It’s funny that 2018 was the year that NBC chose to get rid of Blake Shelton’s “Bringing Back the Sunshine” as its opening tune to NASCAR broadcasts. After all, this just might be the year that the sport starts actually doing that.
Obviously I’m a bit late to addressing the news of not only Chase Elliott’s first career victory, but also Brian France’s departure (if only temporary) from the sport’s leadership. France’s issues have been well documented already, and I need not waste more space on them—let’s skip that, in favor of looking ahead.
We’ll start with Elliott’s win, which paralleled his legendary father Bill’s in both career start (99), preceding runner-up finishes (eight), and type of track (a road course). Watkins Glen International is one of the best race tracks in America, and whether or not NASCAR ever chooses to run the Boot, it’s hard to think back to a Cup Series finish at WGI that hasn’t been among the most intense of the season.
It’s also a monkey off of Elliott’s back, as one of the sport’s most self-critical drivers finally got that first victory. Hendrick Motorsports’ prize prospect of a few years ago has been consistently up front since winning two Xfinity Series titles and replacing retiring legend Jeff Gordon on the team. And there’s no doubt that one of the sport’s most legendary teams hopes that Elliott’s first victory will open the floodgates for the second-generation Georgian, much as it did for Gordon in the mid-1990s; after taking his first win in the 1994 Coca-Cola 600, Gordon won titles in three of the next four seasons, and won 10 races in 1996 when he didn’t win the title.
Now, how does all of this tie in to the situation at the top of the sport?
Control of NASCAR remains with the France family, even though it’s currently been handed to Jim France on an interim basis. We’ll have to see how long the “interim” tag applies, but it’s a savvy pick. France’s father Bill Sr. and brother Bill Jr. built NASCAR into what it is today, before the decade-plus reign of Brian that many fans have decried for countless reasons. Considering the perceived lack of interest that the third-generation businessman seemed to have in running the sport, I think it’s fair to consider Brian’s time as NASCAR chairman and CEO all but over.
But Jim France has plenty of experience helming his own racing series, having founded Grand-Am in 1999 to fill a void in the American sports car racing landscape. He helped lead the merger between that series and the American Le Mans Series, resulting in the unified IMSA that debuted in 2014 and continues to trend upward today, and also worked on NASCAR’s acquisition of ARCA this summer.
And what does IMSA have that NASCAR doesn’t? Besides a ton of momentum and positive support from its fans, it’s got vehicle development that more closely matches street cars; dozens of manufacturer-backed entries in multiple classes; a compelling mix of talented young drivers and big-name veteran racers; and, by the way, an unbeatable selection of race tracks.
You know, all of the things that NASCAR fans have been clamoring for now for years.
Let’s face it: the product as a whole right now is not very compelling, but Elliott’s win at WGI was. Most of the “different” things that NASCAR tries tend to be; as far as I’m concerned, the Eldora Dirt Derby is appointment viewing every year. Trying to get Cup teams to commit to a dirt race may be a bit much, but adding a few more road courses—Road America has been discussed for years, and rightfully so—would make a huge difference for the series. And with the era of the “road course ringer” all but dead thanks to Cup drivers’ prowess on the twisties, it’s not like they’d have a drastic effect on the championship.
As Elliott stands on the cusp of a breakthrough, so, too, does NASCAR. The Cup Series schedule is currently locked in until 2020, and the sport’s major track conglomerates will surely try to resist change beyond that by offering more compromises like the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. But if Jim France, or at least the principles that have made IMSA a success, remain at the forefront of NASCAR’s vision for the future, we could very well be starting down the path to make the sport compelling again.
The views expressed in Spinning Wheels are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any other entity.