While some race fans may find it hard to believe, there are some things over which NASCAR has little to no control.
As the Observer unveils its fifth list of the 25 most influential people, places and things in NASCAR, some of those things NASCAR can’t control have wielded great influence.
This year’s list includes some new entities and some that have shifted in influence. But all are important.
The 2015 list (with last year’s rank):
1 . Sidelined drivers (new)
Before the 2015 Sprint Cup Series season was a month old, two full-time series drivers – Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers – were sidelined with health issues. With a pair of top rides in the series suddenly vacant, Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing were sent scrambling for replacements. By the time the situation was sorted out, the necessary driver swaps involved Front Row Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing and drivers David Ragan, Brett Moffitt and Chris Buescher. That was certainly not the start those organizations were expecting.
2. Kyle Busch (new)
His violent crash into a wall not covered by a SAFER barrier in the Xfinity Series opener at Daytona again put the spotlight on safety, from NASCAR’s role down to that of individual tracks.
3. Weather (1)
Bad weather has played havoc on several race weekends, tried the patience of fans and forced NASCAR to rethink some scheduling decisions.
4. Chase format (2)
The new format seemed to deliver on its promise last season, emphasizing winning, producing varied strategies in races, and resulting in a first-time Cup champion in Kevin Harvick.
5. Fans (3)
Race fans’ voices are reflected more in the product they see every weekend than in any other professional sport.
6. Economy (5)
There are signs the economic woes, and their effect on NASCAR, have subsided, but high-dollar sponsorships remain at a premium, and the competition to obtain them is intense.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (6)
He had one of his most successful seasons in 2014, and 2015 could match – or exceed – it. That’s always good for his fans, and for NASCAR.
8. Brian France (8)
He doesn’t hesitate to make decisions he believes are best for the sport, even when they lack popular support.
9. Steve O’Donnell (22)
NASCAR’s executive vice president is taking a much more visible role as the voice of NASCAR on high-profile issues.
10. Brent Dewar (new)
NASCAR’s chief operating officer leads a daunting task – finding a new sponsor for the sport’s premier series.
11. Twitter/social media (7)
It’s the fastest, best way for drivers, media and fans to interact, even if the audience there does not represent the fan base as a whole.
12. Rick Hendrick (11)
These days, if you’re not driving a Hendrick car or using a Hendrick engine, you’re starting behind.
13. Stewart-Haas Racing (12)
No organization has put its available resources to better use of late, from equipment to driver talent.
14. Sprint (13)
For the most part, the company has not reduced its commitment to NASCAR despite announcing its departure after the 2016 season.
15. Kevin Harvick (new)
The reigning Cup champion is a vocal advocate for honoring the sport’s history and finding new ways to venture into the future.
16. Jeff Gordon (new)
He’s trying to make his final season as a Cup series competitor memorable for his fans.
17. NBC Sports (9)
NASCAR fans are anxious to see how the network’s collection of broadcasting talent tackles the sport later this year.
18. Mike Helton (16)
His role in NASCAR has changed, but he still holds command over the garage area.
19. Manufacturers (14)
The involvement of Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota continues to be an important part of the vitality of the sport, one that is often overlooked.
20. Danica Patrick (15)
She’s in the last year of her driver and sponsor contract. Could this be the end of the NASCAR experiment?
21. JR Motorsports (19)
The organization not only fields a championship Xfinity Series team but has now ventured into the Truck series.
22. Jimmie Johnson (17)
Slowly starting to earn respect for his racing accomplishment, which is long overdue.
23. Bruton Smith (21)
He’s been taking a far less visible role, but he’s never shy about expressing his opinion.
24. Roger Penske (20)
One would be hard pressed to find a more successful owner in a more diverse group of motorsports ventures.
25. Brad Keselowski (23)
The recent Cup champion continues to be an outspoken advocate for what he believes is important to the future of NASCAR.
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.