According to NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France, you don’t have to look far to find the next generation of stars.
“They are here,” France said on Sunday morning before the Ford EcoBoost 400 during a question-and-answer session with reporters at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “They are here, and they’ve got to develop their performance, but they’re doing well. You look at Ryan Blaney, you look at Chase (Elliott) almost making the final here in Miami. Go down the list. We’ve got a loaded group.
“But it’s true, we’re in a transition, too. But that happens from time to time, not usually in the concentrated manner that we have now, but it happens. But we’re excited. We’ve got a great, great bunch of 19-, 20-(year-olds), and they’re talented, so we’re in good shape.”
NASCAR President Brent Dewar, who appeared with France on the daïs, echoed those sentiments.
“We anticipate every decade you’re going to go through this rotation, and between NASCAR Next and Drive for Diversity, these young stars that you’re talking about have all come through those classes, and they’re all good wheelmen and women that are coming up through these series. And I think that’s the key thing, and we’re working with them in terms of how they work outside the car.
“And I think the other part is if you look at most sports, name any other major sport where you get to have a 15 to a 20-year career at the highest level. It just does not exist. Those are exceptions. It’s the norm here. So if you look at all the ones you take and you add 20 years, you’re going to be somewhere around the age of a Dale Jr. and a Matt Kenseth, so they were those same very 19, 20, 21-year-olds years back.”
France’s and Dewar’s comments were juxtaposed against the backdrop of a sea change in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, from which the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is retiring after Sunday’s race. Kenseth, the 2003 champion, also faces a hiatus from NASCAR’s premier series, and Danica Patrick announced on Friday she will race for the last time in the series in the 2018 Daytona 500.
“Dale Jr. has made an obviously big contribution on and off the track for a long time,” France said. “So while we’re going to miss him for obvious reasons, he’s not going to be that far away, being an owner and working with NBC.
“So he’s going to be glued to the sport, and that’s a good thing for us.”
Both France and Dewar expressed optimism about the state of the sport and were thankful for the dialogue and collaboration between the sanctioning body, team owners, manufacturers, drivers and race tracks toward a long-term strategic plan for the sport.
“Well, I’m really more optimistic right now, and I know you may expect me to say that, but we’ve made the transition largely,” France said. “We’ve gotten the council meetings going. We’ve gotten charters in position so we can get our interests aligned more closely with drivers, OEMs and the charters and the team owners.
“We have the young drivers already in place. We’d like a couple more, of course. We’ve got some diversity with Bubba Wallace going in the 43 car (as the only African-American driver competing at NASCAR highest level). We like that. We’d love to see more of that. And we like all the changes that we’ve made in the last four or five years, including stage racing this year. It has created the things that we thought were important.”
And just as the sanctioning body has collaborated extensively with race teams on the evolution of the racing on the track, so too has NASCAR and the industry worked to improve the overall business model.
“The difference is now we have a mechanism of working together and a process to do that, and we’re all in,” Dewar said. “From tracks to teams to drivers, we’re all in, and we’re trying to focus on the sport, the business behind the scenes, and just continue to make continuous improvement to do that.
“I’m making it sound easy. It’s really hard. It’s really, really hard. At the end of the day, they’re racers. Race car drivers want to win, and team owners want to win, and we want them to win. We want to cultivate and nurture that as much as possible, but there’s still a business behind all these sports, and we need to make continued improvement on the business side.”