NASCAR struggled with ratings and attendance last season, and that decline happened even though its biggest star was in his farewell season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s farewell season was unceremonious on the track, but not many expected him to contend for a title. However, NASCAR officials were certainly hoping his farewell season would boost ratings and attendance.
Now, with Earnhardt, Danica Patrick and Matt Kesneth all retiring, NASCAR has a massive popularity void to fill, and it will depend on a handful of young stars to take over for the future.
Earnhardt is one of the biggest stars the sport has ever seen, so someone stepping up and taking his place will be nearly impossible in one year. Patrick was also a bankable star since she always found herself in the headlines -- mostly for wrecks and poor performances in 2017. While Kenseth was never a name brand like Earnhardt, he was still one of the most reliable drivers of the last 15 years, and NASCAR will miss him next season.
So where does the sport turn now? There are popular drivers remaining such as Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. Martin Truex Jr. has also worked his way into that category after his championship run in 2017. While those are some of the best drivers in the sport, most of them aren't exactly name brands like Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt was never the top driver in the sport, but his personality and last name made him the most recognizable driver in NASCAR. It's hard to replace that, but NASCAR might be depending on Chase Elliott to break through and become the star of the future.
Like Dale Jr., Elliott has the racing pedigree. His father, Bill, won the 1988 Cup championship, and he was also the most popular driver for many years. Chase is expected to both compete for titles and take over for Dale Jr. as the most popular driver in NASCAR, but he has a long way to go if he wants to have a similar legacy to Dale Jr. off the track.
Even if Elliott does take the next step and increase his star power, it's not something that's going to happen overnight. It takes several years to cultivate a following like Dale Jr.'s, so whoever the "next" driver is might need a few years.
Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and perhaps William Byron could also be in the mix for becoming stars in the sport, but they'll likely need a lot more wins to join that group.
The list of popular drivers who have retired in recent years keeps growing, and it's not a good sign for NASCAR. Dale Jr., Kenseth, Patrick, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards... the list goes on and on. With ratings and attendance already on the decline, the sport could be in rough shape in the short term.
That puts added pressure on Elliott and the other young drivers to step up their game over the next few years. The future of NASCAR might be at stake.