It’s a persistent storyline that won’t go away for NASCAR these days: ratings and attendance declines. The loyalists are sick of hearing about it, fans are sick of reading about it and the big guns in Daytona Beach wish it would all just go away.
But it hasn’t. And the story that just won’t find a final chapter is at the epicenter of a little Kevin Harvick – Dale Earnhardt Jr. controversy entering Michigan.
Harvick, himself a driver slash media pundit with a weekly show on SIRIUS XM Radio, spoke out about the current state of the sport. He claimed Earnhardt, a 14-time Most Popular Driver has actually kept NASCAR from growing despite loyalists that number in the millions.
“[Earnhardt]’s got these legions of fans,” Harvick said on his program. “This huge outreach of being able to reach these places none of us have the possibility to reach. But he’s won nine races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports and hasn’t been able to reach outside of that. I know those aren’t the most popular comments but those are real life facts that you look up and see on the stat sheet.”
Harvick also went on to explain that Earnhardt’s last year has been underwhelming in terms of a surge in fan attendance. He claimed that, once again it was performance or lack thereof keeping those people from paying hard-earned money to see their hero.
Earnhardt, for his part called the comments “hurtful” and remained confident he had made an impact on the sport. While never winning a championship, he does have 26 race wins (including two Daytona 500s). Earnhardt also made five consecutive playoff appearances before last summer’s season-ending post-concussion syndrome.
Much of the focus has surrounded whether Harvick owes Earnhardt an apology. (For the record, these are two grown athletes who often speak their mind; I don’t think Earnhardt’s crying in the back of his camper over this thing).
Sure, Harvick could have articulated his point a little better. But in the end, I think what he said about Earnhardt is irrelevant; it’s the broader subject he’s talking about that matters.
Several years ago, NASCAR CEO Brian France encouraged drivers to stay positive about the state of the sport. NASCAR went through a period of “secret fines” where drivers critical of officiating, rule changes or future direction were penalized for speaking out. For a time, that philosophy appeared to tone down the rhetoric.
But money can trump loyalty, and the lack thereof is now filtering down to driver’s wallets. Kurt Busch saw his option not picked up at Stewart-Haas Racing; a renegotiated contract could lead to less money. Ditto for Matt Kenseth, a veteran who may be priced out of the sport as too expensive without a primary sponsor. William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports’ newest hire as a teenager, comes paired with a check from Liberty University for multiple races; that certainly didn’t hurt his case over a one-year stopgap with experience. It’s clear, more than ever sponsorship decisions and departures have caused even the top teams to make difficult choices.
Who loses out? Veterans who have given their blood, sweat, and tears to NASCAR are now seeing the money tree dry up as their careers wind down.
That leaves people more open to discussing why NASCAR is sliding downhill, admitting the problem and assessing blame. What Harvick said, then is just as important because it changes the focus this weekend to why NASCAR is failing: is it Earnhardt or something else? That’s near impossible for the sport to spin into something positive.
What’s worse is there’s no solution offered, either. The unspoken narrative is if only Dale Earnhardt Jr. would retire, things will get better. Say what? Point me to any major sport that became more popular after their biggest draw decided to hang it up for good.
Such is the state of the sport heading to a track in Michigan unlikely to change that storyline. That, in itself, is really the key to pushing aside Harvick’ and Earnhardt’s comments. If only the on-track product could produce the type of verbal spark and attention the talk of NASCAR’s decline inspires off it, this chatter would be back-page news.
Pure Michigan 400
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Michigan International Speedway (Brooklyn, MI)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Daniel Suarez
Ho, hum, another Martin Truex Jr. win at Watkins Glen. The fourth victory of the season propelled the points leader further toward “title favorite” status. So why not tip the cap toward a surprise third-place finisher instead? Rookie Suarez led 14 laps at the Glen and remained in the mix through a quirky fuel mileage finish.
After a slow start replacing Carl Edwards, this freshman has caught fire. Four straight top-10 finishes give him eight for the season, leading all rookies. It’s a surge too late to make the playoffs but enough to give Joe Gibbs Racing optimism their last-minute selection is capable of being a Cup championship contender someday.
Who’s at the Back: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The part of Kevin Harvick’s comments that are factual, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is how disappointing Earnhardt’s final season has been. Engine problems left him sitting in the garage at the Glen, his seventh DNF overall in 22 races. Only his nephew Jeffrey, driving for underfunded Circle Sport, has more in the Cup Series.
The sport’s Most Popular Driver now sits in a rather untenable position: win in the next four races or write off his final shot at a championship. Considering he’s led no more than 10 laps in any race all season (24 overall) that appears to be a tall order.
As mentioned above, William Byron was hired by Hendrick Motorsports to drive their No. 5 Chevrolet beginning in 2018. Primary sponsorship for most races will be provided by longtime Hendrick backer Axalta Coating Systems, Jeff Gordon’sformer sponsor and Liberty University. The move came just 48 hours after Kasey Kahne was officially released from his contract a year early. Kahne was unable to save his ride despite a Brickyard 400 win last month that locked him into the playoffs, his first postseason bid for HMS since 2014.
Aric Almirola claims his plan is to remain with the No. 43 Fordat Richard Petty Motorsports next season and beyond. Almirola, who missed several races this season after fracturing his vertebrae at Kansas Speedway, claimed negotiations were ongoing with RPM and sponsor Smithfield to re-up over the long term.
Josh Wise, who hasn’t run at all in NASCAR this season claimed he was "retired from racing" this week. The former full-time Cup driver, who took a position at Chip Ganassi Racing as a driver consultant this season, claimed it just wasn’t worth it to keep driving considering the equipment and rides he was being offered.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Average finish for AJ Allmendingerthis season at the sport’s two road course races. The ‘Dinger is known as one of the top right-turn experts on the circuit but struggled this year at both events with JTG Daugherty Racing.
Straight NASCAR Cup races in which Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Buschhave combined to win at least two of the three stages.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Larson. Kyle Larson. Kyle Larson. Sure, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver is slumping, earning three straight finishes of 23rd or worse. He’s even fallen to third in the points standings behind Truex and Busch. But Michigan, of all places, is the right track for the No. 42 team to right the ship. Larson has won two straight races here, pacing the field for 137 of 400 laps and enters the weekend a clear favorite. If he can’t win here, then Chip Ganassi Racing is in trouble and I firmly believe that’s not the case. Just think of how many summer slumps Jimmie Johnson has been through en route to his seven championships?
Chase Elliott, depending on the league, is middle tier or top tier. But he’s a must-have for your roster after three Michigan starts have resulted in three straight second-place finishes. Elliott’s team is the most consistent at Hendrick Motorsports right now in a sea of transition. Add in his bubble status, in need of a victory to secure a playoff spot, and the No. 24 team will come ready to play this weekend.
Once upon a time, Roush Fenway Racing owned Michigan, capturing 13 victories on the Cup level. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hasn’t won here yet, several steps behind the shoes of former drivers Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, and Carl Edwards but he was eighth in June with the No. 17 Ford. Expect him to keep building momentum toward the playoffs with another top 10.
Again, this track is one where you want to lean toward rookies languishing in the lower tier when they’re anything but. Daniel Suarez’s top-10 finish streak makes him a solid choice for the weekend; ignore his 24th-place result from June. Erik Jones was 13th that day while Ty Dillon ran a respectable 20th.
Finally, don’t sleep on Danica Patrick... again. The stats show a last-place finish from June but she could have gotten a top-15 result had she not been in the wrong place, wrong time during the closing laps.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch had the edge at Michigan over Kyle Larson Friday morning, earning 13/4 odds while Martin Truex Jr. sat at 15/4. Larson ranks third on the list with 11/2 odds.
What I Think
I look for Larson to return to his winning ways. Championship drivers establish the type of streak that a Michigan victory (his third straight) would give this rising star on the Cup circuit.
— 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.
(Photos by ASP Inc.)