Alt-Driver’s Anthony Brown, Ray Marcano and Cole Frederick each week debate the biggest questions facing NASCAR. This week, the question is: How big of a blow is it that Dale Jr. and Danica Patrick are leaving NASCAR at the same time?
ANTHONY BROWN: It’s huge. Danica and Dale leaving is not going to make much of a difference to the playoff chase or the power rankings, but NASCAR is currently in crisis. Attendance and ratings are falling, and fans have a list of reasons why they are losing interest. Two of the biggest names will be leaving at the worst possible time for the business side of the sport.
Earnhardt’s popularity is easy to quantify since he’s won the last 14 most popular driver awards and is the favorite for another this year, but Patrick’s is harder to grasp. Some fans love her, some fans love to hate her. But regardless of one’s feelings about her skill level or personality, NASCAR will miss the diversity and attention she brought. It’s no secret NASCAR is lacking in that area, and being one of the only sports that allows men and women to compete together, they will be missing out on a unique draw.
RAY MARCANO: From an on-track performance issue, not much. But I don’t think you can underestimate their off-track value from a number of different angles. We’ve had four decades of a Dale Sr. (who started in 1975) or Dale Jr. on the track. Think about that. They’re among the most iconic father-son pairs in sports history, right up there with Bobby and Barry Bonds; Ken Griffey Sr. and Jr., and Gordie Howe and his sons. You can’t replace that history. Dale Jr’s intangibles — interacting with fans and reporters who cover the sport, and the smart use of social media to spread his message — will really be missed. From Danica Patrick’s perspective, I think NASCAR is going to take a marketing hit since she was the one driver who transcended the sport. She would have been somewhat of a bridge to the non-Earnhardt years, but now that bridge is gone too. Don’t think NASCAR doesn’t know it’s in a bit of a fix. NASCAR’s marketing arm as well as Tony Stewart and Gene Haas have noted her importance to the sport. This doesn’t mean that NASCAR will suffer a precipitous attendance decline at the track (though enhanced racing days could do that), or that its TV ratings will shrink anymore. But it does mean it needs to quickly figure out who that next driver(s) is who will be the charismatic face of the sport.
COLE FREDERICK: NASCAR has lost a considerable amount of star power in recent years. Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards have all retired in the last few years, but the absence of Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be nearly impossible for NASCAR to overcome in the short term. He’s been the most popular driver in the sport for nearly 15 years, and while his racing legacy isn’t on the same level as Gordon or Stewart, his connection with fans trumps maybe any driver in the history.
On top of Earnhardt’s departure, Danica Patrick is retiring. She isn’t as popular as Earnhardt, but she’s a more polarizing figure and one that will be tough to replace. Patrick and Earnhardt combined for exactly zero wins in 2017, but they might be the two most recognizable names in the sport.
NASCAR is relying on rising stars such as Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney to pick up the void left by Earnhardt and Patrick — and even Matt Kenseth, who is among the most dependable drivers in the sport — and it’s possible those young drivers can take over the sport in due time.
But for the short term, it’s a tremendous blow for NASCAR, and the ratings issues the sport dealt with in 2017 could be even more severe in 2018 until the next batch of stars emerge.