Old Stats Are Fun, but They Shot Down a Good Theory
I keep hammering on the driver development programs and the insistence by teams and sponsors on elevating young drivers to Monster/Cup rides before they’ve built decent fan followings (or, in some cases, their abilities). I still believe that’s a big negative for NASCAR’s popularity, but I tried to do a little quick research on this year’s playoff situation to support my position, and folks, I struck out.
What I was looking for was some evidence that the champions of old brought more fans to the track because they’d been around longer and typically had a bigger fan base. Oops! Take a look at what I found out.
Here are some stats from the old days that I hoped would support my case, using a couple of years from each decade to pull together my case:
-- In 1959, Lee Petty won the Grand National championship at age 45 after having been a regular in NASCAR’s traveling circus since its start 10 years earlier. The following year, 1960, Rex White claimed the championship at age 31 in his 5th year as a Grand National regular.
Lee Petty had plenty of experience when he won his NASCAR championships. Maybe today’s champs would bring in more fans if they wore shirts like that during the races.
-- In 1969, David Pearson was the champ at age 34 after 10 years on the circuit, and the next year Bobby Isaac claimed the crown after nearly a full decade competing.
-- In 1979, Richard Petty won the last of his championships at age 41 with 20 years of Grand National racing under his belt. The next year brought a rare newcomer, Dale Earnhardt, who claimed the title at age 29 in only his second full season. The rare newcomer, we would soon learn, also was a rare talent.
-- In 1989, Rusty Wallace was Winston Cup champ at age 32 after 7 years (following some success and fan-building racing with the old ASA circuit). Earnhardt claimed another title in 1990, now at age 39 and with 12 seasons under his belt.
The Intimidator won championships regardless of age or experience, but we probably won’t ever see that kind of performance again, regardless of rules, cars, charters, playoffs, or anything else.
-- In 1999, Dale Jarrett claimed the championship at age 42 after 13 seasons as a circuit regular, and 2000 saw Bobby Labonte take the title at age 36 in his 8th year.
Except for Earnhardt and Rex White, most of those champions had been racing for about a decade - some much more - when they outran everyone else. That sounded good, until I looked at the final eight contenders for 2017. There are the two under-25 “babies,” Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott, each in only his second full season, but the next least “experienced” is Brad Keselowski with 8 (really 8-½) years, and he’s 33. The other five have 12 or more years racing Cup, and while Kyle Busch is still only 32, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson are both 41.
Harvick and Johnson are relative geezers in today’s youth-oriented Monster/Cup world, but they’re also guys who still win a lot - and bring lots of fans to the track.
So while Blaney or Elliott might end up with the trophy, it’s more likely we’ll see it in the hands of someone just as experienced as all those champs of decades past.
Frank, your theory just hit the inside wall without a Safer Barrier. At least it was fun looking all that stuff up.
What I didn’t shoot down is the argument that NASCAR’s decline has been linked to NASCAR-designed, nowhere-near-stock race cars, an overdose of rules, cookie-cutter tracks, and (we don’t talk about this one as much) tires that make these highly aerodynamic cars so good that there just ain’t much action. I’ll stick with that as my diagnosis.
But somebody still had better find a way to get a lot more fans wearing Eric Jones, Daniel Suarez and William Byron shirts and caps, or when the Harvicks, Johnsons and others follow Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and now Matt Kenseth out the door, there won’t be even fewer fans around to watch.
Rex White’s ‘59 Chevy had vent windows, windshield wipers and sheet-metal covers over where actual headlights used to be. What are the chances you’d find anything at your Chevy dealer’s that looked like Chase Elliott’s ride? Yet we expect people to look at the #24 and its counterparts and say they’re fans of stock car racing.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts are all in his head this week. Let’s see what happens at Homestead, and we’ll spread a few around after we conclude the 2017 season.
On second thought…
The things you find while looking for other things. I’m saying here that NASCAR has put too much emphasis on aerodynamics, and we might have more fun watching races if we had cars built like this again. (By the way, a few years after this photo was taken, I was old enough to pay attention to cars and sometimes dealers, and I have no recollection whatsoever of Lauritzen Nash Motors in Richmond.)
I just love this photo of Richard Petty and Junior Johnson at Hillsboro. You head down the backstretch, aware that a wrong move might put you in the trees. Can’t see any fans in these, though, like you would have seen on the backstretch at Richmond.
If NASCAR doesn’t want teams working on their cars after wrecks, maybe we should just go back to building them so the work wasn’t needed. Here’s Lee Petty at Detroit in 1951, driving his car AFTER rolling it.
Can’t put a bunch of seemingly pointless old pictures up without including one of Fulton’s and my hero from the ‘60s, J.T. Putney. Go get ‘em, J.T. (even though you seem to be racing in the grass).