Jeff Gordon is mostly retired and Tony Stewart is almost out the door. Now Dale Earnhardt Jr. is sidelined for the rest of the year, exposing NASCAR's glaring need for new stars to captivate the audience.
The three big names who have moved the needle for NASCAR the past two decades have a combined seven championships, 168 career Cup wins and five Daytona 500 victories. More important, they are the household names for NASCAR, the ones who move the needle and make people pay attention.
But Gordon called last year his last, only to be called back to the race car in late July when a concussion knocked Earnhardt out for the season. Stewart, meanwhile, has just 13 races left in his NASCAR driving career.
He was in vintage form Sunday night at Darlington Raceway, where he seemed to intentionally wreck Brian Scott in a move that earned him a post-race sit-down with NASCAR's bigwigs. Stewart's response to the incident? A wry smile and denial of culpability.
NASCAR will argue the sport is bigger than one, two or three personalities, and that the stable is full of young talent. There's some truth to that and it stretches beyond Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. Kyle Larson is a week removed from his first Cup victory, a win that earned him a berth in NASCAR's playoffs, and rookie Chase Elliott is a week away from securing his spot. Austin Dillon could also make the Chase, as could Chris Buescher.
The problem, though, is that none of these new faces are the complete package. They seem fun on Snapchat and other forms of social media, but put them in a firesuit with a live TV camera and all the sparkle is sucked out of their personalities.
There are plenty of drivers with the talent of Erik Jones, William Byron or Daniel Suarez, but if they can't make a fan base fall in love with them, then what does it matter?
Labor Day weekend has been celebrated the past two years in NASCAR as a throwback to its earlier days, when the racing was rougher and the drivers didn't hide in million-dollar motorhomes. They didn't complain about packed schedules, crowded garages or too many interview requests.
Fear of sponsor backlash didn't stifle many personalities.
So it was fitting to see Smoke mete out his own justice on Sunday, and to hear Kevin Harvick blast his crew after yet another race was lost in the pits. Across the border, on a road course in Canada, two teens waged a furious drag race to the checkered flag with a bid in NASCAR's playoffs on the line for Cole Custer.
But John Hunter Nemechek didn't care, bumped Custer from behind, then the two bounced off each other's doors as their trucks hurtled through the grass and to the finish line. As if that old-school finish wasn't wonderful enough, Custer used a running start to leap into the air and knock Nemechek to the ground as he tried to collect the checkered flag.
Now watch, Custer will be punished by NASCAR for his post-race WWE impersonation, and future displays of raw emotion from young drivers will be throttled. It's not that NASCAR needs the drama, the theatrics, the fisticuffs, to be successful. It's just that people need a reason to care, and listening to a driver reel off a list of sponsors between praising downforce and tire wear isn't the sexiest sell.
NASCAR needs new stars, and it needs them to be engaging and entertaining. Somehow, that message needs to be conveyed to young drivers before fans leave with Gordon, Stewart and all the stars from that time when NASCAR was fun. — Associated Press