Kyle Busch feels that NASCAR should not only promote its young stars, but also established drivers such as himself, and Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick. USA TODAY Sports
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. ‚ÄĒ How does one become a ‚Äústar‚ÄĚ in NASCAR?
Does winning equal popularity? Is personality a big factor? Does aggressive, no-holds-barred driving make fans line up for your autograph?
These ‚ÄĒ and other ‚ÄĒ questions became active again this week at the highest levels of stock car racing. International Speedway Corp. President John Saunders, discussing the health of the sport in a conference call with financial analysts, said sagging attendance can be boosted by younger drivers generating more excitement.
‚ÄúWe still have an issue with star power, and hopefully this stable of young drivers coming along will start to win and build their brands,‚ÄĚ Saunders said.
Emphasis on the sport‚Äôs younger drivers dominated much of the preseason as there were discussions about how the losses of such recently retired drivers as Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick would impact racing.
Who‚Äôs gonna fill their shoes, to borrow some country-music vernacular?¬†Among the names often mentioned were Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez, Kyle Larson, William Byron, Ryan Blaney, Bubba Wallace, Alex Bowman, Erik Jones and the Dillon brothers, Austin and Ty.
The trend toward excellence for younger drivers remains in development. Of the 17 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races run to date, 15 have been won by drivers 33 and older. The other two victories are owned by Joey Logano (28 years old but hardly a newcomer after nine full seasons in Cup) and Austin Dillon, 28, who won the Daytona 500 but generally has struggled since the season opener.
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Kyle Busch, 33, made it a point prior to the start of the season to criticize the emphasis on and promotion of younger drivers, then proceeded to underline the strength of the veterans by winning five times.
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs no question that the loss of the likes of Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Junior certainly have impacted the viewership of our sport,‚ÄĚ said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, which has established a very aggressive program to locate and advance talented young drivers. ‚ÄúWe talk about how this is a driver-centric sport, and that‚Äôs part of the reason we love it so much ‚ÄĒ because of the fierce loyalty the fans have to their drivers.
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt subscribe to putting it on the backs of these young kids who have backfilled these seats. We‚Äôre invested in the development of these young kids, and that will happen over time. They‚Äôll build their base.‚ÄĚ
Younger drivers generally take the view that winning and racing with fierce resolve will make fans pay attention.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm out there trying to put on a show every week,‚ÄĚ said Larson, who battled Kyle Busch for the win last week at Chicagoland Speedway in one of the season‚Äôs best races. ‚ÄúI feel like I do a good job of putting on a show for the fans, and I might not post stupid videos every week or stuff like that to try and gain fans, but I try to gain fans on the race track.
‚ÄúSo it‚Äôs not a big deal for me to try to sell myself as somebody I‚Äôm not. I just like to race hard and try to gain fans that way. I feel like I did a good job last week.‚ÄĚ
Austin Dillon said he questions how drivers can respond to expectations other than by winning.
‚ÄúI just want to know what we do about it, do you know what I mean?‚ÄĚ he said. ¬†How do you move forward with that? Because the guys that are in the sport are talented enough to win. And we haven‚Äôt made many changes this year to the packages that we‚Äôre running.
‚ÄúEach and every week, you probably can guess who the top three guys are probably going to be. I bet if everybody had to bet their house on it, they‚Äôd probably pick between three guys right now.¬†Maybe four.‚ÄĚ
Follow Hembree on Twitter¬†@mikehembree