One of the hot topics in the wake of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement announcement has been: Is NASCAR in trouble?
It’s a fair question, because the up-and-coming drivers don’t seem to have the same sort of big, magnetic personalities drivers like Earnhardt, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon had.
There are a lot of opinions on this, but a very important one comes from NASCAR itself. Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and the guy who basically runs the show these days, attended Tuesday’s news conference and answered a few questions afterward, saying he was optimistic about the future of the sport.
Among his answers:
— The current crop of young drivers do have personalities that will attract fans, O’Donnell believes, but “they’ve got to win” more often in order for fans and media to recognize that.
“People like winners,” he said. “We’ve taken some steps in the Xfinity Series to move out some of the Cup drivers. The reason for that is we want drivers exposed to winning — (then) they’re interviewed more, people get to see their personalities.”
O’Donnell said there’s “no doubt” the drivers’ personalities will be exposed as they start to have more success.
— It’s one thing for NASCAR to be more involved with developing personalities and scheduling TV show appearances or similar opportunities, but there’s only so much the sanctioning body can do. At some point, O’Donnell said, the drivers have to step up and “take those personalities outside the sport.”
“It’s important for us to work together, but it’s also on the drivers,” he said. “They’ve got to want to do some of these things outside of the sport to help grow the sport as well.”
— O’Donnell is comforted by the fact Earnhardt isn’t going away and wants to remain part of the sport. He believes Earnhardt can continue to help NASCAR develop the young drivers’ personalities, both as an Xfinity Series team owner and other ways that haven’t yet come to light.
In addition, O’Donnell feels Earnhardt will continue to give feedback on NASCAR’s direction (as Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon have in retirement).
“He’s not hesitant to send you a message every day on, ‘Here’s what I thought about the race’ or ‘Here’s some ideas you all need to explore,'” O’Donnell said. “He cares about the long-term health of the sport. And I think the other drivers he’s interacted with, especially the younger drivers, see that and know that’s important going forward.”