De­par­tures leave NASCAR look­ing for star power

Dan­ica, Ju­nior big rea­sons why the rac­ing cir­cuit is among most pop­u­lar sport­ing at­trac­tions

Waterloo Region Record - - SPORTS - Ge­orge Diaz

Stars twin­kle at night, and all hours of the day, in pro­fes­sional sports.

They foster love-hate re­la­tion­ships, an emo­tional train wreck that takes us along for the ride. Tom Brady, Floyd May­weather Jr., LeBron James — and Muham­mad Ali, back in the day — have made us cry for joy or sucker-punched us in the gut with anger.

Speak­ing of, Dale Earn­hardt Jr. and Dan­ica Pa­trick are two of the main rea­sons NASCAR is still in the fight to­day among your sporty smor­gas­bord.

Ju­nior is the son of a NASCAR icon and blue­blood who helped grow the base from the back roads of North Carolina to board­rooms in New York.

Dan­ica is the po­lar­iz­ing queen of stock cars, a pi­o­neer who broke bound­aries and then caused heads to ex­plode when dis­cussing her in­abil­ity to stretch her mar­ket­ing reach once the en­gines started to roar.

They will both be gone in 2018. Dale Ju­nior an­nounced his adios a while back, and will step away af­ter con­cus­sions is­sues gave him clar­ity about the fu­ture. He doesn’t want to take an­other vi­o­lent hit, and end up drool­ing on him­self 10 years later.

Dan­ica an­nounced she won’t be back with Ste­wart-Haas Rac­ing this week. She is out of money, spon­sor­ship money to be pre­cise, the stuff that makes ev­ery mar­riage in NASCAR work. Un­less some­body steps up with a big pile of cash, she is done, walk­ing away with­out ever win­ning a race in five years but driv­ing the mar­ket­ing pa­rade of in­ter­est in the sport.

Ju­nior has been voted the most pop­u­lar driver in the sport 14 con­sec­u­tive years, even though he has never won a Cup ti­tle. Do the math, and you see NASCAR’s star-power ex­it­ing and turn­ing stage left, leav­ing the sport in a quandary.

NASCAR has been very proac­tive in mar­ket­ing young stars like Daniel Suarez, Bubba Wal­lace, Chase El­liott and Ryan Blaney. They are all ex­tremely tal­ented driv­ers, and come with bonus points. Suarez and Wal­lace bring diver­sity into the con­ver­sa­tion. El­liott has the fam­ily legacy forged by his fa­ther Bill. Blaney is an in­tro­spec­tive and en­ter­tain­ing fel­low at 23-years-old.

But to quote the late Prince’s haunt­ing melody, “Noth­ing Com­pares 2 U” as we ser­e­nade Dale Jr. and Dan­ica on their way out the garage.

“She’s a true pi­o­neer in this day and age of so­cial me­dia and the power of me­dia rec­og­niz­ing that she’s mov­ing the nee­dle even though she wasn’t run­ning con­sis­tently up front.” said Kevin Har­vick, Dan­ica’s team­mate.

Mov­ing the nee­dle is what cer­tain stars do in ev­ery sport. It goes far be­yond sta­tis­ti­cal ex­cel­lence. There has to be a com­pelling nar­ra­tive at­tached to the name.

Dale Jr.’s story is etched in the tragedy of a daddy who died in the fam­ily busi­ness, and a con­flicted son who has car­ried that emo­tional bag­gage, and the ex­pec­ta­tions of mil­lions, since Fe­bru­ary 2001.

Dan­ica came to NASCAR from the open-wheel cir­cuit, bust­ing down stereo­types in a sport built on South­ern tra­di­tions when the wom­en­folk got their man a beer in­stead of try­ing to drive faster than them.

All these oth­ers young driv­ers are tal­ented and poised, but they need a story that cap­tures the at­ten­tion of the ca­sual fan in Peo­ria. NASCAR, a sport al­ready strug­gling on var­i­ous fronts, needs to give their fan base a com­pelling rea­son to tune in for the play­offs that be­gin this week in Chicago, and mov­ing for­ward into 2018.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Dar­rell Wal­trip has an idea.

“If you have a young, up-and­com­ing driver that fans don’t know well, pair them with a vet­eran like those who have re­tired and have them work to­gether in var­i­ous ca­pac­i­ties,” Wal­trip said. “Fans might not know who the young kid is, but they’ll rec­og­nize the older one stand­ing along­side him.”

What­ever it takes to get ev­ery­one’s at­ten­tion. Apa­thy can come at you fast, even when you’re driv­ing 200 miles an hour.

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