Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: Why NASCAR Doesn’t Have Any Current Stars

Ask any sports fan who doesn’t follow NASCAR to name you a current NASCAR Cup Series driver.

Maybe they can list off Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Bubba Wallace. Maybe they can name those five. Maybe.

Three of those are holdovers from NASCAR’s peak in popularity, and Harvick retires at the end of the year, so you’re about to lose him from this list. One is the son of the most popular driver from the booming 1990s. The final of those five is perhaps best known for the wrong reasons: the unfortunate noose mix-up.

Kyle Larson and William Byron are two of the top stars in Cup this year, and Larson has a dominant season and championship to his name, but I bet non-NASCAR sports fans aren’t familiar with either of them.

Maybe they know Ross Chastain because of the Hail Melon at Martinsville Speedway in 2022, and perhaps they’re aware of Austin Dillon from his USA reality show. But they’ve probably already forgotten both of their names.

This week, I interviewed NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace (look for the interview on the Frontstretch Podcast), and it hit me while I was doing it that Wallace’s name is probably still more recognizable to non-NASCAR fans than majority of the current drivers despite not racing since 2005. I went to an autograph signing of his at a local car dealership back in 2003, when I was 11 years old, and the line wrapped around the building and then some. It took hours of waiting in line to see Wallace.

See also
Podcast: Rusty Wallace on Return to TV & More

Would that happen out in public, not at the racetrack, with any of today’s drivers?

And Wallace wasn’t even one of the most popular drivers at the time. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart were much more recognizable then.

You ask any non-NASCAR sports fan probably over the age of 30 if they’ve heard of those names, and I guarantee they have. They probably also remember names like Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Terry Labonte, Mark Martin, and most of all, Bill Elliott.

So why? Why are the names of the 1990s and 2000s still so much more recognizable than those of today?

More people were buying tickets to races and watching it on TV back then, of course. And there are plenty of reasons both in and out of NASCAR’s control as to why that popularity dipped.

But still, NASCAR is probably in line with the 1980s as far as popularity goes. Yet those calling the shots of that era did such a better job of selling the names of Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Elliott.

A big part of it was the marketing was done much better. Frontstretch‘s Stephen Stumpf already did a fantastic job detailing how NASCAR could do a better job marketing the Cup Series itself, so give that article a read to see what some fixes could be on that front.

But NASCAR needs to do a better job of marketing the drivers too, the stars of the show. How often does anyone tune into a movie where they don’t know any of the actors?

Stumpf touched on how NASCAR could do a Netflix docuseries, not a USA Network one, like F1 and the PGA have done to draw interest from younger viewers.

NASCAR has had two shots to promote itself and its drivers on Netflix. One was the Bubba Wallace docuseries, which was really well done, but it’s too polarizing of a topic to attract droves of new fans (don’t get mad at me for that statement, I’m just saying that’s how some are). The other was The Crew, a comedy (and I use that term loosely) that did the series no favors and was canceled after one season.

NASCAR did do a good job with Chase Elliott’s return by having him go on The Pat McAfee Show and ESPN’s SportsCenter. But I bet Alex Bowman won’t get that same kind of push when he returns from injury. He is a playoff driver for a powerhouse team in Hendrick Motorsports, but no one outside of NASCAR circles knows who he is.

See also
Alex Bowman Missing Multiple Weeks Due to Injury, Josh Berry to Fill In

Outside of some shows on USA, you really don’t see a lot of the drivers outside of NASCAR circles. Part of that comes from the dip in popularity.

I’m sure Ryan Blaney would do a phenomenal job on Saturday Night Live (unlike Gordon, whose hosting stint was referred to by Jimmy Fallon as one of the worst episodes ever), but SNL ain’t exactly calling these days. And the cameo opportunities in movies like Earnhardt and Gordon had probably aren’t there either, but they would be if NASCAR got its drivers up in mainstream recognition just a few notches.

One achievable thing: whenever FOX or NBC broadcast the Super Bowl, the most recent champion or the defending Daytona 500 winner should be there at the game, on the field, promoting the Great American Race before kickoff. Everyone is watching the Super Bowl. When they see some unknown dude promoting the Daytona 500, it’ll lead to many Google searches for that driver. Instead, there is usually some lame, tired commercial during the Super Bowl.

But even simpler and more effective than that, NASCAR and its TV partners need to go back to making these drivers transcend from the races they are in into the viewers’ homes like they did in the 1980s-2000s. Help the viewer get to know them. I still feel like I know Rick Mast better than a great number of the Cup drivers today, and he never even won a Cup race.

Part of that isn’t the TV partners’ fault, as sponsorships and team PR keep drivers from showing their personalities these days. Part of that isn’t NASCAR’s fault (but penalizing Hamlin for showing personality is), as drivers hiding in their motorhomes at the track has killed that connection with fans. I maintain the formation of the motorhome lot was the worst change of the past 30 years. Prior to that, the drivers were forced to be out and about among the fans a lot more.

But part of it is NASCAR’s fault. There’s no money in the feeder series, so the only ones making it out of them are primarily rich kids to whom fans can’t relate. Winston, Busch and other sponsors pumped enough into those series back in the day that it gave hard-working, relatable drivers the opportunity to catch the eye of Cup teams.

Having a series filled with rich kids isn’t a damning thing at all, though. F1 has that, and its drivers are gaining popularity. It’s what NASCAR has done from a competition standpoint that is capping how big its stars can become.

Sports gain mainstream attention through dominant athletes. Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Tiger Woods and Tom Brady became larger than life by dominating their respective sports, and said sports benefited from it.

NASCAR’s rise into the mainstream came via domination by Petty, Waltrip, Allison, Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace and Gordon through various years. Having Petty, the most well-known and dominant driver at that point, win the first flag-to-flag televised Daytona 500 and win his 200th race with President Ronald Reagan there were two huge moments for NASCAR in the mainstream. Double-digit win seasons in which they won championships helped launch Earnhardt and Gordon to fame.

But with as much parity as NASCAR has brought into Cup now via the Next Gen car, the playoffs and a crapshoot championship race, the days of a dominant athlete are extinct. Larson’s 2021 season was the last remnant of that.

The other thing that puts athletes in the mainstream is winning big events. NASCAR used to have that — the Daytona 500, the spring race at Talladega Superspeedway, the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500 all used to be much bigger deals than they are now. Those and a few other races made up the crown jewels, and many of them within the same season gave a driver all kinds of notoriety.

First, you had the Triple Crown, then the Winston Million and finally the Winston No Bull 5. And while these big races didn’t amount to a lot in the championship picture, fans tuned in to watch whether a star driver could win multiple crown jewels within a season and get a huge payday to along with it.

He won his first Most Popular Driver award in 1984, but Bill Elliott grew to even bigger popularity by winning the Winston Million the following year. It earned him the nickname Million Dollar Bill, which stuck for quite a while.

In 1997, Gordon both had a dominant championship season and won the Winston Million. The following year, Gordon had a guest spot on the sitcom Spin City. Anytime you’re in something with Michael J. Fox, that’s a huge deal in my book.

Alas, the crown jewel races are barely treated as crown jewels now. The invention of the playoffs essentially made all races the same, bonuses for winning multiple crown jewels went away, and NASCAR no longer releases driver winnings, so none of it matters.

The only race with really any added emphasis is the championship race at Phoenix Raceway. But who cares about any race at Phoenix?

That’s why Hamlin’s idea to have a summer bracket was such a refreshing idea, as something like that would make those races big deals and give the ultimate winner some exposure and payday, which fans do in fact care about.

Yes, the All-Star Race pays $1 million to the winner, but that amount doesn’t mean as much as it did over 20 years ago when it was the same payout. Apparently inflation never reached NASCAR’s purses.

Whether NASCAR goes with Hamlin’s idea or another, it needs something to give drivers more platforms to become stars again.

Otherwise, once Harvick, Hamlin, Busch, Chase Elliott and Bubba Wallace are gone, we’ll have a field of strangers.

About the author

Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.

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Echo

Ahh Michael, you could have used a lot of different names but you had to put bubba in there didn’t you. And then you compounded your mistake by mentioning the noose, an incident long forgotten.

WJW Motorsports

Forgotten? Ah, no, not forgotten at all.

Bill B

Yep. Every time I see this FOX promo

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I am reminded of that event.
Why is a guy with 2 wins that hasn’t ever finished the season in the top 10 shown with these true stars of the sports?

There is only one reason and we all know it.

WJW Motorsports

Yep, and at least two of those slots will be replaced as soon as they can get the faces they need to fill out the check-list. Separate – you going to test the rain this weekend? (Dover my home track too)…

Bill B

My best friend happened to get two comped tickets from a vendor where he works. Given the forecast I have no desire to drive to Dover and sit around in the rain. Even if somehow they get the race in on Sunday, I doubt it will be much fun for the fans in the stands. I’ve done that before when I was a rabid fan and I don’t plan on doing it again.

I am hoping it rains out on Sunday and my plan is to go on Monday. No crowds, the race will likely start at 11AM and be done about the time it’s supposed to start on Sunday, and no traffic on the way out. So we’ll see how it all unfolds.

How about you, any plans on taking a chance?

WJW Motorsports

Nice – that Monday scenario would be a dream. I’ve done the weather/race thing before and no thanks (was at Martinsville in Spring 22 and that was a rough one) as well. Only an hour for me to Dover so I don’t mind so much if it doesn’t work out. Not even thinking about Sunday – but if the rain blows through in the morning, might take up the more rational 1:30 start Xfin race tomorrow.

janice

i use to live in baltimore and when i’d go to dover 30 yrs ago the traffic going home after race was horrible. but the races were also during beach season. 5 hrs to go what normally was 1.5-2 hrs.

those were the days.

WJW Motorsports

I don’t go quite back 30 but have sat in that same traffic (usually happily) many times before going the other way. It’s a great, great track that should be saved. Sad to see it dwindle and a few years back when I made it all the way from the grass lot area to the traffic light, post race, without stopping once – knew it must be doomed.

Kurt Smith

The O’s are doing great though!!

janice

i can’t remember, does dover have lights? i guess they won’t pull out the rain tires cause of the banking at dover.

i just checked dover weather, they have a gale warning up right now. might get some stuff in on saturday, doubtful on sunday. i’ve sat through rain and cold in that place. miserable. i guess you can always walk over to casino.

they must want track to lose the date by having it so early in the spring.

Bill B

No, they “wisely” decided to invest their money in building a silly statue instead of putting up lights.

Marc

I would think that, if they were allowed to have lights, they’d have put them in for the harness racing track by now.

wildcats2016

Bill B, boy you are so right about not wanting to sit around in the rain. We used to go to both Dover races with a bus trip. Lots of fun. Then the group stopped going so we bought our own tickets. One year I was looking at the radar the night before & called my friend to say I was NOT going to the race so don’t show up to pick me up. It was the right call. The race was rained out on Sunday, they ran on Monday & it was easy in easy out. Hope you have fun on Monday if things work out.

kb

OMG! WTH.. Seriously???? One of the worst articles I’ve ever read on this site.

John

I agree that the absence of star power is bad for the sport. I also agree that the average race fan can only hope to say ‘hi’ to a driver now if they pay up big time for hot pit credentials. Even then dad has to block the publicist so the kid can get 5 seconds with their hero. Part of Nascar’s appeal was being able to stand in line for an autograph at the souvenir trailer which Nascar and tracks completely ruined by pricing them out of existence and taking over the souvenir business (and running it into the ground). Developing the ‘connection’ with a driver is greatly enhanced by personal engagement.
I also agree that Nascar’s now kit car series and advertising the “level playing field” tells me they believe that there is no need for stars. Many race series require drivers to be made available for autograph sessions. Drivers cannot command the salaries of the past anymore…Perhaps they need to do some soul searching and spend that extra couple of hours a week.
I understand why Nascar doesn’t talk about money…the payout process is so unbelievably complicated that no one on the outside would understand it. On what planet does it make sense for the amount a team is paid for a win be partially determined by how well they did in the last 3 years?
Until the Brian Z France era, the story line of the week rarely was about Nascar: it was about the race. Since BZF the main stories revolve around the sanctioning body. They communicate too much to people that don’t need to know and it takes away from their core product…the racing.

janice

one of the things i used to love about attending races in person was the access to the drivers. this was in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s and a few in early 2000’s. now, as mentioned you have to pay up for pass or know someone on a team to get access to pit road.

sure some drivers do local appearances leading up to a race weekend, but it’s not like it use to be where they’d just hang out. now you’re funneled through the line as quickly as possible. i remember seeing carl edwards at ams and he stood outside his souvenir rig talking to us fans that were waiting for his rig to open. i remember ward burton being in a tent in the souvenir area for mbna doing autographs and just sitting at the table and anyone could come up and get autograph or pic and talk to him. you didn’t need to have access bracelet. joe nemecheck too. heck i have an autograph from john hunter when he was 5 yr old when he was with his dad at the go army souvenir rig. i told kid then i wanted his signature as i had a feeling he’d be a racer.

do they even have the area with souvenir rigs? now it’s all corporate tent access. smoozing sponsors. sure sponsors are needed, but fans are the life blood. now every driver runs different paint schemes every few weeks. i remember when dale sr started the special paint scheme deal at the all star race all those years ago, fans were crazy collecting those one-up diecasts.

we have corporate drones for drivers. if you have any character to yourself, you’re handcuffed by the fear of fines for speaking ill of the sanctioning body. heck when chastain went for the wall ride last fall at martinsville, even non-race fans were talking about that move. of course now nascar has ruled no such move will occur again. stewart is at the track to be broadcaster…..we know how he feels about nascar. he’s taking his marbles to the drag strip.

nascar got what they wanted…homogenized racing.

DoninAjax

“Apparently inflation never reached NASCAR’s purses”

It has in ticket prices just not in payouts. It’s all about the $$$$!

National Association for Stock Car Automobile “Racing” is an oxymoron!

janice

i know last weekend i looked at riding over to dega…..between the price and ticketing surcharge. nope….

Kurt Smith

“But with as much parity as NASCAR has brought into Cup now via the Next Gen car, the playoffs and a crapshoot championship race, the days of a dominant athlete are extinct. Larson’s 2021 season was the last remnant of that.”

And don’t forget that Larson’s ten-win 2021 season would have been negated with that last pit stop taking an extra two seconds.

You’re right in that NASCAR has absolutely killed the possibility of one driver standing out from the field. It’s a combination of six pack races, six road course events (that could be easily fixed, but I doubt NASCAR will do it), double file restarts, green white checkered finishes, and a championship format where winning is pretty much all that matters.

The movement to bring parity to the sport started when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was at the peak of his popularity and wasn’t able to keep up with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Tony Stewart. NASCAR limited the number of cars a team could field and instituted their still-idiotic playoff system.

When Junior failed to make a ten-driver playoff field, it was expanded to 12 drivers. When Jeff Gordon beat Junior at Talladega in a race that ended under caution, NASCAR introduced the overtime.

Then Danica came along…OUR SAVIOR!! Soon the playoff format was expanded to 16 teams, and a driver needed only to win to make the playoff field. They had to do something to give a driver a shot who was never going to make it in on points.

All of the current rules in place designed to “create excitement” have been about giving an assist to popular but mediocre performing drivers. As the sport rewards mediocrity, that’s what we get.

Last edited 11 months ago by Kurt Smith
Bill B

Look around. Seems like there is a lot of rewarding bad behavior and/or mediocrity in our entire society. I won’t expand on that any farther just because I don’t want to steer this into politics.

Kurt Smith

Dealing with that with my full time employer.

John

Bubba Wallace? Really? The only reason his name is known is that the media has pushed him down our throats. I don’t care if he’s black or green or purple; without the media involved, he’s just another driver, not a standout at all.

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