Column: Why Earnhardt Jr.’s Retirement Isn’t Surprising

Many in the racing world were stunned on Tuesday morning when Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his retirement at the end of the 2017 season.

But while NASCAR’s biggest star walking away is certainly a big story for the sport, his retirement is not exactly a huge surprise, at least to me, considering the circumstances.

The 42-year old Earnhardt is in a contract year, coming off a 2016 season in which he missed 18 races with a concussion, the fourth concussion he had suffered in a racing accident.

As Earnhardt came back from his injury, he opted to wait to sign a contract extension, and see how he felt about racing and his future after his return to the track.  Now, eight races into the 2017 season, Earnhardt has decided this will be his final season.

The decision was actually made by Earnhardt in March, saying at Tuesday’s press conference he met with car owner Rick Hendrick on March 29 to inform Hendrick of his decision.

Given all he faced in 2016 and his desire to stay healthy, particularly after his recent marriage to wife Amy, Earnhardt’s decision to step away is understandable, and relatively unsurprising.

Earnhardt didn’t go into great detail about his decision on Tuesday, but said he wants to make his own decision to retire instead of potentially being told by doctors he couldn’t race again in the event of an additional concussion or other injuries.

“You’re wondering why I reached this decision–it’s really simple. I just wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms,” Earnhardt said.  “I’m at peace with the decision.  I’m very comfortable with it.”

Earnhardt, the son of the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr. and 14-time defending winner of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award, has faced more pressure in his career than any other driver in NASCAR–and arguably as much as any athlete–as he tried to live up to the Earnhardt name and give his colossal fanbase something to cheer about.

While Earnhardt has won 26 races over his career and finished as high as third in points, that pressure has continued through many ups and downs throughout his career, from winning two Daytona 500s to losing his father at Daytona to winning the first race at Daytona after his father’s death to leaving family-owned Dale Earnhardt Inc. and struggling in his early years at Hendrick Motorsports.

As for what’s next for Earnhardt, the immediate focus is his final season, which is not off to a good start.  Earnhardt has just one top 10 through eight races and sits 24th in the current standings, 50 points outside a playoff spot.

After this season, Earnhardt will remain active in the sport, continuing to work as an XFinity Series team owner with JR Motorsports, a Hendrick Motorsports satellite team which has helped Hendrick with driver development in recent years.  Earnhardt will also honor his prior commitment to run two XFinity Series races with JR Motorsports in 2018.

As for Hendrick Motorsports, the #88 seat will become vacant for the first time in 10 years, and the Hall of Fame owner has a variety of options to fill the vacancy.

Alex Bowman, who filled in for Earnhardt in 2016 with some moderate success, should be one of the frontrunners.  JR Motorsports has some strong young talent, particularly including William Byron, although a couple more seasons in the XFinity Series are probably the more likely option for him.

Outside the Hendrick organization, impending free agents at season’s end include Kyle Larson, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and others.  Hendrick could also get an XFinity Series or Truck Series driver from another organization, something they’ve done in the past to sign both Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

Looking at the big picture, NASCAR also has to figure out what’s next as it loses its most popular driver.  The sport will have lost Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to retirement in the span of three seasons, a void that would be difficult for any sport to fill.  It will be up to the sport’s young talent, including Kyle Larson, the current points leader, and Chase Elliott, who like Earnhardt is the son of a legend, to become the next generation of superstars in NASCAR, although being as genuine and classy as Earnhardt won’t be easy.

There are 28 races left in the career of NASCAR’s biggest star.  As the sun sets on Earnhardt’s career, and for all intents and purposes the era of Earnhardt family relevance in NASCAR dating back to the 1960s, the plot continues to thicken in an already intriguing NASCAR season.

 

 

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Career Statistics (Cup Series unless otherwise noted):
603 starts
26 wins
149 top fives
253 top 10’s
13 poles
1998 & 1999 XFinity Series champion
24 XFinity Series wins

A Trip to the Beach

Each February, an entire industry makes a trip to the beach.  But this trip has no resemblance to vacation or leisure.

This is a business trip; a pilgrimage for NASCAR’s competitors and its fans that marks the rebirth of a sport in a new season, and a quest for the sport’s greatest triumph.

Forty drivers and teams have not come to the beach to relax, but to race, trying to reach the sport’s pinnacle and earn its greatest reward, the title of Daytona 500 champion.

The beach has been a haven of speed for over a century.  Speed was sought on the smooth sand, practically from the invention of the automobile.  Organized races began eight decades ago, leading to Bill France sanctioning a sport in 1948.

When NASCAR outgrew the beach in just a decade, France built a new mecca five miles inland, establishing a venue that is The World Center of Racing, and the spectacle that is The Great American Race.

As NASCAR’s elite make this expedition for the 59th time, they will reminisce on the epic events of yesteryear that coax their return.

1976. 1979. 1990. 1998. 2007. Photo finishes in both the first and most recent installments.

The annals here are filled with speed, prestige, triumph, and even tragedy.  This annual occasion has seen it all, yet still gives us something new each February.

A race that has been won in fortuitous upsets by some has been notoriously hard to win for others.  Some call it a crapshoot, while others embrace the element of chance and luck the race presents.

This beach, this week, is not quiet with the peaceful rolling of waves, but features the roar of throngs of followers, exceeded only by the roar of 40 engines, racing door-to-door for the coveted checkered flag.

For all, it’s a memorable trip to the beach.  For one, it will be a monumental trip to victory lane.

 

 

Daytona 500 Champions
1959 Lee Petty
1960 Junior Johnson
1961 Marvin Panch
1962 Fireball Roberts
1963 Tiny Lund
1964 Richard Petty
1965 Fred Lorenzen
1966 Richard Petty (2)
1967 Mario Andretti
1968 Cale Yarborough
1969 Lee Roy Yarbrough
1970 Pete Hamilton
1971 Richard Petty (3)
1972 A.J. Foyt
1973 Richard Petty (4)
1974 Richard Petty (5)
1975 Benny Parsons
1976 David Pearson
1977 Cale Yarborough (2)
1978 Bobby Allison
1979 Richard Petty (6)
1980 Buddy Baker
1981 Richard Petty (7)
1982 Bobby Allison (2)
1983 Cale Yarborough (3)
1984 Cale Yarborough (4)
1985 Bill Elliott
1986 Geoffrey Bodine
1987 Bill Elliott (2)
1988 Bobby Allison (3)
1989 Darrell Waltrip
1990 Derrike Cope
1991 Ernie Irvan
1992 Davey Allison
1993 Dale Jarrett
1994 Sterling Marlin
1995 Sterling Marlin (2)
1996 Dale Jarrett (2)
1997 Jeff Gordon
1998 Dale Earnhardt
1999 Jeff Gordon (2)
2000 Dale Jarrett (3)
2001 Michael Waltrip
2002 Ward Burton
2003 Michael Waltrip (2)
2004 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2005 Jeff Gordon (3)
2006 Jimmie Johnson
2007 Kevin Harvick
2008 Ryan Newman
2009 Matt Kenseth
2010 Jamie McMurray
2011 Trevor Bayne
2012 Matt Kenseth (2)
2013 Jimmie Johnson (2)
2014 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2)
2015 Joey Logano
2016 Denny Hamlin

Elliott, Hamlin Notch Duel Victories

In Thursday night’s Can-Am Duels at Daytona, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin each earned historic wins in the events which set the field for Sunday’s 59th running of the Daytona 500.

Duel 1

Chase Elliott, who won the Daytona 500 pole on Sunday, won his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, albeit an unofficial one, in the first Duel, leading 25 of the race’s 60 laps.

Elliott joins some elite company with the win, as he became the first Daytona 500 pole sitter to win a Duel since Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 1996.  He is the first driver since Jeff Gordon in 1993 to make a Duel win his first win in a Cup Series car.

And while the win is unofficial, the Duels did award championship points for the first time since 1971, with the top 10 earning points (10 for first, nine for second, etc.).  The last drivers before Elliott (and Hamlin in Duel 2) to earn points for a Duel victory were David Pearson and Pete Hamilton.

As a result, Elliott and Hamlin will enter the Daytona 500 as co-points leaders.  The last time anyone led the standings before the Daytona 500 was in 1981, in the era when a race was run at Riverside, Calif. in January, was Bobby Allison.

Winning the Daytona 500 pole and a Duel will give Elliott an opportunity to win the rare “Daytona triple crown” of the pole, a Duel, and the Daytona 500.  If he can win Sunday, Elliott would be the first to accomplish the feat since… his father, Bill Elliott, in 1985.  Fireball Roberts in 1962 and Cale Yarborough in 1984 are the only others to pull off the rare triple.

Elliott earned the win by outdueling a star-studded top seven–every driver in the top six (Jamie McMurray finished second, Kevin Harvick third, Brad Keselowski fourth, Matt Kenseth fifth, and Trevor Bayne sixth) has either won the Daytona 500 or the series championship, and seventh-place Martin Truex Jr. finished second in the Daytona 500 last year.

Duel 2

Denny Hamlin, the 2016 Daytona 500 champion, passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. with two laps to go en route to his third career Duel win.

Hamlin won the race with very little help, as his three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates were in the first Duel, and only three fellow Toyotas were in the field, with none finishing higher than 15th.

Hamlin also bested the Stewart-Haas Racing Fords of Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick, who finished second, third and sixth, as well as four cars in the top 10 from Richard Childress Racing and their allied teams, led by A.J. Allmendinger and Austin Dillon in fourth and fifth.

Earnhardt Jr., who had won Duels the last two years and led 53 of the 60 laps in his first competition since July, was unable to block Hamlin’s run entering turn three on the penultimate lap, and faded to a sixth place finish, though he will start second in the Daytona 500 after earning that spot in pole qualifying.

Hamlin becomes the 10th driver to win a Duel as the defending Daytona 500 champion, and seven of the previous nine have each won multiple Daytona 500s (and one of the other two is Dale Earnhardt):  Pete Hamilton (1971), Cale Yarborough (1984, 1985), Bill Elliott (1986), Sterling Marlin (1995), Dale Jarrett (1997), Dale Earnhardt Sr. (1999), Michael Waltrip (2002), Jeff Gordon (2006), and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2015).

News and Notes

Corey LaJoie (Duel 1) and D.J. Kennington (Duel 2) each raced their way into their first Daytona 500 in Thursday’s Duels.  LaJoie is the son of former NASCAR XFinity Series champion Randy LaJoie, while Kennington is the first Canadian to make the Daytona 500 field since Trevor Boys in 1988.  Kennington will start 28th and LaJoie will start 31st, while Timmy Hill and Reed Sorenson failed to qualify.

Another feel-good story from the Duels is Cole Whitt, who drove to a 10th-place finish in Duel 1, and will start 17th on Sunday.  Whitt, driving a #72 TriStar Motorsports Ford that resembles Benny Parsons’ cars from the 1970s, earned one championship point, and sits tied for 19th in the standings entering the Daytona 500 (he was briefly 10th in points before Duel 2).  The 25-year-old Whitt, who has run the Cup Series full-time since 2014, has never finished higher than 31st in the season standings, although he did finish 11th in the Coke Zero 400 last July at Daytona.

     UPDATE:  With Martin Truex Jr. and A.J. Allmendinger failing post-race inspection (see below), Whitt is tied for 17th in points.

Michael Waltrip finished 17th in the 21-car field of Duel 2, and will start 3oth on Sunday.  The FOX Sports analyst and two-time Daytona 500 winner (2001, 2003) has announced he will retire from NASCAR after Sunday’s race, when he will run an “Aaron’s Dream Machine” with the car number 15, the number he drove in his pair of 500 victories.

None of the strong rookie class of Daniel Suarez, Ty Dillon and Erik Jones will start the Daytona 500 near the front.  Suarez, the 2015 XFinity Series champion, finished 11th in Duel 1 and will start 19th.  Dillon finished 10th in Duel 2, and will start 18th, while Jones picked up damage in Duel 2 and finished 19th, and will start 34th on Sunday.

Martin Truex Jr., A.J. Allmendinger and Chris Buescher each failed post-race inspection after their respective duels.  All three will start at the rear in the Daytona 500, while Truex and Allmendinger will lose the points they earned in their Duels.

Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney and Paul Menard will race backup cars in the Daytona 500 after damage sustained in the Duels, and will start at the rear of the field.

 

 

 

Daytona 500 Starting Lineup
Row 1:  Chase Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Row 2:  Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin
Row 3:  Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer
Row 4:  Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch
Row 5:  Matt Kenseth, Austin Dillon
Row 6:  Trevor Bayne, Danica Patrick
Row 7:  Aric Almirola, Ryan Newman
Row 8:  Joey Logano, Kyle Larson
Row 9:  Cole Whitt, Ty Dillon
Row 10:  Daniel Suarez, David Ragan
Row 11:  Kyle Busch, Michael McDowell
Row 12:  Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jimmie Johnson
Row 13:  Matt DiBenedetto, Kasey Kahne
Row 14:  Landon Cassill, D.J. Kennington
Row 15:  Joey Gase, Michael Waltrip
Row 16:  Corey LaJoie, Jeffrey Earnhardt
Row 17:  Paul Menard, Erik Jones
Row 18:  Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney
Row 19:  Chris Buescher, A.J. Allmendinger
Row 20:  Brendan Gaughan, Elliott Sadler
Failed to qualify:  Timmy Hill, Reed Sorenson

Column: NASCAR May Be Digging Its Own Grave

Just weeks ahead of the 2017 season, NASCAR is, yet again, changing its race format, continuing to move further away from the simple rules the sport was built on.

As NASCAR continuously makes their product more complicated, their popularity continues to statistically decline, begging the question of how strong a correlation may exist between NASCAR’s format changes and its falling ratings and attendance.

The Changes

The “enhancements,” as NASCAR has branded them, concern dividing races up into segments, something NASCAR hopes will create more exciting racing throughout the entire distance, alleviating the so-called “mid-race lull.”  The enhancements are the end result of a lengthy collaboration between NASCAR executives, teams, drivers, and racetracks in an effort to fix some of the complaints that have been heard within the industry.

Each race will now be divided into three “stages.”  After the first two stages, the top 10 are awarded points (10 for 1st, nine for 2nd, and so on).  Points will continue to be awarded to the full field (1st through 40th) at race’s end.  Points will no longer be awarded for leading a lap, or for leading the most laps.

Stage wins will earn a driver one bonus point for the “playoffs”–no longer called “The Chase”–and race winners will earn five bonus points.

The playoff format is mostly the same (four rounds of 16, 12, eight, and four drivers), with one exception:  the bonus points acquired through the season will be added to each driver’s total at the beginning of each round of the playoffs (previously, bonus points only applied to the first round).  The playoffs remain a “win and you’re in” format, and the finale at Homestead remains a four-man battle with the highest finisher winning the series championship.

Bonus points will also be awarded in the playoffs for each driver’s placement in the final regular season standings:  15 for 1st place, 10 for 2nd, eight for 3rd, seven for 4th, and so on down to one for 10th.

Pros and Cons

The cons of this system are obvious:  fans are going to be confused trying to figure out what in the world is going on.

But like anything else, this system has multiple pros and cons.

Positives include an intermission-like caution period after each stage that will allow competitors and fans alike to catch their breath, while broadcast networks can air more commercials during the break instead of during green-flag racing.

Also, there is now more incentive for drivers who know they are in the playoffs to win more races or stages, since those bonus points now carry over all the way until the Round of Eight in the playoffs.  Consistency will be better rewarded, even while a strong emphasis is still on winning races.

Besides the confusing nature of the changes, another major con is that a race winner could hypothetically only earn 40 points (finishing 11th or worse in the first two stages then winning the race), while a driver who wins the first two stages and then finishes second would earn 55 (10 points for Stages 1-2, 35 for second place).

“Wait Until You See It On The Racetrack”

Everyone on stage at Monday’s announcement, naturally, praised the changes as something that would make NASCAR exponentially better.

“Wait until you see it on the racetrack,” said 2012 Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski. “If you are watching right now, please trust us. When you see this on the racetrack, this is going to be the best racing you’ve ever seen.”

And, yes, the media member in me is moderately eager to see the changes in action, as they should theoretically create more exciting moments within each race (i.e. there are now three “finishes” instead of one).  But as a lifelong fan, I’m not sold.

Keselowski is probably right about more excitement throughout the entirety of the race, but the complex nature of the format will likely be a problem for a sport that is already in decline.

NASCAR’s Struggles

NASCAR’s popularity, as judged by television ratings and attendance figures, has been in decline since its peak in the mid-2000s.  Television ratings, which consistently rose from the 1980’s until the mid-2000s, have consistently dropped gradually since.  In 2016, the majority of the races on the schedule either hit all-time ratings lows or their lowest marks in 15-plus years.

Attendance has also plummeted over the last decade, with the International Speedway Corporation (which runs 12 NASCAR tracks) reporting a 49 percent drop from in attendance revenue from its peak in 2007, and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (which runs eight tracks) dropping 46 percent from its 2008 peak.

While both marks were at their peak just before the economic recession of 2008 and dropped like numbers in most other industries when the recession hit, they have continued to fall ever since.

This Won’t Fix NASCAR’s Problems

While the country slowly recovered from the recession, NASCAR has tried to appeal to a younger demographic with continuous rules and format changes.  The changes have resulted in many old-school fans giving up on the sport, and have not drawn enough young fans to the sport to offset the departures.

It’s no secret that NASCAR’s existing fanbase leans conservative, and as a result often resists change.

I’ve met fans over time that aren’t particularly keen on changes like The Chase, green-white-checkered finishes, eliminating the “race back to the caution” (although that one was wholly necessary for safety reasons), and even restrictor-plate racing (though most find it exciting).  Some of these have tolerated the changes and continued to watch, while others have left the sport.

Before now, these changes haven’t been overly complicated.  The “Chase Grid” format, which eliminates four drivers each round until a four-man winner-take-all finale, was the most complex change before yesterday’s announcement.

But this edition of rules changes is taking complicated to another level.  And remember, while I do know some very intelligent people who are diehard NASCAR fans, this isn’t exactly a fanbase known for an abundance of doctors and lawyers.

When fans turn on the Daytona 500 in just one month, many will likely not understand the new format.  Some will be patient and try to understand the changes.  But others will get frustrated, not recognizing the sport in which they used to watch their heroes like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. compete, and turn the race off.

And while these changes are aimed at the casual fan (with the thinking generic sports fans would better understand an event divided into periods, like football/basketball/hockey, and the term “playoffs” instead of “Chase”), I wouldn’t think they would have any more patience than the diehard fans when they turn on a race and get confused.  In fact, they may have less patience and change the channel even faster.

If people stop watching the races, it doesn’t matter how exciting the races are, because the sport will fizzle out.  NASCAR’s thinking is that more exciting racing is the answer, as it would potentially attract new fans and start to grow the sport once again.

But, at least from my perspective, the racing has always been exciting.  Some at Monday’s announcement talked about creating more “moments,” spread out over the three-plus hours of a race, but that has never been necessary in other sports, and isn’t in NASCAR either.  The main draw is to see who wins the race, at the end of 500 miles, not who makes it to the one-third mark first.

Furthermore, whether the Falcons or Patriots lead the Super Bowl after a quarter, they will have no advantage (besides the lead with 45 minutes of football left) as far as winning the game.

NASCAR was at its most popular when it was without all the bells and whistles that they will now execute in the running of each race.

Now, with the gimmicks continuing to add up, I’m afraid the number of fans who bid farewell will add up too.

While the “NASCAR as we know it” from the past ceased to exist yesterday, I fear it will result in “NASCAR as we know it” for the future ceasing to exist as well.