Who would you like to see win the Daytona 500?
That's the question that is going to be asked over and over until the Great American Race reaches its conclusion.
Many fans, understandably, are going to root on their favorite and based solely by the numbers that means the sport's most popular driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will have the most votes. Nothing wrong with cheering on your favorite, whether it's Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, or Travis Kvapil. The good thing is, at least at Daytona, they all seem to have as much chance at hitting the lottery and being up front when the checkered flag falls as everyone else does.
One of the biggest problems I see with the sport is when you ask someone in the media who they'd like to see win and why.
They too will say Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and then go on to tell you they want to see him win because it would be so good for the sport.
Why would a win by Earnhardt, Jr. be good for the sport as a whole? Will one Earnhardt victory have a profound impact on television ratings? Will it increase exposure for sponsors on second- and third-tier teams? Will it increase ticket sales once we hit April, May, June and on to the rest of the season?
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is a fine racecar driver, and despite the trappings of fame and immense wealth, he seems to be a fairly grounded guy. It would be nice to see him win again, especially as the sport reaches the melancholy tenth anniversary of his father's death in the 2001 Daytona 500.
But this sport's overall health, and its current problems, transcend one driver's performance.
Did non-racing fans tune in to watch after Earnhardt, Sr. died? Yes they did. How many of them stayed to cheer on his young son? Undoubtedly there were millions. Those viewers stayed for a while and have moved on. They might return if Earnhardt, Jr. hits a hot streak and wins a handful of races. Most will not.
The sport spent 50 years building an audience, mainly in the southeast but there were strong pockets of race fans all across the country, mainly around areas outside of the southeast where NASCAR would race (such as where I live, near Michigan International Speedway).
We all know it takes a lot longer to build something than to knock it down. NASCAR's recent changes - the Chase, the COT, realigning the schedule and race start times, among others - were all made with the greatest of intentions. But with a large segment of the ticket buying and viewing audience, these changes turned them off to the sport. The cars no longer looked like something they see in their driveway, despite a similar name and headlight decals. The guy who scored the most points over the course of a 36-race season might not be the champion. Races were taken from traditional venues and moved to markets deemed strategically important by marketers, not race fans. And races that used to start early in the day were starting when they should be ending. All of these factors combined to chase away millions of long-time fans.
But the biggest problem is drivers that have little in common with middle class Americans. Fans in the 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s could relate to Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarbourough, Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt. They were ordinary men who other than racing cars for a living lived ordinary lives. They connected with fans. They spent time with the fans. They built relationships with the fans.
NASCAR, its drivers, its teams, its sponsors, and all of its constituents must work together if the downward trend in the sport's popularity is going to be reversed. We can't put all of the weight of these issues on the shoulders of one driver not winning races. Simply looking at things through rose colored glasses won't do it either. It's on the shoulders of EVERY driver to reach out and rebuild those bridges with fans. Twitter and Facebook accounts aren't enough. Actual, real interaction with people is what the sport needs. When practice is over, they need to head to the fence and sign autographs and chat with people instead of gather up security guards for a mad dash to the dreaded motorhome lot.
Reconnect with people and find commonality with common people, and maybe what was once the most loyal audience in all of sports can be rebuilt.