Hey, did you see the quotes from the NASCAR Media Tour this week?
Oh boy, the barbs were flying.
Kyle Busch said NASCAR’s suddenly intense promotion of younger drivers was “stupid” and “bothersome,” adding he’s “not the marketing genius that’s behind this deal.”
Then Kevin Harvick said those comments were “like the child that is whining for some attention.” Bubba Wallace let out an exaggerated laugh and said Busch’s comments were “so dumb” and “so stupid.” Ryan Blaney said Busch was being unfair because “doesn’t want to do anything” when it comes to promoting the sport.
Wheeeee! And the season hasn’t even started yet. NASCAR!
But in reality, that summary is a very shallow interpretation of Busch’s comments — and the reaction to them.
What’s really going on here? Well, there’s a lot to it — and it’s worth exploring before making a judgment.
Let’s start with Busch’s premise: That NASCAR is putting its promotional muscle into the younger drivers at the expense of established, successful veterans.
That seems hard to deny based on all we’ve seen and heard about Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson over the last couple seasons — and now that William Byron, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Bubba Wallace, Ty Dillon and Alex Bowman have replaced veteran drivers, the young stars seem to be everywhere.
But can you blame NASCAR if it’s leaning heavily on the new generation? The superstars all just retired in a span of a few years — Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart — leaving NASCAR scrambling to keep millions of fans from feeling disconnected.
Officially, NASCAR insists it is promoting both young and veteran drivers (NASCAR executive Steve Phelps said the strategy was a “mix” of both). But it is certainly counting on the new class to carry the future.
Last May, the week after Earnhardt announced his retirement, NASCAR sent Larson, Blaney, Elliott and Jones on a media tour to New York City — and why not? There’s a lot riding on their shoulders now.
Busch, of course, has noticed — along with the rest of us — that NASCAR really wants fans to get attached to one of the new drivers so they can grow with them over the next 15 or 20 years. But Busch is wondering where that push was when he was a young driver himself.
And actually, NASCAR’s Phelps said, Busch has a point.
“Until four or five years ago, most of our marketing was about the racing itself and pretty pictures around the racing,” Phelps said. “It wasn’t about the stars of our sport.
“So do I think that’s fair. When he came into the sport and started winning right off the bat? Yeah, I think it’s a fair statement that we did not give that kind of support.”
It’s true. NASCAR didn’t give the same promotion to Busch or Denny Hamlin or Carl Edwards like it’s doing with the current crop of new drivers. You can argue the Gillette Young Guns were a thing, but that was a sponsor program — not a NASCAR initiative (it also had drivers who were established and even some in their 30s).
Even after NASCAR began focusing more on the “star power” initiative, it did so by pushing the drivers who were already big names in order to sell tickets and try to stop the bleeding with TV ratings. You can’t really fault that strategy.
But it also caused Busch’s class of drivers to get passed over, and in the process created sort of a lost generation. Now it’s too late to suddenly start convincing fans to make Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski or Joey Logano their guy.
Hamlin said today’s young drivers are “very lucky” they’re coming in during a time where fans are actively looking for a new person to pull for. It’s sort of a clean break.
“Most likely, (a fan’s next driver) is not going to be someone who raced against their (old) favorite driver; it’s going to be someone new that comes in,” Hamlin said. “They’re picking someone from the start just like they picked their driver who retired from the start.”
There’s nothing wrong with NASCAR picking up on that, because it is trying to plant the seeds for the future — albeit a little late.
And Busch — despite his sharp-tongued comments — definitely understands that. My theory is Busch’s frustration comes from wanting the attention for his sponsor, not himself. As the years have progressed, Busch understands his livelihood is tied to M&Ms continuing to feel like it gets enough bang for its buck. That’s why he’s willing to do things like record a wacky touchdown dance on video. So if he’s in the latest NASCAR ad campaign, that gives his sponsor exposure and, in turn, helps his job security.
But there’s a second part to this whole discussion, and it’s one where the veteran drivers could take some lessons from their younger peers.
Behind the scenes, NASCAR is always communicating with drivers and their representatives about promotional opportunities.
Would you like to do a radio hit on an Orlando sports talk station?
Would you be willing to appear on the Kansas City FOX affiliate’s morning show?
Any interest in a cameo on a new TV series that’s coming out next fall?
Want to be a voice in Cars 3?
This probably won’t surprise you, but NASCAR has much more success getting younger drivers to accept these types of invitations.
Ryan Blaney, in particular, is known as someone who says yes to most of the things NASCAR asks him to do.
“You have to think of the end game,” Blaney said. “I would rather make other people happy than myself. If I have to sacrifice time, it is just time. I would rather do something meaningful to the sport than to go sit on my couch.
“Very rarely do I say no to things just to sit on my couch. I can do that at night and I can do that when I retire. I want to do as much as I can right now to make it work and make other people happy and make this thing the best it can.”
So you can understand why it frustrated Blaney when he heard Busch say the younger drivers are “bullied into doing more things” for NASCAR because the veterans say ‘No’ a lot more.
“We’ve been there, done that and have families and want to spend as much time as we can at home,” Busch said.
Blaney said he agrees to those opportunities not because he’s coerced, but because “I think it is good for the sport and myself.”
“I can tell you personally that (Busch) doesn’t like doing a lot of stuff, so that is why they don’t ask him to do a lot of stuff,” Blaney said. “That kind of made me upset how he bashed that part of it. To each his own. If he doesn’t want to do anything, so be it.”
This is where the younger drivers have a major edge over their older counterparts. They’ve come into NASCAR during a period of struggle, which has given them the mindset of needing to do whatever it takes to stay relevant.
“Certain drivers…when they get to this certain level, they stop doing stuff,” Bubba Wallace said. “… It’s kind of like pulling teeth when you get well-established in the Cup Series.”
Wallace told reporters they could pinch him if he ever acts that way.
But many veteran drivers entered the sport during the glory years and have lived through the decline. So they feel discouraged, as if there’s not much one driver can do to make a difference. That makes them more likely to turn down some of the promotional work a new driver might accept.
It’s hard to fault them, either. For example: Let’s say NASCAR asked a driver to do a satellite media tour — where they sit in a studio for a couple hours and talk to various local TV stations all over the country every 15 minutes. Is that really going to do anything to impact NASCAR’s health? What about a radio spot on KISS 98.5 or 1080 The Fan?
“The reality is what I do today to promote the sport most likely makes very little difference in this time span and this era,” Keselowski said. “I am not saying it makes no difference, but very little difference.”
Keselowski emphasized he believes promoting the sport is part of his job. And his intention is to leave the sport well-stocked for the future, which he’s done in areas outside marketing — like developing future talent in his Truck Series team.
But the truth is, times have changed for everyone. The downturn many others in NASCAR have felt over the last 10 years is finally hitting drivers in their wallets. And it’s not going to get any better with the status quo.
So the drivers — both young and veteran — have two choices. They can either ride it out as long as possible without doing much, hoping to make it to retirement; or they can actively try to play a role in building NASCAR back up to help future generations receive the same sort of lucrative opportunities they’ve had along the way.