Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Nearly Last of a Slowly Dying Breed in NASCAR

1. Is Bristol about to be the most important first round playoff race ever?

Admit it: Bristol Motor Speedway hasn’t really felt like Bristol for a while.

Whether it was the slowly declining crowds at the track over the years, the fact that the spring race slowly lost some of its identity (and got covered by dirt) or whatever the case may be, even the fabled Bristol Night Race lacked some of its magic over the last decade or so.

But if the Last Great Colosseum needed a spark, NASCAR couldn’t have manufactured one better than it just got. Bristol isn’t just a playoff cutoff race for the Round of 12, but arguably the most high stakes and unpredictable one since the NASCAR Playoffs became a thing.

We have Erik Jones and Bubba Wallace to largely thank for that. Consecutive weeks with non-playoff drivers winnings have resulted in a field of 16 headed to the half-mile where no one is safe. Well, nearly no one, as surprise points leader Christopher Bell is locked into the next round.

But literally no one else is, which means any playoff driver who takes the checkered flag at Bristol is essentially getting something like you’d see on a reality show where one contestant gets saved no matter how they did the rest of the time. You think Kevin Harvick wouldn’t appreciate that lifeline after how his last few weeks have gone?

Better still, there’s Kyle Busch, who currently sits below the cut line on points, but has historically done some of his best work at Bristol. There are six drivers (numbers 12-15) separated by only 13 total points. This should be a lot of fun, the kind that hasn’t always been the case as of late for one of NASCAR’s most iconic tracks.

Buckle up.

2. The grass isn’t always greener, and maybe the money isn’t either

Speaking of Kyle Busch, he’s going to announce live on Tuesday, Sept. 13 where he’ll be driving in 2023. It’s possible the ink is already done on a new contract with Rowdy’s name in it somewhere, with The Athletic citing sources telling it that Busch is headed to Richard Childress Racing.

After 15 years at Joe Gibbs Racing, both sides are likely to say they simply couldn’t work things out to stay together. It’s probably closer to the truth to say “didn’t want to” than “couldn’t,” however, because while it’s not like race teams can’t have irreconcilable differences like interpersonal relationships, that doesn’t appear to be the case here.

Busch isn’t exactly dominating like he was a few years ago (and his air of invincibility is definitely lessened by not racing in the Truck Series any more, where he won so frequently it was ridiculous), but he can still get it done. He’s not even old yet: Amazingly just 37, even though it feels like he’s been driving in the Cup Series for three decades.

Instead, the point that’s been hammered home throughout the impending “will he or won’t he return?” drama is that JGR couldn’t find a sponsor suitable to replace Mars, the candy company that is departing the sport at the end of 2022. It’s no small feat replacing a sponsor as heavily committed as Mars was (and we’ll circle back to that shortly), but it’s telling that Sports Business Journal is reporting that “a couple RCR partners have indicated that they’re open to working with Busch and encouraged the team to sign him.”

That suggests that Busch isn’t as radioactive to prospective sponsors as we all might think, which in turn hints that dollars, while definitely important, aren’t the only reason the JGR-Rowdy partnership ran its course. It’s quite possible both sides just felt it was time to move on, as weird as that’s going to be for fans and observers come next season.

3. Do NASCAR fans even associate drivers with their sponsors at this point?

While studies continue to show that NASCAR fans are the most brand-loyal around, and much more likely to spend money on a company they see advertising in stock car racing than fans of other sports, it’s very clear the way that everyone around NASCAR has a different way of correlating drivers to sponsors than they did even 10 years ago.

Up until maybe the early 2010s, most teams, and especially the bigger teams, had one company on a car’s hood for the majority of races. Sure, sponsors would still move between teams, but even then it was generally just to support a different racer for most if not all of their schedule.

In 2010, even casual fans knew Jeff Gordon was DuPont and its sub-brands. Jimmie Johnson was Lowe’s. Denny Hamlin was FedEx. Slightly more regular viewers knew Joey Logano was Home Depot, after taking over from Tony Stewart. Maybe they didn’t know who drove the UPS car, but there was one.

Oh, and Kyle Busch was M&M’s, except soon he won’t be.

The days of a single sponsor signing on for most of a season have been fading away for some time, so it’s not weird when someone has new logos on their hood every other week. But it hits different when it’s someone like Rowdy, who had such a strong link to one brand. One of his nicknames was the Candy Man, for goodness sakes.

He’s survived, but only by a few. Hamlin and FedEx are still going strong. Aric Almirola and Smithfield have had one of the sport’s strongest bonds, even if you have to be a pretty big racing fan to realize that. Shell Pennzoil has backed Joey Logano nearly full time for a while.

Ally Financial, incredibly, took right over for Lowe’s on the No. 48 and stayed with the team when Alex Bowman took over. And most people you ask would do name association between Chase Elliott and NAPA, even though the company only does about two-thirds of his races.

Busch will most likely be fine, and may even spark some companies to join him at RCR that hadn’t before. It just won’t be the same as it was for him and M&M’s, a flickering flame of one-sponsor teams that hasn’t been extinguished but is barely holding on.

4. Parity is here, but is it better?

If you ask sports fans, they always say they want parity. That’s probably not that much of a shock considering in team sports, 20 to 30-some teams end each season sad and only one team’s fans are truly happy.

The behavior of fans has long said otherwise, with TV ratings and spending on things like tickets and merchandise always higher when there are dominant teams. Love them or hate them, the big winners draw people in.

So what do we make of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season? Including the last two non-playoff victors, there have now been 18 different winners this year. And it’s not like one other guy won all the rest, as Elliott’s four paces the field and seven different drivers have two wins apiece.

That’s pretty much the dictionary definition of parity. Anecdotally, fans seem to think the racing is better this year than last, and that’s the most important thing. We’ll have to wait and see, though, if lot of drivers having a shot to win but no one winning all that often is better or worse for NASCAR fan interest.

5. Whither, Tyler Reddick?

One positive knock-on effect of Busch to RCR would be avoiding the most awkward story in the Cup Series for 2023, the impending lame duck season for Tyler Reddick. Whatever side of the whole situation you come down on, Reddick is one of the brightest young talents in stock car racing, and having him race an entire campaign for a team he already knew he was leaving was going to be awkward.

He doesn’t deserve that, nor does RCR. Now, the possibility exists that he’ll simply be bought out of the final year of his contract and be able to go elsewhere for 2023. Even though he’ll still be a lame duck, it will be a much different set of overall circumstances and better for all involved.

Now ad for which team he might fill in for in 2023 … That’s the fun part of Silly Season, no?

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3 Comments
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DoninAjax

Baby Busch is leaving Reverend Joe’s company due to illness. They are sick of each other.

Tim

Im not a Busch fan by any means but for Gibbs to let him go no matter whats going on I feel is a dumb move….I feel RCR hit the gold mine… Not only is he losing Kyle but he is losing KBM too…We will see what the future holds for both but I feel Kyle and RCR will do better in the long run

Jeremy

I’m not real sure about that yet. JGR just made room for Grandbaby Gibbs, and he is younger and appears to have some talent. So in that regard, JGR has a longer runway with the younger Ace than RCR does with an aging Kyle Busch. Who knows, short term might even pan out for JGR too. RCR’s program will (should) benefit from Kyle’s experience in the car, but I’m not sure Kyle helping them play catch-up is as beneficial of a long term solution as JGR moving forward with a potential rising star. Time will tell.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jeremy
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