NASCAR Shifts into High Gear
After the sun set on Daytona Beach a few weeks ago, NASCAR found itself with a whirlwind news story. The #3 car returned to victory lane for the first time in 20 years at Daytona, 20 years after Dale Earnhardt finally won the race. But, most of the news stories weren’t about Austin Dillion and the 3, a lot of media attention surfaced around the young man who finished in second place, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.
The driver for Richard Petty Motorsports in the #43 car is the first full time African-American NASCAR driver in the Cup Series in 50 years. In a age and sport where money is everything, Bubba hasn’t always had it easy. Last year, he was released from his Roush Fenway Xfinity ride midway through the season because he had no sponsors. He was then given an opportunity by Richard Petty, filling in for the injured Aric Almirola.
After he finished second in the Daytona 500, Wallace was seen after the race giving an emotional interview, capturing the heart of fans everywhere. Bubba was the center of media attention all Speedweeks long in Daytona, running from media event to interviews with news outlets along the likes of The Guardian and USA Today. He even had many prominent African American athletes wish him luck in the race, or give him high praise, such as F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton, and baseball legend Hank Aaron.
It’s no surprise that NASCAR is struggling in today’s market. Younger people just aren’t interested in cars going around a track for 500 miles. But, according to Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bubba may be the face to change that, “I think that Bubba has the chance to become the face of the sport”. This is high praise coming from the face of NASCAR himself, who just retired at the end of the 2017 season. That being said, the sport has had a changing of the guard. With big name drivers along the likes of Dale Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Matt Kenseth retiring all in the past few years, the sport finds itself with a new identity, through young, talented drivers such as Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Bubba, and his best friend Ryan Blaney. Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillion was asked where he thought the sport was heading, after the race. “I feel like a lot of these guys are coming in, we're all going to start trying to be ourselves because the people that led our sport for so long have kind of moved out," Dillon said. "It definitely feels good to have Bubba and I up there and fighting. I think there's going to be some great battles this year with all the young guys.”
The ‘youth movement’ that is occurring in NASCAR right now is the sports ticket to a newfound popularity. The young influx of talent coming up from the feeder series has been proving nothing but results. Kyle Larson, both in their early 20's, won a combined 5 races last year, Larson had 15 top 5's and 20 top 10's. There is a new feeling in the garage area this year. After speedweeks was over, the sport itself had that new feeling. NASCAR’s own 7-time champion Jimmie Johnson commented on this new feeling. “From where I’m sitting, I’ve never seen so much change,” he said. “Maybe the fans won’t have a great sense of that, but our environment has changed dramatically.”
Every sport goes through some sort of change. This change is the biggest NASCAR has ever had, between new, young drivers, new car designs, and new rules packages are going to change the sport for the better. NASCAR is full speed ahead, racing for the chance to be in the national spotlight once again, and out of the dying spotlight that has been hovering over the sport for a decade.