E.A. Sports Today

Future faces

With Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s recent announcement to retire at the end of the season, NASCAR searches for its next hero

Tyler Reddick’s car goes through pre-race inspection in advance of Saturday’s Sparks Energy 300 Xfinity race at Talladega. (Photo by B.J. Franklin/GungHo Photos)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

TALLADEGA – There is no Gordon. There is no Stewart. And after this year there will be no Earnhardt. It feels like Nicklaus, Palmer and Player have left the building.

Suddenly, the hottest stars on NASCAR’s biggest stage have fallen out of the asphalt sky leaving everyone who follows the sport to wonder who will become the next big thing. Who will be the next face of the sport, the heir to assuming Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s iron-clad legacy as most popular driver.

There seems to be a lot of villains, but who will emerge as the next hero?

With Earnhardt’s announcement two weeks ago to retire, whether on his terms or the doctors, and all the characters in the sport reduced to the storied past, NASCAR finds itself faced a dilemma all the major sports face when their stars fade away. The PGA Tour faced it when Nicklaus and Palmer stepped off the course, the NBA did it when Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson hung up the shoes.

It is such a concern NASCAR officials held a spur-of-the-moment invitation meeting last week at Richmond to talk with the teams about the future of their sport in an era that will soon be without a discernable go-to personality.

It was more than a meeting about T-shirts, merchandise and “fanatic stuff outside” Xfinity driver Daniel Hemric thought it was going to be. It was about ratings, attendance and the steps that need to be taken for NASCAR to remain vibrant at this high-speed crossroad in its existence.

“It wasn’t a surprise, it was more a relief,” Hemric said Thursday in promoting Saturday’s Sparks Energy 300 at Talladega Superspeedway. “It was cool to see NASCAR step up even more in the trying times with the announcement of Dale Jr.’s departure at the end of the year, to see them not as much worried but trying to be proactive about planning the direction of the sport and how us as drivers can be more involved with our brand identity and what can we do to showcase ourselves more than anything else.

“When you think Dale Jr., you think of all the people who come with him, but at the end of the day (that draw) is because of who he is. How do we make the same connection with our fan base, with the folks around who follow the sport, to give them that next person like that?”

It’s not that they can groom the next great one, or they should; it’s a process that needs to develop organically. It might not even be on the circuit yet.

The names that came to mind immediately after Earnhardt’s announcement were young Cup drivers Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. They both may have the pedigree, but they haven’t won or been daring enough to assume that mantle. Veteran drivers have won a lot more, but they’re not among the most beloved guys on the line, often criticized for being too vanilla, too disconnected and too linked to corporate and sponsor concerns.

In the good-ol’-days, NASCAR drivers were among the most accessible athletes in major sports, regularly engaging with fans and media as if they were walking into their local garage.

The big takeaway from the Richmond meeting for Xfinity drivers like Hemric and Ryan Reed was it’s OK to be oneself and take advantage of the opportunity to interact genuinely with fans and media. The fans can figure out phony.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to be as much of ourselves as Cale Yarbrough and those guys were,” Reed said. “It was a different time, different world altogether — not just in sport, not just NASCAR — but they certainly circled back in that direction. They want to see us be ourselves, want to see your flavor, who you are as a person.

“Just be who you are, be as reckless or conservative as you want to be, have fun with it. We race cars for a living. if you’re a race car driver at the end of the day you’re probably a pretty exciting person, probably not super boring, so just have fun with it.”

Above all, the future lies with a return to connecting with the fans — past, present and future – while recognizing his history and tradition while facing the challenges of the 21st century fan experience. It’s a responsibility, Hamric says, falls to the drivers and the tracks.

“Chances are somebody in that meeting last week is going to be that next guy, it’s up to us to promote ourselves, for the race track to promote us, for NASCAR to be involved in that process,” Hemric said. “For them to call a meeting like that, from what I was told, it was the first time in NASCAR history that’s been done.

“To be a part of that and know they put it on their shoulder to move the sport forward, I know it’s an exciting time to be a driver coming up in the ranks of NASCAR. We just have to do our part to keep the involve and keep the interest level where it needs to be.”

When the old guard passed through in golf, the emergence of Tiger Woods energized the game and paved the way for younger stars like Rickie Fowler and Rory McElroy and Jason Day to be embraced by the young fans that are the future. Is there a Tiger in this bunch?

“I see no reason why there’s not,” Hemric said. “There’s going to be somebody who breaks that mold that gets here, whether it’s from money or sponsorship or pure talent, but they get here and do what they’re supposed to do and make their name.”

“Tiger changed the sport of golf forever in a lot of ways and like anything else someone’s going to do that and it’ll be for the better,” Reed said. “It’s not going to change what the sport is and what its core values are, but it’s going to really push it to the next level. I think we all want to be that person but more importantly we want to be a part of it and be around the sport while it goes through that evolution and continues to grow.”

The search is on.

Here’s where everyone wants to end up when they race at Talladega Superspeedway. (Photo by B.J. Franklin/GungHo Photos)

On the cover: Xfinity Series drivers (from left) Daniel Hemric, Ryan Reed and Blake Koch address the media while promoting Saturday’s Sparks Energy 300 at Talladega Superspeedway. (Photo by B.J. Franklin/GungHo Photos).

To see a complete gallery of B.J. Franklin photos from the track, go to www.bjfranklin.smugmug.com

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