I think every NASCAR fan can agree that there will never be another Dale Earnhardt.
The seven-time Cup Series champion was as much a legend off the track as he was on. Known for not taking any shit behind the wheel, and not giving a shit when the helmet was off, the Intimidator was truly a one-of-a-kind racer that NASCAR will likely never see again.
While Earnhardt’s reputation behind the wheel didn’t always make him the sport’s most popular driver, he still remains one of the most beloved figures in the sport today.
And NASCAR’s current most popular driver, Chase Elliott, has a theory as to why there will never be another like Earnhardt.
During an appearance on The Pat McAfee Show, Chase was asked whether we’ll ever see another guy like Earnhardt, or Richard Petty and Jimmy Johnson, superstars who build up such a following that they transcend the sport and become household names to even non-NASCAR fans:
“I honestly think the answer to that is no.
And I think that’s because every time we have a new rule change, and we have this new car come out that has tried to level the playing field – the more you level the playing field, the harder that it’s going to be to be different.”
He’s definitely got a point there: Last year, during the first year of the new Next Gen car, the Cup Series saw 19 different winners over 36 races, tying the modern-era record for the number of different winners in a single season.
There were no back-to-back winners until Kevin Harvick managed to rattle off two in a row at Michigan and Richmond in weeks 23 and 24, and the winningest driver of the season was Elliott himself, who won 5 races despite only finishing 4th in the final standings thanks to NASCAR’s playoff format.
Kind of hard to separate yourself from a field that’s putting up those kinds of numbers.
“The reason those guys were such icons is because they were different over the years. They were very good race car drivers, and they also had very good equipment to drive, and those two things combined, at the right time, led to their dominance.
And I think right now, the cars are becoming so much the same that it’s becoming very difficult for drivers to be different.
And the harder it is for us to be different, the harder it’s going to be to pass up through the field and do all those things and really dominate.
So yes, I think there’s going to be time periods where a guy might go on a hot streak and win two or three races in a month or in two months, but those consecutive championships that we saw out of Jimmy and seven champions from Dale and Richard and those guys, I think that’s going to be really hard to do, and especially in a short period of time just because the more the cars are so close, there are so many good drivers that it’s just gonna continue to be more and more challenging to do that.”
It’s hard to disagree with Elliott here. There aren’t any active drivers even close to the numbers put up by guys like Earnhardt, Johnson and Petty. In fact, there are only two active drivers who have more than one Cup Series championship: Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, who have two each.
One thing that Elliott didn’t mention, though, is that the parity among the cars isn’t the only thing that makes it harder for a driver to rack up championships like they did in years past: There’s also the new points system.
With the new playoff system, every race counts so much more than it did in years past. A single bad race at the wrong time of the year can end a driver’s championship hopes these days, where in the time of Earnhardt and Petty, consistency was rewarded and a single bad race wasn’t as much of a setback.
Of course performance on the track isn’t the only thing that makes an athlete a superstar: They also have to have the personality off the track that makes fans either love them, or love to hate them, and that’s another thing that seems to be missing from NASCAR these days.
Sponsors are more important than ever in NASCAR as the sport just gets more expensive, and with the big money that companies are pouring into teams and drivers, they have to make sure that the guy wearing their logo isn’t making their company look bad. That leads to watered down interviews, bland personalities, and drivers who find it hard to gain popularity outside of the sport in which they compete.
(And I’m not even going to get into NASCAR’s self-inflicted wounds, putting rules into place that seem to limit drivers from making moves on the track like Ross Chastain’s “Hail Melon” move from Martinsville last year that would help the sport reach more casual or non-NASCAR fans, or penalizing drivers like Denny Hamlin for speaking out and giving fans an inside look at the thought process behind the helmet).
It’s a problem for NASCAR, a sport that’s so personality-driven and has insane loyalty from its hardcore fans.
But if you believe Chase Elliott, it’s a problem that won’t be going away any time soon – if it ever does.