Can NASCAR's next generation carry the torch from stars of the past?

Can NASCAR's next generation carry the torch from stars of the past?
Chase Elliott celebrates October Dover victory-- CREDIT: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

Dale Earnhardt Jr. passed the Most Popular Driver torch to Chase Elliott on stage at the NASCAR Awards ceremony last week in Las Vegas.

With Bill Elliott earning the fan vote a record 16 times prior to Earnhardt Jr.’s 15-year run that ended with his retirement following the 2017 season, the accolade has remained between the families for nearly three decades.

“It’s definitely a big passing,” said the 23-year-old driver as he accepted the award from his former Hendrick Motorsports teammate. “It’s so cool to know it stayed between Elliott and Earnhardt for so long.

“I am glad, though, that you quit a year before you tied Dad’s record," Elliott added in a quip directed at Earnhardt. "I’m pretty happy about that. We got it back in the right name. I'm a little biased. Sorry."

Elliott’s fellow Monster Energy Cup Playoff contenders conceded the honor to the second-generation long before the award was ever announced. Many were ready to surrender the MPD trophy to Elliott before the votes were tallied.

NASCAR was so confident about the outcome that the marketing department took time to produce a video of Elliott’s peers feigning surprised when they were skipped over for the award.

The highlight? His buddy Ryan Blaney lobbying for the fans’ vote, “Do the right thing, vote for Ryan Blaney. You know your wife, mother, and daughter already have."

Blaney made the short-list of runners-up. He’s also a natural to be a leader of the next generation of 20-something drivers. Blaney isn't one to shy away from the limelight or hesitant to step up for the sport when it’s in need of an appearance by a charismatic racer.

Newly crowned champion Joey Logano also falls into the list of 20-something drivers who are on call as NASCAR formulates its next marketing plan to attract millennials. Logano has established himself as one of the most compelling stories on the track and off.

Before the post-season 'Chase' was rebranded as the Playoffs, Logano’s Chasing Second Chances program highlighted the philanthropic efforts of a selected agency in each of the 10 post-season markets. This past November, Logano served dinners to underprivileged families on the eve of winning the Cup title at Homestead Miami Speedway. Put a helmet on the champ, however, and he morphs into an unrelenting competitor.

Yet, when it comes to popularity contests, Logano admitted Elliott tops the chart and is very deserving of the honor.

“Chase does a great job as our most popular driver,” Logano said. “Yeah, we all joked about it in the video, but we all knew that, you can tell just by the T-shirts walking around. But like I said in my speech, love me or hate me, the fact that you love NASCAR means the most to me.

“Honestly, that’s what keeps every one of us that are standing around here employed. That’s a big deal for the growth of our sport.”

Despite Elliott’s growing popularity, NASCAR has yet to find a driver to equal the magnitude of the stars lost from full-time competition in the last decade. Earnhardt’s recent departure followed the exit of a long list of personalities, including Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Danica Patrick.

Nearly 18 years ago, Kevin Harvick was given the daunting task of replacing Dale Earnhardt Sr., who lost his life in the 2001 Daytona 500. While no one could ever replace the Intimidator, Harvick, then 25, at least made a valiant effort--particularly from a competition standpoint.

There aren’t many rookies who could finish the season in the top 10 despite missing the first race of the season. And there were times during Harvick’s transition to Cup that he made Kyle Busch look like a choir boy.

Today, through his own sports management company KHI, Harvick has a solid understanding of the star power equation. He represents drivers, golfers and fighters—among other sports figures. He has also watched the evolution of NASCAR over the last five seasons as a multitude of A-listers have exited stage right.

Is there anyone coming through the racing ranks that can rival Elliott or Earnhardt’s celebrity?

“That’s never going to happen,” Harvick said. “I think as you look at our sport and you look at the Elliott name and the Earnhardt name, those are names that a guy like myself and Clint Bowyer and Kyle Larson are never going to overcome. You will never have the Southern, the Southeast fan base that an Earnhardt or an Elliott has. That’s just the way it’s going to be.”

Growing up in Bakersfield, California, Harvick lived in an "Earnhardt" house. His father Mike, who raced and worked as a firefighter, worshipped the No. 3.

“He never mentioned Bill Elliott because he was an Earnhardt fan,” Harvick said of his father. “You sat on one side of the fence or the other. I know that growing up in California, that sounds kind of strange. But you sat on one side of the fence or the other.

“Chase kind of alluded to that tonight.That’s kind of a halfway joke between those two guys, but it’s kind of not. He’s pretty serious about that being back in the Elliott household and what that means. As you look at that, in today’s day and age, you’re not going to overcome the Elliott name or the Earnhardt name.”

In racing, second is the first loser. That was Kyle Busch’s fate after the 2018 fan vote was tallied. Even after coming back from a broken leg to win the title in 2015, Kyle Busch did not sniff the Most Popular Driver title while Junior was behind the wheel.

He joked about being the “second most popular” driver after Elliott received the award, but Busch seems to accept his standing.

“Changes of the guard always happen,” Busch said. “I’m now in my 14th season, something like that, so I’ve been here for a long time. I guess it’s not necessarily my time at the forefront.

“But I feel as if I’ve learned a tremendous amount and it’s sort of coming down to the point now where you have that opportunity to be able to go out there with all that you’ve learned and now have success.”

This year, Busch tied his career-high record of eight wins and surpassed his stats with 22 top fives and 28 top 10s. He’s certainly contributed to the show, and no one could ever refer to Joe Gibbs’ alpha driver as lacking personality.

While Busch and others are giving their all on a weekly basis, he doesn't feel his accomplishments are reaching beyond NASCAR’s core fan base.

“I just think, for some reason, we’re just not quite getting the same amount of attention that we’ve had years ago,” Busch said. “Why that is, I’m not sure. I think the racing is so competitive and some of the most compelling racing in all of motorsports. It’s exciting to be behind the wheel each time.

“You look at Chicagoland. We don’t have those finishes every week. But people strive for those finishes every week, and tell me how many times those finishes have happened in the course of our lifetime? There’s been thousands and thousands of races and there’s probably hundreds of times people talk about great finishes in our sport. It’s just so competitive, that everybody wants the picture perfect finish and the excitement of it every week.”

NASCAR’s greatest challenge moving forward is not the racing. It’s the message. As Busch mentioned, the product is the best it has been in ages. The mission must be to embrace the legions of current racing enthusiasts in a genuine fashion and sell the sport to the fans who haven’t yet caught the NASCAR bug.

Harvick has attracted a new fan base over the last year with his weekly Happy Hours show on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. Prior to winning the title, Logano also put himself out there among the hardcore fans by appearing on the network on a regular basis, voicing his opinions and taking calls from listeners. Love them or hate them, NASCAR champions remain the most accessible in sports.

“I’m a fan before I was a driver and I’m still a fan before I’m a driver,” Logano said. “When you think of what it means just to watch racing and to be a race fan and watching it and enjoying every second of it, that’s me. That’s who I am. I’m passionate about the people that I like and the ones I don’t root for in other sports. You have to have that. You have to have ones you really like and the ones you don’t. That’s just part of it.

“I think being a hard racer, sometimes that’s what brings out the boos. Like I said, that doesn’t bother me because I know they’re passionate people and I like people that are passionate.”

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