Today, it was announced that another of the sport's stars is stepping out from behind the wheel - Danica Patrick. Granted, she hasn't exactly lit up the speed charts since she won the pole for the 2013 Daytona 500; however, Danica is still a major name that casual fans recognize and a major draw for lucrative and oft-criminally ignored female sports fan market (that's a rant for another time). It had already been made known that Patrick wouldn't be back at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018, with her seat being taken by Aric Almirola, and after today's press release, we know that she'll be done with stocks after next season's Daytona and Indianapolis 500-milers.
As an avowed Indy-fanatic, I am quite thrilled that she has decided to make the annual May festival of speed her swan song.
Patrick adds her name to a growing list of stars who have decided that their time in the limelight has come to end. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Matt Kenseth are already putting the finishing touches on farewell tours as the 2017 campaign comes to a close (in an appropriate bit of symmetry - both took the scene by storm as rookies in 2000). Furthermore, since 2015, the nation's most popular motorsport has seen Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle call it a wrap, as well. In short, a great number of the most recognizable names are crossing theirs off of the weekly entry lists.
I'm curious, with NASCAR already struggling mightily with ratings, how this will affect the organization. The current downward trend has been fairly consistent since the latter half of the previous decade, due to a multitude of factors - recession, rapidly rising costs in sponsorship and attendance, the ever-changing joke of a points system, etc., etc. NASCAR has lost more than 45% of its audience since then, according to Nielsen, and live attendance has been so lackluster that many speedways have actually taken to removing seats. In short, things aren't pretty.
Will the loss of the previous generation's major attractions only further the trend or will the influx of young blood attract a new wave of fans?
Young guns such as Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, and Kyle Larson have already staked their claims as top contenders, while baby-faced racers such as Bubba Wallace, William Byron, Daniel Suarez, and Erik Jones look to fill the star-power vacuum in 2018. There's no doubt, whatsoever, that this is a transitional period... the torch is being passed, if you will. But, is that torch still bright enough that anyone will care to watch?
The sport is at a crossroads.
NASCAR has been around for nearly 70 years, so it has weathered such "changings of the guard" many times in it's rich history; however, faced with so many other perils... in the words of Asia, "only time will tell" what shall happen.
Selfishly, I kind of, sort of hope that open wheel racing can seize this opportunity to win back some of the market share that they lost when they fractured in the mid-90's. Eyes drifted towards NASCAR and top-level talent shifted their focus towards stock cars as the Indy car leagues made fools of themselves, in one way or another. In recent years, the two factions have joined back together and the quality of racing has drastically improved... not that Indy Car is treating it's own blemishes, right now. Perhaps the Indianapolis 500 will experience something of a revival on the national level? Again, only time will tell.
At any rate, it's going to be an interesting year for American motorsports in 2018.