Before Sunday’s season finale at Homestead, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said he is optimistic about the sport’s future and believes NASCAR is on an upward trajectory.
France cited the young talent in the sport — namely Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott — as a positive sign for the future.
“They are here,” France said prior to the season-ending race at Homestead, according to NASCAR.com. “They are here, and they’ve got to develop their performance, but they’re doing well. You look at Ryan Blaney, you look at Chase (Elliott) almost making the final here in Miami. Go down the list. We’ve got a loaded group.”
And while France has a point about some of the young stars, he’s also downplaying the significance of NASCAR losing major stars and dependable drivers.
The absence of Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be incredibly difficult for the sport next year as it searches for a star to take his place with fans. Chase Elliott has the potential to be that guy, but he still has a ways to go before he even comes close to reaching Dale Jr.’s popularity.
Matt Kenseth is one of the most dependable drivers in the sport, and he’ll be replaced by a solid driver in Erik Jones, but Jones has big shoes to fill after Kenseth’s departure.
And while Danica Patrick hasn’t won a Cup Series race, she’s still one of the sport’s biggest stars and among the most popular drivers in NASCAR.
Ratings were already down at many races this season, and it has to be a cause for concern next year when drivers such as Earnhardt and Patrick won’t be in the field. How does NASCAR attract a younger audience? What can the sport do to maintain its current audience — specifically the fans of Earnhardt, who has been the most popular driver in the sport for the last 15 years.
Sure, there are still popular mainstays in the sport. Jimmie Johnson will be looking for his record-breaking eighth championship, while drivers such as Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. will be competing for another championship.
Look, it’s understandable why France is conveying optimism. You don’t exactly expect doom and gloom from a company’s CEO right before the championship. But it’s a bit worrisome that France hasn’t addressed how to fix the ratings issue, or what the sport can do to attract a bigger audience.
NASCAR has lost big drivers to retirement in recent years. Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon all retired, but the sport could always rely on Dale Earnhardt Jr. to keep longtime fans intrigued. Now, with Earnhardt in the booth, where does the sport turn?
NASCAR will rely on a youth movement with drivers such as William Byron, Alex Bowman, Erik Jones, Chase Elliott, and Ryan Blaney to be the future of the sport. Elliott might be the sport’s best chance at a future star, and while he had a successful year, he still hasn’t won a race.
Having villains is always a good thing, and there are some of those left with Kyle Busch and now Denny Hamlin. But NASCAR needs more than that if it’s going to thrive in the future.