Daytona Beach, Fla. — It was the finish NASCAR banked on as the genesis of its ballyhooed youth movement.
Austin Dillon and Darrell Wallace Jr. finished 1-2 in the Daytona 500, a promising pair of 20-somethings behind the wheel of iconic car numbers that could excite old-school fans, yet a pair with enough social media savvy that might attract millennials to a sport in dire need of a spark.
The kids were coming!
Wallace and good buddy Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, William Byron and Daniel Suarez were among the relative newcomers in NASCAR who had their images plastered on billboards and program covers and hailed as NASCAR’s version of The Next Big Thing.
Yet, at NASCAR’s halfway point, the series returns this weekend to Daytona International Speedway with the so-called Young Guns in danger of becoming The Next Big Bust.
They’re not winning races — or even fans inside their sport.
International Speedway Corp. President John Saunders pinned some of NASCAR’s woes on the failure of the new crop of drivers that have failed to replace retired stars Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and even Danica Patrick in performance or popularity.
“We still have an issue with star power, and hopefully this stable of young drivers coming along will start to win and build their brands,” Saunders said Thursday.
ISC owns tracks in California, Kansas, Virginia, Arizona and Alabama and reported a 10 percent dip in attendance this season for the six races held on its properties from March through May.
Weather and travel; ticket prices and event oversaturation; and long, boring races — all kinds of critical issues and mundane nuisances — have been blamed for NASCAR’s tumble.
Now it’s Saunders’ turn to gripe about the dearth of stars, and the drivers have had enough of serving as NASCAR’s whipping boys.
“Honestly, this whole ‘young guys need to win now’ thing is getting old,” the 24-year-old Blaney said. “We’re trying. We’re trying our hardest. It’s not like I go out there and I’m happy for fifth every single week.
“Any other guy under the age of 25, I’ll just say is the same way. It’s not a competition here between young guys and old guys. It’s a competition between 39 other cars and yourself. No matter what your age is or your experience level, everyone is trying to accomplish the same goal.”
Wallace threw the criticism back at Saunders, saying outdated tracks that fail to keep pace with modern-day amenities are just as much at fault for driving away fans.
“It kind of goes hand-in-hand from us behind the wheel to people that are here hosting us,” Wallace said.
Wallace, whose second-place finish in the Daytona 500 was the best ever by a black driver in the event, is a social media darling with more than 176,000 Twitter followers, posting behind-the-scenes videos and starring in a documentary series that aired on Facebook Watch. The 24-year-old Richard Petty Racing driver even takes on his critics and serves as his own one-man publicity machine for NASCAR fans.
But it’s checkered flags and championships that will define drivers, not likes and retweets.
“I might not post stupid videos every week or stuff like that to try and gain fans,” Kyle Larson said, taking a subtle shot at Wallace. “I try to gain fans on the race track.”
Larson, 25, nearly broke his season-long winless streak last week when he lost a last-lap dual with Kyle Busch at Chicagoland. Busch won his fifth race of the season and rubbed his hand in his eye to mimic a crying child for all the fans whining that the 2015 Cup champion won another race.
NASCAR has a three-driver chase toward the championship through the first 18 races:
■ Busch, 33, five wins.
■ Kevin Harvick, 42, five wins.
■ Martin Truex Jr., 38, three wins.
Dillon and 28-year-old Joey Logano, an 11-year veteran and former Daytona 500 champ, are the only drivers in their 20s who have won this season. Just six drivers have won races, and NASCAR’s 16-driver playoff field could have more contenders making it on points than victories.
“I think it would be healthy for the sport if we just see more variation in winners,” Blaney said. “There have been six winners this year. Come on now. You can’t just put that on the young guys for not winning. That’s a lot of other people that aren’t winning, too.”
Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is winless. So is former Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin and 2012 series champ Brad Keselowski.
But those greats all have resumes that can stamp them as future Hall of Famers.
Fair or not, NASCAR and its tracks threw their promotional weight this season behind up-and-comers instead of perennial contenders and have paid the price for the slight: FOX and FS1 averaged 2.54 million viewers for Cup Series races this season, down 23 percent from last year (3.31 million).
The youth movement needs to start, well, moving.
“I just want to know what we do about it, do you know what I mean,” Dillon asked. “How do you move forward with that? Because the guys that are in the sport are talented enough to win.”
They’re talented and most have been handed the keys to cars for the premier organizations in NASCAR – Elliott has four-time champ Jeff Gordon’s old ride and 25-year-old Alex Bowman has Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevy at Hendrick Motorsports.
Wallace can’t blame fans for tuning out.
“I am looking at myself from a fan’s point of view,” he said. “This guy is 22nd in the points, hasn’t won anything, finished second in the Daytona 500 and is getting promoted the hell out of — and hasn’t done anything.”
He has plenty of company.
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