It’s finally here. Sunday’s Daytona 500 begins another 36-race NASCAR odyssey, the second with Monster Energy as primary sponsor. The energy drink stepped up to back the sport after Sprint bailed on their deal following the 2016 season.
The bigger question is whether it will also be their last. We still don’t have an answer on their 2019 status, a business decision that’s one of many facing the sport entering a crucial year. It’s one that starts without their Most Popular Driver behind the wheel along with several names that have carried the sport for over a decade. Can the nation’s premier auto racing series right the ship on declining ratings and attendance during this time of great transition?
Here’s a look at five storylines I’m watching over the 36-race schedule ahead.
1. NASCAR’s sponsorship and business future
It’s not often you run your Super Bowl surrounding rumors your sport is for sale. A Sports Business Journal article suggested exactly that, claiming the France family is going a step further than rumored to buy the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. While reports were strongly denied, it was a weird time for a potential sale to come up.
You wonder how such an article has an effect on Monster, still undecided on whether to pick up their two-year option as the sport’s title sponsor through 2019-20. Results from the first year were mixed. The sport appeared to reconnect with the 18-34 crowd, partly through Monster’s marketing strategy and benefitted from this younger, hipper partnership. But beyond the Monster Energy girls strolling pit road, activation lagged far behind sponsor Sprint. Even the energy drinks themselves were near impossible to find at some tracks as questions remain as to just how committed they are to NASCAR over the long run.
Those sponsorship issues have a trickle-down effect. Despite a strong economy, the defending champions at Furniture Row Racing shut down their second team when they couldn’t find financial backing. Just 40 cars showed up for a 40-car Daytona 500 field, the first time since 1969 all entries qualified. One of the sport’s Charters (think: franchise) could be repossessed by a bank in the next few weeks.
How the sport weathers the storm, finding positive business news is a key to 2018. Any announcement, from a new manufacturer to increased Fortune 500 sponsorship on the team level (Amazon? Walmart? A bigger commitment from Microsoft?) would speak volumes to back up claims the sport is turning around on the racetrack.
2. Who will replace Dale Earnhardt Jr.? And Danica? And...
Earnhardt’s departure may not be as big as it seems on the surface. At Homestead, I spoke to 50 Earnhardt fans and all 50 said they’d be back in 2018, following a different driver. Results ran the gambit from Earnhardt’s replacement, Alex Bowman, to rookie William Byron, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney.
But the sport still has a tough hill to climb. Earnhardt and the retiring Danica Patrick, by themselves, have over four million followers on Twitter. Joyce Julius and Associates completed an analysis of offseason coverage and Patrick had almost double the amount of media hits than any other driver (11,319 to champion Martin Truex Jr.’s 5,873).
Both remain a large presence off the track (Earnhardt moves into the broadcast booth for NBC) but their loss leaves the impression NASCAR is taking a step back. Add in Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle, among others, and the sport has lost more than 200 race wins and multiple former champions since the start of the 2015 season.
It’s up to Blaney, Elliott, Darrell Wallace Jr. and the other young guns to move into the limelight and become national storylines.
3. A changing of the guard
Speaking of... Thursday’s Can-Am Duel Daytona qualifying races were won by Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott. Combined, their age is 46, a shade over seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson, now the oldest driver on the circuit (42).
NASCAR has been so focused on marketing the youth movement veterans like Kyle Busch have criticized them for being left out. But, to their credit, these 20-something drivers have embraced a role as the future ambassadors of the sport. From social media to public autograph sessions, they understand the impact direct interaction with the fans can be to rebuilding support.
Now, they have to follow that up with on-track performance. Even Elliott, despite an outstanding season, went winless and fell short of the sport’s Championship 4 after contact with Denny Hamlin at Martinsville. The youngest of the title contenders last year was 33-year-old Brad Keselowski.
That needs to change in 2018. NASCAR’s youth movement needs to break through with victories that match the effort of their off-track push for fans.
4. Will scheduling quirks change focus?
After years of stability, NASCAR’s 10-race playoff will have a new look. Richmond, once the regular season finale, has been moved into the postseason, replacing New Hampshire. That track slims down to one date while Las Vegas Motor Speedway earns a second event. That 1.5-mile oval replaces Chicagoland Speedway as the first race of the playoffs.
But perhaps the most intriguing twist (literally and figuratively) is Charlotte Motor Speedway. One of the sport’s most iconic tracks, the oval is turning “roval” for a road course through its infield that will run in October. That’s the first right-turn track included in the playoffs, immediately upping the ante for already popular regular season races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen.
How teams handle the new quirks, which also include a regular-season finale moved to iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway, will make or break their presence in the Championship 4 at Homestead.
5. Pit stops, take two (err, five)
NASCAR had only a handful of rule changes for 2018 but the biggest involves pit stops. Reducing the number of men over the wall from six to five slowed stops by over five seconds during Sunday’s Advanced Auto Parts Clash. We saw a number of challenges and runaway tires as crews adjusted to spreading work among fewer people.
Over the long run, it’s a great move for the sport; teams save money and fewer people mean a safer pit road. But don’t be surprised if several races, especially with the importance of track position get decided with a simple pit road mistake.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)