Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Is NASCAR Becoming Mainstream?

1. Should NASCAR hold the yellow flag when a wreck happens in the middle of a pit cycle?

The finish of the Cup race made almost everything else that happened an afterthought, but there was a source of controversy in a round of green flag pit stops during the second stage where Michael McDowell locked up the brakes in an incident that sent both himself and William Byron into the inside wall.

No caution was thrown, and the two cars nearly collected Ty Gibbs in the aftermath. Both McDowell and Byron were able to drive away from the scene of the accident with some damage, but it took a good 15 seconds for them to do so.

Elton Sawyer, NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Competition, later explained that the yellow flag was held because Byron and McDowell were able to drive away, and that NASCAR wanted to give them the opportunity to do so before throwing a caution since the incident occurred during the middle of a green flag pit cycle.

It is true that throwing the caution for the wreck would’ve trapped a plethora of drivers one or two laps down, and such a scenario would’ve changed the entire complexion of the race. But when it comes to holding the yellow flag, how long is too long?

Drivers should be given a little time to gather their cars before throwing a caution, but there are certain scenarios where the yellow flag has to be displayed. Byron and McDowell both hit the inside wall, and they nearly collected another car while losing control at the entrance to pit road — a busy place where more drivers were getting ready to enter.

Does that mean that NASCAR should immediately throw a caution for an incident that occurs during green flag pit stops? No, and there’s a happy medium between holding and displaying the caution. But when cars are blocking the entrance to pit road or a part of the racing groove and don’t immediately drive away, race control has to bite the bullet and slow the field down.

2. Is NASCAR becoming mainstream?

No, NASCAR is not mainstream — at least not yet.

In the last two years, NASCAR has produced four moments in particular that have transcended the reach of the NASCAR community: Ross Chastain’s Hail Melon at Martinsville Speedway, the Garage 56 car at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Cup Series’ trip to the streets of Chicago and, most recently, the three-wide photo finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway between Daniel Suarez, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch.

The series has become innovative and open to change after years of complacency, and these viral moments are some of the results.

It also helps that NASCAR was able to partner with Netflix to produce a documentary on the 2023 playoffs titled NASCAR: Full Speed, and that helped unlock the world of stock car racing to thousands, if not millions, of potential viewers that otherwise would’ve brushed it aside.

It’s shown in the ratings to start the 2024 season. The Daytona 500 getting rained out to Monday was a bummer, but the second race of the season at Atlanta saw 4.5 million viewers — 200,000 more than the second race of the 2023 season at Auto Club Speedway.

NASCAR has also seen a surge of new followers and activity on its social media platforms with NASCAR: Full Speed, and its Instagram account alone has gained 258,000 followers since its release (for comparison’s sake, the account gained just 32,000 followers for the same time span last season).

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More opportunities have opened up to the drivers as well. Byron had always been a LEGO enthusiast, but his status as the Daytona 500 champion has opened the door to where he might acquire a sponsorship deal with the company itself. You even saw Corey LaJoie land a high-profile sponsorship deal with national restaurant chain Chili’s for the Daytona 500, and the partnership continued into Atlanta as it sponsored the onboard camera for his No. 7 car.

There were talks for NASCAR to go international with a race in Montreal for 2024, and while those talks stalled out last year, it seems all but certain that the Cup Series will have an international date on the 2025 calendar. The Busch Light Clash has been rumored to head to Mexico next year, and Canada and Mexico are just two of the countries that NASCAR is looking at for the future.

And with Monterrey, Mexico, native Suarez scoring the viral win at Atlanta last Sunday (Feb. 25), it would be a missed opportunity if NASCAR is unable to capitalize on the moment with a race south of the border next season.

In short, NASCAR still has a long way to go to reach its commercial peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And if we’re being honest, it may never reach that peak again. But after more than a decade of downturn, NASCAR is finally showing the signs of a rebound.

3. Dale Jr. is leaving NBC. What does that mean for 2025?

Amazon and TNT are joining the NASCAR fold, and the first domino for their new broadcast teams dropped on Thursday (Feb. 29), as it was reported by The Athletic that Dale Earnhardt Jr. would depart NBC after six seasons to join the new networks for 2025.

Earnhardt had previously revealed that his contract with NBC expired at the end of 2023, and he will now take a sabbatical from Cup broadcasting in 2024. NBC will now truncate back to a three-man booth, which will consist of Rick Allen, Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte.

Losing Earnhardt is a huge hit to NBC, as he provided star power and — in many ways — served as the anchor to its broadcasts.

Will NBC look to replace him for this season or next? Not necessarily. Most NASCAR broadcasts have a play-by-play announcer to go along with two color commentators, but NBC went against the grain by having a four-man booth instead of three once Earnhardt joined the network in 2018.

As for Amazon and TNT, acquiring Earnhardt is huge. Both are looking to break into the NASCAR market against the heavyweights of FOX and NBC, and there is no better way for them to start off their broadcasts by acquiring a commentator with six years of experience that just so happens to be NASCAR’s most popular driver and personality.

The question now turns to who will follow Earnhardt’s path, as Amazon and TNT will need a host of new staff that range from play-by-play announcers, color commentators, pit reporters, technical analysts and studio hosts.

The new hires will be a story to watch in the upcoming months, and when I posed the question on Twitter, there was one name that popped up more than any other.

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4. Only 32 trucks will race at Las Vegas. What’s with the low turnout?

A full field consists of 36 trucks in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, and the series was able to reach that mark for the season-opening Fresh from Florida 200 at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 16.

Since then, it hasn’t been pretty. Only 33 trucks competed at Atlanta last Saturday (Feb. 24), and just 32 trucks are entered for Friday’s (Mar. 1) race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

What happened?

There were only five races in the 2023 season that didn’t have 36 starters, and even then, none of the races had fewer than 34 trucks. To find the last time that a race had 32 trucks, you’d have to go back four years to Atlanta in 2020 — a time where the series had a maximum field of 32.

For reasons behind this potential downturn, the truck teams for the upcoming race at Las Vegas will be awarded just over a third of the money Xfinity teams receive and more than 12 times less than Cup teams.

This pay structure is nothing new, and it’s been this way for a while. But if the series is struggling to find part-time entries and put up a full field, it might be time to tweak the purse the teams receive each weekend.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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4 Comments
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janice

mainstream? no. just wait 6 weeks into the season and it becomes monotonous. the sport has peaks and valleys. first few races of the season are always well received because there hasn’t been racing for a few months.

what will the world do without dale jr being involved in tv broadcast this year? i’m thinking he wanted too much money from nbc/nbc sports. also maybe nbc has too many corporate guidelines that need to be followed for the relaxed lifestyle mr. earnhardt. i remember when he went to hendrick, he wore the startched white shirt but kept the shirt tail out. streaming is more loose with commentary and choice of words. it will be interesting to see if he’s more a hands on owner on race days at the track during his break from broadcasting.

Bill B

NASCAR should throw the caution consistently. It shouldn’t matter when in the race it occurs. They should throw or not throw the flag based solely on the issue causing the caution. If it comes at an inconvenient time, thems the breaks.

NASCAR was mainstream but then came Brian.

I guess they made Dale Jr an offer he couldn’t refu$e. I’m sure it will be good for him, not so much for NBC. Of the four in the booth, he was the least annoying. I doubt people are going to start paying for Amazon Prime just to see 5 NASCAR races. In fact, I’d think it will make a lot of fans’ season end sooner. It used to be when the NFL starts, now it will be when they go to Amazon. Personally I already have prime so it isn’t an issue for me, but to many it will piss them off and they may stop watching in protest. I know I wouldn’t pay for Prime just to see 5 NASCAR races (or Thursday night football games).

Last edited 1 month ago by Bill B
janice

i pay for one streaming package. if it’s not on there or on the free channels i get, oh well. i’m on a budget! nascar gave up on my age fan years ago. i know where their loyality lies.

Kevin in SoCal

NASCAR and its inconsistent cautions are the reason for the wild conspiracy theories fans have towards who the favorite teams are. I believe the caution should have been thrown because the cars spun around and were blocking the pit entrance. A car bouncing off the wall does not deserve a caution unless it dropped some pieces on the track.

I love it that Dale Jr will be gone, he was my MOST annoying. We have PRIME but I won’t like that I can’t record the race and skip the commercials.

Last edited 1 month ago by Kevin in SoCal
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