Martin Truex Jr. and his race team woke up a bit groggy Monday morning, feeling the effects of a night-long celebration at the Furniture Row Racing motorcoach parked inside Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"Beer, pizza, hot dogs and plenty of laughs," said David Ferroni, Truex's PR man who ducked out early at 1 a.m. while the party was still going strong.
The inevitable hangover of Truex and his fabulous story of resilience spills over to the rest of the NASCAR Nation. The 2018 season will bring a new day, one filled with great uncertainty.
Truex will still be around, but the sport will lose its signature star in Dale Earnhardt Jr., voted the most popular driver in the sport 14 consecutive seasons. It will lose a past Cup champion in Matt Kenseth. And say adios to Danica Patrick, the polarizing queen who never found speed to race at the front but moved the needle in so many ways when it came to cyber clicks and social engagement.
Change is always inevitable, and sometimes it is good. And NASCAR no doubt is spinning this in a perky way, touting the talents of young hopefuls Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Bubba Wallace, Daniel Suarez and others.
NASCAR does indeed have enough rising drivers to fill its tank when it comes to competitive racing. The concern is whether any of these drivers will become transcendent stars.
The sport was lucky to have two generations of Earnhardts. But now all those fans of the No. 3 and the 88 need to fill a void and root for somebody else. Maybe it's Elliott, who has the solid family pedigree as well. Or Alex Bowman, who takes over Earnhardt's ride at Hendrick Motorsports.
But whomever it is will have to engage the NASCAR Nation as well as Casual Fan, and not just win races.
"Bill Elliott was most popular guy too and he moved on and the sport got going," said three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, who retired after the 2016 season.
"Brian France (NASCAR chairman and CEO) once reminded me, when I was summoned down to his office in Daytona, that the sport was around long before I was around and it will be around long after I am gone. One person retiring is not going to ruin the sport."
Fair point, but there are other issues in play for a sport with changing demographics and sponsorships that are drying up. Much like other industries, the problem is that traditional older customers have become disenchanted or disenfranchised, and the younger generation is not making up the gap.
"There are things out of our control: how millennials and other fans of ours are consuming not only our sport but all the sports," France said during a media session at Homestead during the championship weekend. "That's obviously a challenge for everybody. Attention times, the platforms they want to view and consume, they're changing. TV always will be critically important, but other things now will give us a great opportunity, and we're positioned well there."
NASCAR has a deal with NBC that runs through 2024, a financial safety net during tough times when track attendance and ratings have been down. Despite France's insistence that ratings haven't flat-lined, the ratings for Sunday's championship finale was 2.7, down from 3.3 in 2016, and down 4.4 from 2105. That's a 40-percent decline in just two years.
Sportsmediawatch.com reported that excluding rainouts, 25 of the first 34 races this season have set all-time or decade-plus lows in ratings and viewership.
The keys to any potential uptick begins on the track. And like any other sport, it's Next Man Up now that Danica has left the building.
It was a rough Sunday for her as she made her last start as a Cup regular. Patrick's car got into the wall on Lap 139, bringing fire and smoke and an end to her day. It was the 11th time she did not finish a race this season.
"I hit the wall in (Turns) 3 and 4 and got some fender rub on the tire and it blew the tire," she said. "I went a couple of laps and there was smoke in the car, but they thought it was all right, but it wasn't."
Patrick announced earlier in the week that she would race in the 2018 Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500.
"What I'm not looking forward to is I have to go sit in my bus and wait for everyone to get done with the race before I can go home," she said, laughing. "That sucks, but I think that what's coming ahead is bright for me and for the way it feels, so I'm excited."
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