Even in these challenging economic times for the going-stupid-fast industry, there remains no shortage yet of car pilots.
It will take much of Tuesday and Wednesday for NASCAR’s Monster Energy drivers to cycle through Charlotte’s convention center for the circuit’s annual media tour. It’s a steady stream of men – no Danica Patrick this year – wearing fire-resistant suits even though the questions really aren’t that incendiary.
As a group, they speak as smoothly as they shift gears.
It is almost impossible to find an honest southern accent in the bunch, racin’s regional roots all but paved over now, with a Starbucks built atop them all.
Clearly, none of them could make a decent moonshine if you spotted them the mash and the still.
And all of them stand up for the national anthem.
The hard part is trying to identify a savior among them.
They begin another big-time stock-car season with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, Atlanta’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 a week later. And with that, the sport begins another search for a personality bigger than the machine that contains it.
The need is greater than ever, with the departure of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the curiosity of Patrick having run its course and finished out of the top 10. There is continuing drain of recognizable names and talent in this sport, and replacement parts seem particularly hard to come by.
The farm system hasn’t been real helpful. Of the eight rookies of the year in Cup racing since 2010, only two (Ricky Stenhouse and Kyle Larson) have been race winners. All 10 of the group from 2000-09 have won at least once (the average number of victories among them is actually 23, and range from Kyle Busch’s high of 43 to Regan Smith’s 1). Three of them were series champions.
Quick, name the reigning series champion. Hint: It’s no young, eager up-and-comer who will draw a new generation to racing. It’s 37-year-old journeyman Martin Truex Jr., who won more races (eight) last year than in his previous 13 years combined. A great story, but sadly not the kind considered hip.
NASCAR has been through a Car of Tomorrow program. Now it is in great need of a successful Driver of Tomorrow push.
Chase Elliott is supposed to be the guy. Bill Elliott’s son, heir to the Dawsonville racing legacy, is the one most often anointed the new face of his sport. But the question of, “When you gonna win?” is following him into a third season. And it’s getting a little tired.
Asked Tuesday if he was feeling any added pressure to fill that role, Elliott said, “I don’t really (feel pressure to be the face of the sport). I want to do well for all parties involved, not just for the sake of the sport. I want to do my thing, do the job I think I can do for my team and the job they deserve.”
Just 22, Elliott is no longer even the youngest driver on his Hendrick Motorsports team. That position belongs to 20-year-old William Bryon, last season’s Xfinity Series (racing’s Triple A) champion.
Could he be the one? Or must he wait at least until they don’t have to card him in Victory Lane?
Taking over Earnhardt’s No. 88 ride will be 24-year-old Alex Bowman. It’s a tough gig, like the E Street Band trotting out a new front man, but he’ll accept your cheers should you choose to transfer them to his account.
“There’s a lot of fans looking for a new guy. Hopefully I can be a guy that people want to cheer for,” said Bowman, an Arizona guy stepping in for the North Carolina one.
"Obviously the 88 has got a large following, so I’m going to do my best to keep Junior Nation happy and keep that 88 car out front. That’s what they hired me to do.”
If not Bowman, can one of the young drivers who have arisen from NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program – Daniel Suarez or Darrell “Bubba” Wallace – do something that would add to racing’s contracting audience? Neither would seem to have the horsepower behind them just yet.
Who, if anyone, can inject a new energy into a sport that finds itself going nowhere so very fast? There is quite a long parade of applicants here. Still looking.
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