What driver is worth watching these days?
That’s a question a friend of mine asked a week ago with Texas Motor Speedway days away from its opening race weekend. I didn’t have an answer.
NASCAR doesn’t have a “must-see” driver. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is gone. So is Danica Patrick. Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon hung it up a few years back.
And nobody has come close to the “must-see” label.
Jimmie Johnson is a seven-time champion and Kevin Harvick has been outspoken, but both were overshadowed by Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart and Gordon in their heyday. Kyle Busch won Sunday's O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 but he's tamed down since his days of intentionally wrecking drivers.
Now the focus is on the young drivers.
TMS tried to build up the opening weekend with “New Kids on the Track” shtick, promoting drivers such as Chase Elliott, Bubba Wallace, Daniel Suarez, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Erik Jones and Ryan Blaney.
But, truth be told, those drivers haven’t had enough success to excite your casual fan base. Elliott has long been pegged as the "next guy," he hasn’t won in 84 career Cup starts. Shouldn't your next "star," at least win once? Is that too much to ask if he's so good?
Blaney, in fact, is the only one of that young group who has won a Cup race.
Harvick stirred up the storyline by making it a “veterans vs. new guys” and reminding everyone the average age of Cup winners so far this season (38.5).
That’s a cute marketing ploy for now, but this is a sport that desperately needs a few of those drivers to emerge as weekly contenders and hopefully develop rivalries along the way.
Our society, right or wrong, likes carnage and NASCAR can produce that just as well as any other sport. Dale Earnhardt Sr. became a legend for being the “Intimidator.”
Is there a driver in today’s circuit that anyone is scared of? A driver who is known to stir things up and isn’t afraid to cause a pileup?
NASCAR has to create some of these “must-see” drivers if the sport is going to grow. Oh, and they also have to be willing to change.
NASCAR released its 2019 schedule last week and it’s essentially the exact same as 2018. Are fans really such creatures of habit that races can’t be moved around?
This is the only sports entity that has that mindset. The NFL doesn’t make sure every city has the exact same home dates year after year. Neither does the NBA or NHL.
Why? Because it’s silly.
Most sports leagues have evolved. MLB has its All-Star game at a different stadium every year. The Super Bowl rotates to various cities throughout the country. Heck, the NFL Draft is even moving around the country these days.
But, for some reason, NASCAR is afraid to change anything except its points system and rules to crown a champion.
Maybe they should listen to a driver such as Harvick.
“I like change,” Harvick said. “I like a rotation of the championship race. I like moving the all-star race around to different cities. If you put six or eight tracks in the championship mix, every year you’re going to have a built-in conversation and that’s the part I think we’re missing.
“I guarantee you’d have fans come to a championship race if you held it [in Texas]. It’s not fair to have it in one market. It’s not fair to Texas Motor Speedway to not have the opportunity to have the championship race to build their race market. You have the championship race here and you bring people here who haven’t been here before, they’re going to come back to the next one when it’s on its regular date.
“We have to build this enthusiasm in every race market. When you take the championship race and that all-star race and have the playoffs in virtually the same spot every year, you don’t build that intrigue and enthusiasm that you would build if you moved it around.”
Changing up the schedule and moving the championship site couldn’t hurt.
Hey, at the very least, it’d give fans something to talk about instead of wondering what driver is even worth seeing these days.