Is NASCAR Still Bigger Than The Drivers?

Is NASCAR Still Bigger Than The Drivers?

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Tuesday, 23 May 2017
Mike Harper - SOZ

I remember the days when the very first thing to do each morning was to visit the JAYSKI web site to find out what the latest rumors were in NASCAR. Back then the “Silly Season Site” was truly the must read for driver rumors. Even drivers used the site to find out about other drivers or rumors about themselves. And while the JAYSKI site is still very relevant to this day and a must visit for me, the silly season aspect of the industry is gone – all because the NASCAR landscape is different.

Richard Petty, speaking about the power of drivers over NASCAR during his era, told the Associated Press in 2007, “NASCAR wasn’t as big as it is now, and the drivers weren’t as big as they are now. But NASCAR is still bigger than the drivers.”  Fast forward ten years and I’m not sure the same thing can be said about NASCAR in 2017.

The NASCAR landscape is different because today’s drivers, especially the popular ones have more power over the sanctioning body and team owners than ever before. Some may argue with me about that statement – but I don’t have to dig too deep to find that a strong driver brand is more important than performance in today’s NASCAR.  Yes, I said it – popularity will keep a driver in the race car over their performance. It’s happening.

Take a look at the current Cup standings. Only six of NASCAR’s top 35 drivers have won a Cup championship. Only 2 of those 6 championship drivers have won multiple championships. It goes beyond popularity for these 6 drivers because they have reached the ultimate goal – they are champions and deserve a place in the sport.

This leaves 29 drivers within the top 35 without a championship.   We can give a pass to 10 of those drivers – having spent less than 5 years at the Cup level. But the rest, those 19 drivers who have not won a championship and have spent more than 6 years in Cup, should have a spotlight on them and the media should be asking why they are not on the hot seat? But they won’t because these drivers are popular with the fans, their sponsors and the media.

In my opinion, the protection of popular drivers has hurt the sport. It has limited driver development and has monopolized the highest level of racing. Please allow me to say it again – it has monopolized the highest level of racing.

Team owners and drivers have taken advantage of driver popularity by dominating the lower levels of racing (especially in the Xfinity Series), which has closed the doors to young talent – and sadly we’ll never know just how far these talented drivers (those who left the sport and those who never got their chance) could have gone.

It was not that long ago when performance ruled the day. Sure many drivers lost their rides only to find new ones, but winning was the top priority. And when a driver failed to perform – his career was over.

Today, drivers are redefined and better equipped to handle marketing responsibilities – off track appointments and some even own businesses away from the track. It’s bigger than just strapping into a race car and racing on Sunday’s.  It’s 100% business and the drivers and their management teams get it.

I’m not faulting the drivers – in fact, I applaud them. I give them credit for recognizing and jumping on the opportunities to secure their positions. It is the fault of NASCAR and the team owners, which created an environment where drivers are now bigger than the actual sport. And as fans, we are guilty too. If we are truly honest with ourselves, we don’t care if our favorite driver wins a race. We have connected with that driver at a personal level. We wear their clothing. We support their sponsors and we follow their lives. We are going to cheer on our favorite driver, win or lose – and if they win, we will celebrate with them. But I’ve not heard of a fan dumping their favorite driver because they always lose. Have you? NASCAR is truly a personality driven sport and the drivers have figured this out.

NASCAR has made it easy for drivers – look at today’s rules. Back in the day when the sport was bigger than the driver, a champion was crowned based on gaining points over an entire season. By mid-season a driver could be out of the running for the championship. Performance was the priority. Under today’s system, a driver will receive 26 chances of moving into the playoffs, then 3 chances per playoff round, before one last shot to win the championship at the season ending race. That is a lot of chances for a driver to win it all compared to the old days.

Back in the day a driver had to qualify to make a race – yes, qualifying speed determined if they raced on Sunday. Today, under the rules the majority of drivers are guaranteed to make the race. No need to qualify.

These two examples, along with influence over the NASCAR decision makers to change competition rules (overtime rules and stage racing) are reasons why today’s players are bigger than the game.

Let’s get into the weeds. Drivers like Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin and Jamie McMurray have earned millions of dollars racing at the Cup level, but continue to fall short of championship greatness. Combined they have over 1.8 million followers on Twitter and hold some of NASCAR’s highest paying and recognized sponsors. After an average of 13 years at the Cup level between Kahne, Hamlin and McMurray, with no championship wins, shouldn’t someone question their performance?

Sure they are competitive. They have won races too. But isn’t the goal of racing a NASCAR season to win a championship and to be the best? If it is – then shouldn’t we see more driver turn-over – giving other talent the opportunity to win it all?

I’ve said many times recently the sport of NASCAR is getting smaller…not only in limited participants, but a smaller fan base and a smaller media covering the sport.  Just this past week FOX Sports announced what they call an “unprecedented move in national sports broadcasting” where an Xfinity Series race will be called entirely by active Cup drivers. Michael Waltrip said, “They’re going to take over.”

On the fun meter I am sure it will hit a 10. It should also help increase viewership because we all know NASCAR ratings are in the need of assistance. But for a media industry struggling to survive, I am at a loss on why FOX would send this signal to up and coming sports broadcasters that no matter your degree or how hard you work – you will be replaced by a NASCAR personality.

Also from a conflict of interest standpoint – does a Chevrolet or Toyota team really want an active Ford driver in their pit reporting on the race? As I said earlier, it will be fun from an entertainment perspective, but it is another example of how the drivers have become bigger than the sport.

NASCAR has a real challenge on their hands. How do they continue to promote their athletes, while maintaining control of the sport?  According to Richard Petty, “NASCAR got this big by being a dictatorship. And we don’t have to be here. We don’t have to race; we can go do something else. If you want to run, fine. If you don’t, fine. Somebody else will.”

Somewhere between 2001 and 2017 NASCAR’s philosophy as described by Petty changed. NASCAR management changed, their management style changed and the influence of team owners and drivers over the sport’s decisions have changed. You can be the judge if these changes have made the sport better. For me, the oversaturating of the NASCAR industry with their current drivers has not only hurt the sport’s overall growth, but has closed the door of opportunity for many young racers.

Are we truly watching the very best racing? I’m not so sure.  But I do know NASCAR must find a way to recapture their status as being bigger than the drivers or they face a very unhealthy future.

 

Catch RaceTalkRadio.com’s Lori and Dennis on “The Final Inspection” on 105.7FM The Fan in Milwaukee on Saturday at Noon CT. Steve Zautke hosts the most entertaining two hours covering all things racing and Lori Munro and Dennis Michelsen will have your NASCAR news and views every week.

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Want more SOZ? Check out his last column–> WHY DOES NASCAR CAKE TASTE BAD?

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author (SOZ) and does not necessarily reflect RaceTalkRadio.com or our advertisers.   

3 Comments

  1. Ken says:

    When I got interested in NASCAR racing in the 60s, I didn’t give a hoot about NASCAR or any championship. I followed drivers I liked (Fred Lorenzen, Junior Johnson, Richard Petty and others). Each race stood alone and the winner of the race was the winner. The drivers were ordinary people who happened to race only in the races they wanted to race in. I didn’t know who won the championship and I didn’t care. I miss it because of the way big money has ruined racing.

  2. Sunrain+now says:

    Well of course it is about the drivers now, and we get nuts because it isn’t racing! The racing is clean air, and who kicked butt on pit road. So when heaps of praise are about one driver, who pretty much lucked into the situation. Yes, you get those disgruntled and cranky people. Brian can fix it, or chose not to. Apparently he does not care.

    And as calling the Championship, yeah I guess those names have been around long enough and they have not won. These past few years with this format have brought guys that no doubt that should have won to Homestead, and because of something out of their hands, they lost the championship. One race, one lap, 10 laps, one pit stop, etc. Total worthy with season long stats for the season long CUP CHAMP, but Brian does not care about the other 35 hard earned races. That is the true crime in this format. He thinks a playoff moment is what fans what to see. No wonder fans are more driver based with their emotions, rather than a stupid race. Cause Brian screws the good ones at the end! Brian does not have a clue, and the idiots rehashing the mantra don’t get it either.

  3. Bill B says:

    Given the fact that there are 40 competitors and only one can win, I think your definition of what it means to be considered successful in NASCAR needs to be refined. Winning races or championships certainly is the gold standard but isn’t making the chase or contending for wins occasionally a more realistic (and fair) measuring stick? Of the 3 drivers you mentioned, none of which matter to me personally, I’d say Hamlin and McMurray are contenders and Kahne is the only one that should be replaced due to lack of success.

    You also need to ask the question, “Will I be able to find someone better to put in the car or will I just be taking a shot in the dark and hoping for better results?”. The answer to that question is much harder to quantify and that’s the questions the owners must ask themselves continually (at least I hope they are asking that question).

    I can turn this over to see a different angle as to why the drivers have become more powerful. Fans are pissed of at NASCAR and Brian France for all the constant changes that many have felt ruined something they love. The fan’s loyalty to a particular driver may be the only reason they keep tuning in and following the sport. If that is the case and that feeling is widespread then that is the source of the drivers’ power. Many Gordon, Stewart and (you can bet) Earnhardt Jr, fans quit following NASCAR with their driver’s retirement. That is power.

    As for drivers taking over the X-finity broadcast, so what? No one watches X-finity anyway and look at the bright side, those drivers won’t be able to run in the race.

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