And I’m not just talking about this weekend’s Busch Light Clash, the exhibition race at the LA Coliseum that serves as the kickoff to the 2024 season ahead of the Daytona 500 next month.
NASCAR: Full Speed premiered today on Netflix, providing an inside look at the 2023 Cup Series playoffs for the 16 drivers in the running for the championship.
I’ve just about wrapped up all five episodes, and honestly it seems like a great thing for the sport because it shows some personality from the drivers that we often don’t get to see.
NASCAR is built on the personality of its drivers, from guys like Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty to the Allison brothers and Jeff Gordon, it’s a major part of why fans tune in to cheer for their favorite driver – and against the drivers they love to hate.
But it seems like over the last decade or so (and some would argue since the death of Earnhardt in 2001), a lot of the personality has been taken from the sport as drivers become more and more sponsor-focused and sanitized in their public personas.
Of course there are still some good personalities in NASCAR – like Denny Hamlin.
Love him or hate him, the driver of the #11 car for Joe Gibbs racing and co-owner of 23XI racing alongside Michael Jordan is one of the most polarizing figures in the sport. Denny is aggressive both on the track and off, and he’s never been afraid to ruffle feathers – like when he taunted fans who were booing him after a race at Bristol in the fall.
Denny’s one of the rare personalities in NASCAR these days who doesn’t mind being the villain. And that’s something he made clear right from the beginning of the new Netflix docuseries:
“I don’t think that I show that much humility on the outside. I recognize it on the inside, but I think people see me as very cocky and brash.
That’s fine. That’s my persona. I don’t want my competition thinking, ‘Aw what a gee-shucks nice guy.’ F*ck that.”
Of course that persona rubs some in the sport the wrong way. Last season, Hendrick Motorsports VP and 4-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon criticized Hamlin as being “too controversial” and a “distraction” to his team.
“I wouldn’t want that to be one of our drivers.
It’s too controversial. To me it’s a distraction. I feel like, I want our drivers to go and build a fanbase by winning races and by being themselves.
And I think Denny’s being himself to a certain degree, but I think he’s also kind of, it’s like an alter-ego as well.”
But even the criticism from Gordon didn’t bother Hamlin, who responded that nobody else in the sport has the balls to show the personality that he does:
“It drives me crazy that no one else has got the balls to be.
And it’s not the drivers’ fault, because they’ve clearly got white collars standing over the back of them making sure they don’t do it. And that’s not good. That is stunting growth. That is stunting star power.
And I believe we have stars in our sport, but they will never get seen because we’ve got that mentality looking over their shoulders.”
I’ve gotta say, as much as I don’t like Hamlin on the track, he’s spot on here. How many people got into NASCAR because they loved watching the rivalry between Earnhardt and Gordon? And how many new fans has NASCAR missed out on because they don’t have any personalities like that anymore?
And Dale Earnhardt Jr. agrees that the driver personalities are good for the sport, saying in the Netflix series:
“Every sport that has success is successful because of unique personalities on the field. People that you love to hate, people that you love to love, people that you relate to, the good and bad, the villain and the hero.
He does it his way and doesn’t care what anybody thinks about that.
And for our sport to have success it has to have people like Denny Hamlin.”
If you’re a NASCAR fan, or even if you’re not, NASCAR: Full Speed is well worth the watch.