June 18-- They're handing out participation trophies in NASCAR now. Or what amounts to them, anyway.
Such is the state of America's top stock-car racing circuit that the leader of each stage of the race-they're divided into threes-earns bonus points toward the end-of-the-season playoffs. Sunday afternoon at Michigan International Speedway, Martin Truex Jr., led after the first two stages-60 laps and then 120 laps.
Never mind that he didn't win the FireKeepers Casino 400. That honor went to Kyle Larson, but more on him in a minute.
Dividing the races into stages and awarding points is new to NASCAR this season, and it smells like desperation. The thinking is that race fans will follow more intently.
What the sport needs are rivalries and personalities. Until NASCAR develops them, the new rules are nothing more than empty calories, like a box of stale Twinkies.
The problem is that in a world increasingly fond of made-from-scratch maple-bacon doughnuts, racing fans crave something more substantial. Kyle Larson may or may not be one of those drivers.
The 24-year-old Californian is talented and backed by Chevrolet and Chip Ganassi Racing, blue-blood lineage for sure. True to stereotype, he sat on the dais for his post-race interview this evening and he talked about relaxing in his native state next week and sipping wine.
Look, I'm not suggesting a worldly and gifted young driver should tell us he's gonna go out and beer-pong a 12-pack of Natural Light. (Though that would add a little grit to the headline, no?) What I am suggesting is that NASCAR continues to have an identity problem.
And Larson is a poster boy for it.
All you had to do was take a walk around the MIS grounds today to see it. Or to see what wasn't there: fans.
At least not near as many as there used to be. Anecdotally, the stands are half of what they were even 10 years ago; the track doesn't release attendance figures. On this day, the wide swaths of unoccupied bleachers was even starker.
Now, on a micro-level, the race started later-3 p.m.-than it has in the past and a couple of thunderheads rolled over the Irish Hills in the morning. And on the macro-level? All sports leagues are competing with seemingly infinite entertainment options.
In other words, this isn't just a NASCAR issue.
Which means that more than ever, fans need to be compelled to buy tickets, to turn on the television, to flip on the radio. When stock car racing was humming and had spread beyond its niche roots-from the early '90s to the mid-2000s, personalities dominated the circuit.
One by one, however, those drivers have either retired or faded into irrelevance. The latest name, Dale Earnhardt Jr.-and the sport's biggest star-announced this year would be his last. And when he is gone, NASCAR won't have a single driver whose celebrity spreads beyond the racing pages.
Obviously, this is a blow to the folks trying to keep stock car racing relevant. Though not everyone sees it that way.
"It's a great time for NASCAR," said Larson, whose victory today was the third of his career. "I think everybody is kind of nervous about where it's going, but ... I think our fan base is going to grow."
Youth, of course.
Larson is part of a new crop of young drivers that, at least on the track, offer talent, grit, fearlessness and confidence. They include Chase Elliott, who took second Sunday; Joey Logano, who took third; Eric Jones, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney and Daniel Saurez.
They are fast. They ooze self-belief. They are also a long way from the outsize personalities that connected Richard Petty to Earnhardt Jr. The trick for NASCAR is to make sure casual race fans-or even sports fans-come to recognize those names.
Larson was quick to admit that Earnhardt Jr. is the driver for "probably three-quarters of our fan base."
Yet he doesn't see his imminent retirement as a death blow. He sees it as an opportunity.
Sure, "you might lose a few thousand of (Earnhardt Jr.'s) fans-they might disappear. But the rest of them are going to pick new drivers. I think new rivalries are going to be built. It's going to bring some excitement back to the racetrack."
Excitement being the key word here.
A decade ago, the encampment at MIS turned into a four-day Mardi Gras the size of Ann Arbor. About 150,000 jammed the grounds and sent a jolt that could be felt throughout the region.
It was a happening, even if it was a very specific kind of happening. You could feel it. Sense it.
Larson is right. Rivalries and new talent could certainly stir those emotions again.
Dennis Gennaro, for one, can imagine it. The 44-year-old Windsor, Ontario, resident makes the trek to Irish Hills twice a summer to catch the races. Earnhardt Jr. has long been his favorite driver.
This evening, after most of the fans had gone and a few crew members were locking up their rigs, Gennaro clung to a chain-link fence hoping to get a final glimpse of any late-leaving drivers. He wore a gray T-shirt emblazoned with Earnhardt Jr.'s image.
"I'm excited about the young guys," he said. "Right now, I'm deciding between Chase Elliott and Larson. They're both good guys."
Fun guys, he said.
And maybe that's the key: fun.
Now, if they learn to dislike each other a little bit-or even a lot-the circuit might really have something.
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