cough) a certain woman in a GoDaddy uniform that has been spotted running inside the top 5 in Nationwide Series events.
But here’s where the going gets tough: of those six, only Dillon and Danica Patrick are guaranteed a ride next season, neither one of which will be in Sprint Cup. With a limited number of options at the top level, contracting teams mean it’s more difficult than ever to give freshmen their chance to fit in. In fact, this year’s likely Rookie of the Year winner in Sprint Cup isn’t the Daytona champ but a driver, Andy Lally, whose team’s limited resources have left him with one lead-lap finish in 13 races. Hardly a way to show up on the radar screen, right?
Lally’s not alone in his struggle for sponsorship, though, which is a telling stat in the biggest public relations fight NASCAR’s had on its hands in years. It makes Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch look like babies fighting over a lollipop by comparison (and maybe they are… but that’s a story for another day). For years, the sport has blamed its shrinking starting grids, now deluged with the disease of start-and-parkers, on a sagging economy. “Companies can’t spend money,” was the woe-is-me line of the day, a philosophy with a “do nothing” strategy attached for this, too, shall pass. One can understand why they think that — after all, Kyle Busch, according to Joyce Julius and Associates, generated $28.4 million in exposure for his sponsors during the first third of the season alone. Combine that with underdog success stories, from Regan Smith/Furniture Row’s single-car triumph at Darlington to Brian Keselowski’s shocking Daytona 500 start remind corporate America that they, no matter the level of advertising budget available, can cash in for a bargain price.
So why isn’t corporate America buying it? In just the past two weeks alone, two financially healthy companies — Red Bull and Crown Royal — have indicated they’ll cut NASCAR funding from teams effective at the end of the season. Others, like Home Depot and Cheerios, are rumored to be cutting back, leaving financial failure making its way through the poor and up towards the rich. The reasons could be variable, from owners trying to charge too much money to executives simply putting their foot down and believing the sport is past its prime. Whatever the answer, the right people need to find it because these teams and their employees can’t run without funding; and as owners drop like flies, it’s not a prudent long-term approach to let the equivalent of five New York Yankees – Jack Roush, Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, Richard Childress and Roger Penske – either own or supply chassis and engines to the entire grid.
See why is the half-full/half-empty question so hard to answer? No wonder Daytona executives are working overtime these days. With their due diligence, plus the right personnel shifts the sport appears closer than ever to turning a corner. But, as we’ve learned with everyone from Mauricia Grant to Jeremy Mayfield, just one minor incident is all it takes to tip the scales.
This time, the NASCAR brass better hope it tips their way.