The Reporter (Lansdale, PA)
Engines start on NASCAR’s 75th year
DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. >> Erik Jones is a student of history who has carved out a modest slice during his NASCAR career.
But as his sport begins its 75th season, the 26-year-old with wins at Daytona and Darlington — the sport’s most famous and oldest speedways — finds himself suddenly on a walk down memory lane.
Driving for upstart Legacy Motor Club, Jones now works for Richard Petty and Jimmie Johnson, a pair of legends and seven-time champions who teamed up during the offseason and rebranded Petty GMS.
Some days the garage is a setting that would make documentarian Ken Burns jealous.
“We’ve got a lot of the history of the sport covered, that’s for sure,” Jones said. “I’m a history fan, in general, so it’s cool to have those guys around.”
The sport’s rich past and bright future are personal for many of those involved.
“Growing up around the sport and growing up into it, it is really all I knew,” Ryan Blaney said. “It was cool to see it and neat to see it evolve from what it was when I was a kid to what it is now and for me to be a part of it.”
Blaney’s father, Dave, drove in the Cup Series, his uncle, Dale, raced sprint cars and his grandfather, Lou, on dirt tracks.
Racing is passed along generations and family ties run deep in NASCAR, from the Flocks to the Pettys to the Allisons to the Earnhardts and the Busch brothers.
Cup Series rookie Ty Gibbs, the 2022 Xfinity champion, drives for his grandfather Joe Gibbs, a Super Bowl-winning coach
before he became one of the sport’s top owners.
“It’s cool to be dominant and all that, especially when it’s with your family,” Ty Gibbs said.
The passing of the torch has kept NASCAR’s flame burning despite some fierce headwinds.
The sport has lured many big-name sponsors, then lost a number of them, and built racing palaces to meet demand and as time passed struggled to fill seats. TV ratings drafted behind Dale Earnhardt’s run of success in the 1990s and peaked in the 2000s when his son, Dale Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Johnson were at the height of their powers.
A Daytona 500 record 19.355 million TV viewers watched Johnson’s 2006 win a year after Gordon’s victory set the mark at 18.685 million. Less than 10 million viewers tuned in for the past four 500s, including 8.87 million for Austin Cindric’s 2022 win.
The Great Recession stopped NASCAR in its tracks and the retirement of Junior, Gordon and Stewart accelerated a decline in popularity.
Yet, stock car racing has
survived. Drivers and decision-makers see growth potential in Year 2 behind the Next Gen car and creative marketing.
A record-tying 19 drivers won in 2022 and new owners joined the fray because of the affordability of the new car setup. A shift in scheduling philosophy has led NASCAR to more road courses, showcased dirt racing at night in Bristol, Tenn., moved the Busch Light Clash in the L.A. Coliseum and inspired a 2023 race in the streets of Chicago.
Given the changes, Blaney is intrigued by what’s ahead.
“I am really curious to see what the next decade is going to be like in this sport and where we are going to be at,” he said. “We have done some out-of-the-box things the last few years … and we continue to change things up. That is good, to an extent.
“You have to remember where your roots are and what got you to this point.”
A NASCAR race abroad appeals to Blaney, who calls it potentially “good for the sport’s longevity.”
Yet, to reach this point is quite an achievement for a sport started by bootleggers, raced on remote dirt short tracks and Daytona’s beach and broadcast on AM radio.
The week of the 65th running of the Daytona 500 was a time for many to reflect on NASCAR’s roots, evolution and staying power.
“For any sport to endure for 75 years is incredible,” 35-time winner Brad Keselowski said. “Sports are hard. They follow the whims of the community and fans that support them.”
Few sports have featured a fan base as dedicated.
Track infields or parking lots are scattered with RVs. Grandstands house spectators sporting the number of their favorite driver on Tshirts, hats or flags. Cheers erupt the hundreds of times he roars by on race day.
The sport’s unique ethos traces to myriad moments and drivers stretched over decades.
None has navigated NASCAR’s long and winding history like Petty.
The 85-year-old attended the sport’s first race in Charlotte to watch his father, Lee, and will attend Sunday’s Daytona 500 — a race he won a record seven times.
“I’ve been surprised how much he still works, how active he is at the shop, how frequently he’s been [there],” Johnson said. “I’ve been really impressed.”
Jones is honored, especially since he will drive Petty’s iconic No. 43 this season.
“It’s cool to see it come full circle,” Jones said.
Jones and the other 39 drivers in Sunday’s field hoped to add to the history with a win during the Great American Race.
As NASCAR’s 75th season prepares to take the green flag, Keselowski, shut out at Daytona during his previous 13th attempts, also looks farther down the road.
“I just hope I’m around when it turns 100,” he said.