In racing, there is a lot of debate over what exactly it is that makes fans become fans.
There are people who do tune into NASCAR specifically for the crashing. It’s been something that has happened since the dawn of time. People want that rush of seeing something they conceive as a spectacle, whether it ends in relief or tragedy. TV ratings indicate to us that the only time site location actually matters is when the race is held at either a new location or at superspeedways.
But not everybody tunes in for that. There’s still a backbone of fans that tune in for NASCAR every single week. But it’s also unclear as to what exactly it is they truly want. Do they want big personalities among drivers? Do they want fist-fighting? Do they want good racing, however they individually define it? It’s hard to figure out.
“What [Jeff Gordon] is focused on is taking Hendrick Motorsports to new levels. He wants his drivers to become more well-known outside of motorsports and to cross over to the mainstream like he did. [Chase] Elliott is the sport’s most popular driver but is sometimes seen as being reserved and stoic, which plays well with NASCAR’s crowd but may be hurting his chances of making more of a mainstream impact.
“‘I want our drivers to be organic and don’t want them to be anyone they’re not, but whatever you’re comfortable with, I want to see you go just outside that comfort zone,’ Gordon said. ‘If you’re willing to put yourself in places people don’t expect you and you want to be there — the traditional sporting events and country music concerts are great, but let’s take that a step further — that’s what I’m trying to encourage our guys to do. I didn’t want to host Saturday Night Live [at first] — I was scared to death.'”
Say, wait a minute! Where’s the video? The embedded Tweet or post or whatever Twitter is this week?
The reality is that is not a Gordon quote from this past week. This is a passage from an article in Sports Business Journal from February 2022. It came on the heels of Gordon having become a full-time executive at Hendrick Motorsports following his departure from FOX Sports after 2021.
Read it again. Now, let’s actually take a look at what Gordon said last week.
“I wouldn’t want that to be one of our drivers,” Gordon said, labeling Hamlin’s actions as a “distraction.”
Gee, what happened in less than two years here?
Gordon does grant that he thinks Hamlin is being a bit of himself and that it does work for Hamlin himself. But there seems to be an implication that Hamlin is actually damaging his team by speaking out more now. It’s basically the classic Chappelle Show skit called “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong.”
Keep in mind that Joe Gibbs Racing has three out of four drivers in the Round of 8, with Hamlin’s team 23XI Racing having another spot. This is compared to Hendrick’s two.
This isn’t to demean Hendrick in any way — the team has had a successful season with two drivers. But JGR and 23XI have both also had very good seasons, the best so far for 23XI in particular.
But the biggest quote from modern-day Gordon that caught my eye was this one:
“Let the sponsors market you, let the sport figure out how to market you,” Gordon said. “Build your brand through who you are, on social media, and be the best you that you can be. “
Yeah, how did that work for Hamlin over the years? Who doesn’t remember that memorable FedEx campaign where they tried to market him as “The Deliverminator”? Wait, don’t click off the article just yet, I’m begging you.
Hamlin spent 15 years doing exactly what Gordon is preaching here. Yeah, he could talk out a time or two, but never to the extent that he has this year. And yet, somehow, he hasn’t really been punished yet for it. FedEx re-upped with him, JGR re-upped with him also. He’s still a full-blown, serious championship contender.
Imagine if Dale Earnhardt had decided to sit on his hands in like 1986 and go, “Nah, NASCAR and Goodwrench will figure things out from here.”
No, instead he and his wife Teresa decided to build their own brand and revolutionize how NASCAR was marketed. Something Gordon knows as he became part of that brand; the Wonder Boy that the Intimidator had to figure out a way around.
What Hamlin has done this year should be something celebrated and studied, not something poo-poo’d by the old dinosaurs. Not every driver can market themselves like that, much like how not everybody could be the Intimidator back in the day.
And again, the frustrating part of this is that Gordon knows all of this. This is taking it a step forward, like he said he wanted to in the first place. But he also doesn’t like it.
What Gordon actually wants, apparently, is unclear.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …
- The championship spoiler may still end up being Chris Buescher. With Brad Keselowski out of the playoffs, RFK Racing will now be able to throw its full force behind the soft-spoken Texan to go on a title push. Buescher’s best chance at a win in this round may well be down at Homestead-Miami Speedway next week. In 2021, Buescher won stage 1 on merit, and in 2022, he finished a very solid 13th in a year where he only had 10 top-10 finishes.
- The surprise revelation that A.J. Allmendinger will likely be going down to the NASCAR Xfinity Series next year means there’s suddenly a Cup seat up for grabs. Kaulig Racing’s best option would be to go with a full-time driver, as that is preferable to partners and sponsors. If they don’t do that, however, it might be best to run an “all-star” car again. It wouldn’t be surprising to potentially see a schedule in that scenario — just spit-balling here — where Allmendinger races the five road courses and, later on in the season, Shane van Gisbergen shows up for some oval reps. This would allow Trackhouse Racing room to still field van Gisbergen at the road courses without also having him on ovals in a costly open car.
About the author
Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.
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