Thursday was NASCAR's official media day, leading up to the Daytona 500 a week from Sunday, so of course the main topic of discussion, being that Daytona is NASCAR's Super Bowl and Opening Day rolled into one, was … the romance between Danica Patrick and fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Somewhere, Richard Petty facepalmed himself.
I'm not sure how long to give the young lovers, based on their comments Thursday. Patrick, talking about Stenhouse, spoke of how dueling drivers in love reminds her of the Montagues and Capulets from "Romeo and Juliet." Stenhouse, talking about Patrick, said: "She's hot!"
Bet the under.
It's all good gossip, and NASCAR has never been shy about shaking what it's got to get publicity. But there are two small issues.
One, Patrick and Stenhouse have a total of 15 starts, and zero wins, in the Sprint Cup – NASCAR's major-league circuit. So basically, we're talking about a couple of utility infielders.
And two, their coupling has lapped the field in the race for NASCAR's most interesting story.
It takes a lot of work to be boring when your sport involves drivers hurtling three-wide down the stretch of a superspeedway at 200 mph. But NASCAR has managed to make stock-car racing boring.
The big news of the offseason was the Gen-6 car, the new standard car for the Sprint Cup series. For years, NASCAR cars have basically been identical. Now the body panels have been altered to look more like the cars they're supposed to represent – the Chevy SS, Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry. But the truth is, they still don't look that different. And even if they did, they'd still be an SS and a Fusion and a Camry. Those aren't cars that stir a race fan's loins.
The drivers don't stir up most fans, either. Jimmie Johnson has dominated Sprint Cup racing for the past decade – in his 11 full-time years on the circuit, he's won five titles and never finished lower than sixth overall. He gets the respect a champion deserves, and by most accounts he's an interesting guy. (He and his wife just re-created a Dylan album cover for ESPN.) But not much of that projects into the stands or through the TV screen. I'm not sure many NASCAR fans love him, or hate him, deeply. And I'm not sure most other folks can tell you a single thing about him, except that he wins.
NASCAR is best when there are heroes and villains and feuds. The best moment of the 2012 season was when Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer got tangled up on and off the track at Phoenix. But Gordon paid his fine, apologized, won the next week at Homestead and went back to his role as your grandma's favorite driver. Tony Stewart sanded off his edges when he became a team owner. Kurt Busch overplayed his hand – he's been such a jerk that he lost his ride and is starting over with a new team. Most of the rest of the field huddles in the middle, thanking their sponsors and keeping their noses clean.
(Brad Keselowski, last year's Sprint Cup champion, shows some promise on this front – his buzzed interview after winning the title, chugging beer from one of those giant glasses you buy on spring break, was five minutes of great TV. Although, for the sake of manliness and good taste, I have to point out he was drinking Miller Lite.)
They're all tremendous drivers, and great athletes – every race requires endurance, reflexes and guts. But the NASCAR cars are so similar, and the standards so unforgiving – a tiny bend in a spoiler can get a car DQ'd – that you start to wonder if the real stars are the crew chiefs and engineers and pit crews. Several races a year are decided by the best strategy to keep from running out of gas. Other races have so many wrecks that they end up with a green-white-checkered finish – a two-lap sprint to the flag. It's like stopping the Olympic marathon and having everybody run a 100-yard dash for the gold.
In some ways, NASCAR hasn't recovered from Dale Earnhardt's death at Daytona in 2001. He was NASCAR's last superstar, a driver you knew, and knew about, even if you'd never watched a lap. Fans (and NASCAR itself) loaded all kinds of unfair baggage on Dale Earnhardt Jr., hoping he'd win and run hard like his daddy. He did have a solid year in 2012 before two concussions late in the season. But his win last year at Michigan was his first since 2008. This year, he's having problems finding sponsors for his car.
Any of these problems might not slow NASCAR down. Combined, they're dragging the sport backward. TV ratings have been dropping since 2005. Last year's fall race at Talladega had its worst attendance since NASCAR started announcing the numbers. The numbers are still good, compared to every sport except football, but they're not what NASCAR dreamed of when everything was running full throttle.
Any new sports season is like unwrapping a mystery gift. By the fall, we could be talking about how NASCAR resurrected itself. But for now fans are left to wonder if Ricky Stenhouse would wreck Danica Patrick to take the checkered flag, or if she would wreck him, or if they'd cross the line together and make out in Victory Lane.
To paraphrase Waylon Jennings, I don't think Dale done it this way.
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