Next-gen NASCAR: Young drivers on the rise
As NASCAR loses its most popular driver after this weekend, the question remains: Who will take on the mantle?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement will be the latest in a string of major departures in NASCAR over the last three seasons that also includes Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle. Matt Kenseth this month said he, too, will likely walk away after this season after being unable to secure a ride.
Yet many in the sport believe NASCAR has legitimate young stars in the making. While drivers in their late 20s or early 30s like Joey Logano and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. have already won in NASCAR’s premier series and attracted solid fan followings, a bevy of young drivers are primed to take leading roles in the coming years.
Data from social media metrics firm MVPindex, diecast licensee Lionel and merchandiser Fanatics, plus a survey of more than two dozen executives across the sport, point to 21-year-old Chase Elliott as the most bankable young driver. Ryan Blaney (23), Bubba Wallace (24), Kyle Larson (25) and William Byron (19) also were flagged for their marketability and talent on the track.
NASCAR has seen its share of young guns over the years, but will be leaning on this next crop of drivers more heavily than ever as the sport battles weakness in such key business metrics as ratings, sponsorship and attendance.
“We’re thrilled to death with the number of young talents out there and the variety that fans have to choose from,” said Jill Gregory, NASCAR’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer. “Obviously Chase and Blaney both have great storylines — history in the sport, an appeal to our core fan base and they’re very engaging to the new fan base — and I think we’re seeing some really good growth in Larson’s fan base. We have this army of drivers where there’s a little bit of something for everyone.”
Gregory said the sanctioning body has been investing in programs such as the NASCAR Drive for Diversity and NASCAR Next to identify up-and-coming talent. Graduates of the programs include the likes of Larson, Blaney, Wallace and Elliott.
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■ Age: 21
■ 2018 entry: No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro
■ Team: Hendrick Motorsports
■ Highlights: The son of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott already has 20 top-five results in his first two years in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, including a number of second-place finishes.
Elliott is linked to NASCAR’s storied past as the son of hall of famer Bill Elliott, a 16-time winner of the sport’s award for most popular driver. Chase Elliott also drives for the venerable Hendrick Motorsports and replaced the legendary Gordon in 2016.
Elliott consistently makes the top 10 of social media rankings from MVPindex, which examines engagement levels with followers and the subsequent exposure value for sponsors. Elliott has nearly 1.2 million followers among Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, by far the most of his NASCAR contemporaries, and he’s the youngest driver in MVPindex’s ranking of the top-10 drivers.
Companies including NAPA Auto Parts, Hooters, Kelley Blue Book, Mountain Dew and Under Armour back Elliott, who generated $3,900 in value per social media post this year, good enough for a top-five spot among all drivers ranked by MVPindex. Elliott also generated the highest average engagement rate across social media among the top 10. An average of 1.2 percent of his followers like, share or comment on each post, according to MVPindex.
■ Age: 23
■ 2018 entry: No. 12 Menards Ford
■ Team: Team Penske
■ Highlights: The laid-back son of former NASCAR racer Dave Blaney scored his first win at NASCAR’s top level this year and is the star of a podcast on NASCAR.com.
Elliott, who is repped by Fuel Sports Management Group, endeared himself to NASCAR fans late last month at Martinsville, when after the race he confronted veteran driver Denny Hamlin, who had wrecked Elliott, denying him his first win at NASCAR’s top level. The following week, Texas Motor Speedway created banners and advertisements dubbing Elliott “The People’s Champion.”
From a diecast car perspective, Elliott’s No. 24 NAPA Chevrolet was Lionel’s best-selling diecast collectible of 2016, the first time since 2011 that a driver other than Earnhardt took that spot. So, who does Lionel see as potentially big sellers moving forward?
■ Age: 25
■ 2018 entry: No. 42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet
■ Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
■ Highlights: The Asian-American driver had a breakout year in 2017 with four wins at NASCAR’s top level before being eliminated from the NASCAR playoffs after a blown engine at Kansas Speedway last month.
Michelle Fannin, Lionel NASCAR Collectibles vice president of marketing and communications, said that 2018 preorders for Elliott are strong, as are diecast cars for Team Penske’s Blaney, who like Elliott is the son of a former NASCAR driver. Blaney’s key sponsors include Menards, and he is represented by Sports Management Network.
Jesse Ghiorzi, director of brand strategy for Indianapolis-based agency Charge, noted that Blaney has started to carve out a true brand for himself off the track, both by being personable in his social media posts and by participating in a podcast run by NASCAR that started this year. The podcast recently eclipsed 1 million downloads. Charge works with NASCAR to help drivers build their brands.
■ Age: 24
■ 2018 entry: No. 43 Click n’ Close entry
■ Team: Richard Petty Motorsports
■ Highlights: The first African-American to earn a full-time ride at NASCAR’s top level since 1971, Wallace will drive the famous No. 43 in 2018. He has six wins in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and six top-five finishes in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Fannin also cited potential for Byron. “Sales orders for William Byron’s 2018 diecast are also strong, and if he can sustain that connection with collectors over time, he’ll be another success story for us,” Fannin said.
MVPindex said Byron has shown the largest percentage growth in social media followers among NASCAR drivers this season — 131 percent — as he went from 35,000 to 80,000 followers. Next season, Byron will drive the No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro for Hendrick Motorsports with Liberty University and Axalta as key sponsors. Byron is represented by Wasserman.
Given his potential to bring in new and younger demographics to NASCAR, Wallace — who is African-American — is among the drivers who could vault to stardom. MVPindex noted that Facebook posts from Wallace, who moved up from 21 to 18 in its top driver rankings this year, have an unusually high engagement rate — 2.4 percent. Top drivers typically average less than 1 percent. Wallace spent much of this season on the sideline after his Xfinity Series team folded, but next year moves to the Monster Energy Series as driver of the No. 43, sponsored by brands including STP, U.S. Air Force and Click n’ Close.
■ Age: 19
■ 2018 entry: No. 24 Liberty University/Axalta Chevrolet
■ Team: Hendrick Motorsports
■ Highlights: The youngest driver who will compete full time in the Monster Energy Series next year, Byron has had a precipitous rise to NASCAR’s top level after honing his skills through the iRacing video game simulator as a teenager and being poached from Toyota’s development program by Rick Hendrick.
Daniel Suarez, Austin Dillon, Alex Bowman, Erik Jones and Christopher Bell (who will drive in the Xfinity Series next year) are some of the other young drivers in NASCAR making some noise.
While all eyes will be on Earnhardt in Homestead as he turns his final laps, he will still be around the track in the future as a broadcaster for NBC Sports. But as the offseason beckons, industry executives will be watching to see how much attrition, if any, the sport suffers from Earnhardt fans who will no longer be as invested in the sport.
“I think you’ll see very little attrition. I believe Junior fans will stay in the sport and start to develop new driver loyalties,” said Marc Bluestein, president and CEO of Aquarius Sports & Entertainment, which counts AAA and Florida Hospital among its clients in the sport. “What I think people will focus on is what you kind of call the loud minority. The sexier story will be, ‘Hey, this 10 percent of people aren’t following or watching NASCAR anymore because Dale Sr. and Dale Jr. are no longer racing,’ as opposed to the 90 percent of people that are still in the sport and following other drivers.