Friday 5: Who can emerge as a superstar in NASCAR's era of parity?

In the days after winning his first Cup championship, Ryan Blaney was asked what type of impact he wanted to make for NASCAR.

“I want to be the Jeff Gordon of the ‘90s,” Blaney told NBC Sports, citing an era that saw Gordon appear on TV shows and commercials. “He was everywhere.”

Gordon’s popularity rocketed when he won three championships, and 40 races — including four Southern 500s, two Coca-Cola 600s and a Daytona 500 — between 1995-98.

His rise occurred as the sport’s popularity soared, setting the stage for NASCAR to move primarily off cable channels to Fox and NBC starting in 2001. Those deals, along with moving Cup races to bigger markets, pushed the sport’s stars further into a national spotlight.

But that was a different era.

With a common car in NASCAR that promotes parity and sponsors airing fewer commercials with drivers in leading roles, is there a way for the sport to grow superstars who resonate beyond the fan base?

Certainly the sport has its stars — and some are superstars within NASCAR — but a key for the driver-centric sport is to expand its reach. The Netflix show “Full Speed” debuted in February, introducing NASCAR drivers to a larger audience. The show featured Denny Hamlin prominently, among others, and chronicled Blaney’s championship last year at Phoenix.

Yet, for the sport’s stars to grow bigger, performance remains a key factor. NASCAR’s Next Gen car was designed to narrow the gap between teams, giving more drivers a chance to win. It’s worked. There have been 25 different winners in the first 77 points races of the car.

Parity, though, doesn’t create superstars.

“It’s the age old question of what do you want?” Hamlin said. “Do you want to see drivers do what other drivers cannot? You have to make things different. You have to make things harder to drive, all of that stuff.”

NASCAR Cup Series Shriners Children's 500 - Qualifying
NASCAR Cup Series Shriners Children's 500 - Qualifying

Good news, bad news for NASCAR Cup teams ahead of Sunday’s race at COTA

NASCAR heads to Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, for the first road course race of the season.

Last weekend’s race at Bristol was praised by some competitors because it put an emphasis on drivers in a way that hasn’t always been as evident in recent years. Result were tied to how well drivers managed their tires, not a car’s aerodynamics.

“Right now, if you put 20 cars in the lead with 10 to go, they are going to win – the star in that is the track position because the cars are all the same,” Hamlin said after his Bristol win. “They are just not as difficult to drive.”

That causes Hamlin to wonder how well performance can grow superstars.

“You can have those big seasons in NASCAR, as long as you have a really good pit crew, good team – you do still have to set up the cars and the drivers do have to have a skillset and execute – all of those things, so I do think eight-to-nine win seasons are still possible,” he said. “But I don’t know if you are going to grow any superstars the way that it is going. It’s just really, really tough for sure.”

Syndication: Austin American-Statesman
Syndication: Austin American-Statesman

Weekend schedule for NASCAR Cup, Xfinity, Trucks at COTA

This will mark the fourth consecutive year the Cup Series has raced at the Texas road course.

Another challenge for NASCAR is that it is going through a youth movement. It can take time for younger drivers to raise their profiles in the sport, let alone beyond it.

Blaney was the third consecutive driver under the age of 30 to win the championship last season. He was also a part of the youngest Championship 4, which included Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson and William Byron.

Bell, the only driver to make the Championship 4 each of the past two seasons, makes his 150th career Cup start Sunday at Circuit of the Americas. He’s scored seven wins. Among active drivers, only Kyle Busch (12 wins) and Brad Keselowski (nine) had more victories in their first 150 Cup starts. Bell’s seven victories tie him with how many wins Hamlin had in his first 150 starts.

Bell is headed toward being one of the sport’s top stars but hasn’t reached that level yet.

“I would say in my eyes the superstars in the sport are Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, probably (Joey) Logano and Keselowski – the guys that have won the most races out of the group,” Bell said. “It’s becoming harder and harder to do that. The days of the big three – (Martin) Truex, (Kevin) Harvick and Kyle Busch – are a long way away now.”

AUTO: MAR 17 NASCAR Cup Series Food City 500
AUTO: MAR 17 NASCAR Cup Series Food City 500

Goodyear takes top spot in NASCAR Power Rankings after Bristol

Sunday’s race at the half-mile track delivered tire wear and intrigue.

Although Harvick has moved to the TV booth this season, his Q Score ranked highest among NASCAR Cup drivers in surveys done in January by The Marketing Evaluations, Inc. Q Score measures the public’s familiarity and positive opinion about celebrities and athletes.

Steve Levitt, president of Marketing Evaluations, told NBC Sports that Harvick’s recognition factor among NASCAR fans was higher than Chase Elliott, who has been selected the sport’s most popular driver six consecutive seasons, and Larson, who will become the first driver in 10 years to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day in May.

Elliott and Larson rate higher in another category.

Since January 1, Elliott ranks first and Larson second in merchandise sales across the Fanatics network, including the NASCAR online store, according to Fanatics. Blaney ranks third, followed by Ross Chastain and William Byron.

Buoyed by his Daytona 500 win, Byron is second in merchandise sales to Elliott since the start of the season (Feb. 4). Larson is third since the start of the season, followed by Chastain and Blaney.

It’s easy to suggest that Larson is among NASCAR’s superstars. He won the 2021 Cup championship after one of the greatest seasons in U.S. motorsports history. He continues to compete in dirt races, maintaining a relationship with fans beyond NASCAR. Larson drives for one of the sport’s best teams in Hendrick Motorsports, has already won this year and is tied for the points lead.

He is popular but it is not suffocating.

“I went to lunch in Applebee’s like five miles outside North Wilkesboro and not one person recognized me, so I’m not a superstar,” he said last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Even so, what happens in a restaurant isn’t the most scientific way of determining if a driver is a superstar. It will come down to how much in demand a driver is to appear in various programming beyond NASCAR’s scope.

NASCAR Cup Series Daytona 500 - Practice
NASCAR Cup Series Daytona 500 - Practice

NASCAR Cup drivers to watch at COTA

Ross Chastain seeks to continue his streak of good fortune at the Texas road course.

Another key area in raising the profile of drivers is sponsorship.

“We’re not seeing the activation out of our partners that we used to see,” said Keselowski, who recently appeared in an ad with crew chief Matt McCall for a sponsor. “That’s been a challenge for us. … I think that’s probably more critical to building star power than any of these other conversations.”

Blaney sees changes being made on the marketing side.

“Where the marketing side is going right now and with Netflix and things that are branching out, I feel like the sport is in a good spot,” he said. “Hopefully, these guys can take advantage of these things and opportunities that are out there to continue to grow themselves and be known.”

While Blaney says his focus is on how to succeed on track, he’s willing to do what is needed for the sport off the track.

“There’s a lot of cool things, I think, coming down the pipeline that are going to be fun … There’s a lot of different options that I’m excited to do,” he said.

2. Limiting COTA chaos

The end of last year’s Cup race at COTA saw chaos and crashes. Depending on your point of view, those final restarts were either exciting or appalling.

NASCAR hopes to avoid a repeat of what happened by moving the restart zone. Last year, the restart zone was shortly before the start/finish line. This year, it will be moved back to just beyond the exit of Turn 20 (the last corner before the frontstretch).

COTA restart zone.jpg
COTA restart zone.jpg

The belief is that by having the leaders accelerate while others are just getting through the corner or yet to do so will spread the field out before getting to Turn 1, a sharp left-hand turn.

“I think the restart zone this year will be 100 times better,” Erik Jones said.

It took three overtime restarts to finish last year’s race after incidents in the first corner on the first two restarts and elsewhere on track.

Jones was 30th on the first overtime restart, 24th on the next restart and 19th before the final restart. He finished 23rd.

“It was just pushing and shoving,” Jones said of the late-race restarts. “You just kind of ran in there. You’re getting run over from behind. You’re hitting the guy in front of you, running him over. It was really wreck or be wrecked, which isn’t really ideal.

“We all want excitement, right? Everybody wants an exciting race, crazy restarts and all of that. But there’s got to be a top end to it. COTA, I think we all realized, ‘OK, that’s probably too much.’”

Daniel Suarez was the driver who lost the most on last year’s restarts. He was fourth on the first overtime restart and fifth on the next one before he was collected in an incident on the final overtime restart and finished 27th.

Suarez said he was a part of the process to change the restart zone location and limit the potential for calamity in the first corner. He said there was talk of having a single-file restart, but Suarez was against that.

“I don’t feel like single-file is a way to go for our sport,” Suarez told NBC Sports.

With the restart zone moved, Suarez looks forward to this weekend’s race.

“I’m excited to back to COTA,” he said. “We have unfinished business there.”

3. Kyle Larson closing in on the Double

It’s nearly two months until Kyle Larson competes in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 — the first time in 10 years a driver has raced in both events on the same day.

Larson’s endeavor was announced Jan. 13, 2023. Throughout last year as Larson hit milestones — a seat fitting, livery unveiling and rookie test — he talked about how far off the races were.

Now, as he is within 70 days of doing something only John Andretti, Robby Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch have achieved, how does Larson view this?

“My mind is definitely on it some, but it’s too early for me to take focus away from the NASCAR stuff,” said Larson, who has one Cup win this season and is tied with Martin Truex Jr. for the points lead.

“It’s still an important time to get off to a good rhythm and all that … I would like to continue to have a good regular season, but, yeah, it’s definitely on my mind. I’ve been looking at data here and there. The simulator stuff, from what I hear, doesn’t really crossover well.

Kyle Larson IndyCar.jpg
Kyle Larson IndyCar.jpg

“Really at this point, I just need to get to get on track. I just need to get on track with other people. That’s going to be the best way for me to learn, I think, getting around other drivers on the racetrack (and) off the racetrack, talking to my teammates that I’ll have. That, to me, is where I’ll learn the most. I just don’t really think there’s much I can do right now.”

IndyCar has an open test scheduled April 10-11 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Larson is scheduled to take part in the test.

4. Work continues on Bristol tire wear

Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that NASCAR and Goodyear officials seek to understand the cause of the excessive tire wear last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“Why the track did not take rubber as it has in the past?” Sawyer said. “ That’s the million dollar question right now to figure out exactly why that was and to figure out how we can capture that and make that work at other short tracks as well.”

Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, said during last weekend’s race that he anticipated that there would be a tire test at Bristol this year ahead of the night race, which is a cutoff race in the first round of the playoffs.

5. Will streak continue?

Last year, the six Cup road course races were each won by a different organization.

Here is a look at those winners:

  • Circuit of the Americas — Tyler Reddick (23XI Racing)

  • Sonoma — Martin Truex Jr. (Joe Gibbs Racing)

  • Chicago — Shane van Gisbergen (Trackhouse Racing)

  • Indianapolis — Michael McDowell (Front Row Motorsports)

  • Watkins Glen — William Byron (Hendrick Motorsports)

  • Charlotte Roval — AJ Allmendinger (Kaulig Racing)

Organizations that could continue that streak this weekend at COTA include Richard Childress Racing, which won two road course races in 2022 when Reddick was there, Team Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing and RFK Racing.