With Public Interest Waning, NASCAR Needs A New Hero

Abhiram Godavari, Staff Writer

One of the most well-known American-born sports is currently in its 73rd full season, with three major divisions all running competitions and players vying for season’s end championships.
It’s not football, however; this is stock car racing.
Indeed, the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season is already well underway, having completed 10 main races as of April, the current season looks to be promising. A slew of drivers have earned their first-ever Cup wins this season alone, including this year’s Daytona 500 winner, rookie Austin Cindric.
Yet, one problem from recent seasons still rears its ugly head; NASCAR has not been popular with the American public since the early 2000s.
Since the untimely death of the sport’s emblematic driver Dale Earnhardt Sr., NASCAR has, for a large part, pretty much lost its identity, which became indistinguishable from that of Earnhardt’s by 2001, the year wherein he tragically passed away during the Daytona 500. The Intimidator, as he was best known, was revered for his aggressive driving style that drew fans to the sport.
Earnhardt was, to many, the last true “cowboy” driver in NASCAR. He did things largely his own way while winning seven championships. His first championship in 1980 came the year after his debut full-time season in 1979, in which he won the Rookie of the Year award.
The lack of truly standout personalities in NASCAR Cup Series competition, both on and off the track, is part of the reason why the sport is continuing to wane in popularity. While it is true that trends like NASCAR will eventually drop from the public interest, having a real draw to the sport is what made it boom in popularity during the 1990s in the first place.
The only possible flag-bearer for the rough and forceful driving style of Earnhardt’s today is Kyle Busch, a two-time season’s end Cup Series Champion in both 2015 and 2019. His controversial bump-and-run tactics, and his overall vengeful nature, is somewhat reminiscent of the Intimidator’s charm.
Also, much like Earnhardt, Busch comes from a racing family, as his brother Kurt is the 2004 Cup Series champion, and in a similar fashion has yet to score a victory in the sport’s equivalent to the Super Bowl–the Daytona 500.
There are other parallels to be made, such as both drivers having a litany of hateful fans to their names due to their driving style, but Busch doesn’t have the charm that Earnhardt had.
NASCAR needs an entertaining personality to stick with the sport for several years if there will ever be any proper return to mainstream semi-popularity, and currently, the one true standout is Busch. In a manner of speaking, he is the closest thing modern NASCAR fans have to an Earnhardt-type figure.
Boredom in today’s Cup Series sets in rather quickly, and the sport is having trouble in every possible way.
Hopefully Busch will truly accept his role as the villain character of modern NASCAR and only time could tell if he will sit among Petty, Earnhardt, and Johnson as a potential seven-time Cup Champion.