Greg Cote

NASCAR’s big weekend at Homestead can’t hide the dark truths facing a hard-hit sport

Something, or someone, will save NASCAR. We aren’t sure who, or when, but it will happen. Because it has to.

That NASCAR needs help should be beyond dispute by now.

I say this as America’s premier motorsport circuit crowns its season and celebrates itself this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the massive racetrack tucked amid agricultural land 40 miles southwest of downtown. It’s the 17th consecutive year South Florida has hosted this sport’s Super Bowl.

There will be better-have-earplugs noise and blur-speed coming out of the organized bedlam of pit row as the “Championship Four” — Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. — race for the top-tier Monster Energy Series season title on Sunday among a 39-car field.

It is a quality final four. Busch, Harvick and Truex have been the “big three” all season, combining for 20 of the 35 race wins, and each has won a season championship. The Cinderella-in-a-firesuit is Logano, the youngest of the four at 28 and looking for his first season title.

This is the season’s checkered flag, the sport’s biggest weekend and best advertisement.

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But none of the cheering or championship trophies raised can hide the overarching truth.

NASCAR is not healthy as a sport or business. It has been trending wrong for around 10 years but the downturn is getting worse.

Attendance is down and television ratings are down — those two main barometers of interest indicating stock-car racing has gradually lost a major chunk of its audience. NASCAR fans still love their sport as much as ever. There just aren’t as many of them, evidently.

NASCAR officials downplay the bad stuff. As Homestead track president Matt Becherer told us Thursday; “I think you’ve seen that [downturn in attendance and ratings] across all sports.”

Not like this, though.

The 5.1 TV rating for this year’s signature Daytona 500 was the lowest ever. Fox and NBC numbers overall were down around 20 percent this year.

Attendance fell another 14.7 percent this year, after dipping by a combined 10.1 percent in 2016-17.

There is scant evidence that inventing the stage-playoffs format (now in its fifth year) has worked for NASCAR.

Starpower is down, too, surely a contributing cause.

“There have been some big retirements of late,” Becherer acknowledged.

Jeff Gordon retired, Tony Stewart retired, Danica Patrick retired and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. is no longer racing. Each was immensely popular in a way that transcended the sport and drew an audience beyond just diehard gearheads, and all have left within the past few years.. Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time champion, may be next. He is 43 and this season failed to win a single race for the first time in his 17 years at it fulltime.

The exodus makes the sport increasingly superstar-starved to casual or would-be fans. With due respect, Logano and Truex don’t move the national needle the way Gordon and Stewart did.

The erasure of Earnhardt, gone from the racecar to the NBC TV broadcast booth, especially cannot be overstated.

This season ended a continuous 40-year era in which Dale Earnhardt and then Junior were the face of NASCAR to a large degree, the royal family.

The father won a record seven top-series championships from the time he won his first race in 1978 until his death at Daytona in February 2001. “The Intimidator” was loved, hated and admired, the perfect trifecta. His sudden death from race injuries jarred the sport, causing something very close to national mourning.

Junior had won his first race in 2000, his father’s final full season. He was not destined to ever win a season championship,but he won something greater. The people’s hearts. Junior was voted Most Popular Driver by fans nationwide for 15 consecutive seasons (a record) from 2003-17.

Some of that love was inherited, but surely not all of it. Junior’s retirement left a crater of a void, one not filled.

NASCAR needs a Next Big Thing, somebody to market, a bright new star whose popularity transcends the sport and makes race fans of folks who don’t know a restrictor plate from a dinner plate.

Will Chase Elliott be the guy? Like Dale Jr., he has the bloodlines. Bill Elliott, now retired, was voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver 16 times between 1984-2002 His son, only 22, won three races this yer and finished fifth in the season standings, just missing the Championship Four.

The pipeline of new stars has been more dry than gushing. Of the nine Rookie of the Year winners since 2010, Elliot is one of only two to have won a race this season. Many see the aptly named Chase as the next face of the sport Does he sense that pressure?

“I don’t really,” he said. “I want to do well for all the parties involved, not just for the sake of the sport.”

Who if not Chase?

Why not Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. At 25 he was second in this year’s Daytona 500, best finish ever for an African-American driver. If he can parlay that potential he’d be the big payday of the circuit’s “Drive For Diversity” initiative — a key to regrowing NASCAR’s fan base beyond its Deep South base and attracting younger fans.

Becherer admits the sport needs a younger, more diverse fan base and mentions initiatives including discounted tickets to young fans.

Aric Almirola, “The Cuban Missile,” hits the right notes on diversity as Wallace does. But at 34 Almirola has a modest two career race wins in the main series.

Elliott, Wallace and Almirola all will be running Sunday at Homestead.

(Or might the Next Big Thing be a breakthrough female star presently in high-school and unknown beyond local tracks? Danica Patrick was adored for what might have been. Imagine if she’d won?)

NASCAR needs somebody to break through and front a new generation to lead a renaissance, so that the sport’s most interesting and popular drivers are not the ones who just retired.

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