As the 2017 NASCAR season approaches, fans can expect to see significant changes both on and off the track. With Monster Energy leading the way as the new entitlement sponsor coupled with the recent exit of high-profile drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, this year could prove to be a defining moment in the future of NASCAR. Add the recent race format changes into the mix and you have a recipe for either spectacular success or dismal failure.
The partnership with Monster Energy is an effort by NASCAR to reach a younger demographic and expand its fan base.
NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France described Monster Energy as “a dynamic brand that reaches different places and different audiences. They are going to do things that are going to be fun. They’re going to be impactful. They’re going to be exciting for our drivers and our teams.”
It’s a sound theory but NASCAR’s enthusiasm may not be shared by their current fans whose average age is 48 and who are typically resistant to change.
Steve Phelps, NASCAR executive vice president and chief global sales and marketing officer, however, is convinced that the fans will embrace Monster Energy.
“We have the good fortune of finding a brand that we believe works for our sport,” Phelps said. “They’re going to bring their lifestyle to their activation. They’re going to bring their brand, their excitement, their energy to this partnership, and the fans are going to be the winners. It’s all about engaging the fans and having the fans have unique, fun experiences whether at the race track or through different mediums, through social, digital, content.”
Another hurdle that NASCAR faces this year is the loss of Gordon, Stewart and Edwards. Will fans switch their allegiance to a different driver or will they follow these drivers into retirement?
On the plus side, there is an outstanding rookie class joining the Cup Series this season, including Daniel Suarez, the defending XFINITY Series champion, who will be taking over for Edwards in the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Erik Jones, the 2015 Camping World Truck Series champion, is also moving up to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. He will drive the No. 77 Toyota for Furniture Row Racing. Jones had four wins in the XFINITY Series last year and finished fourth in the year-end standings.
Ty Dillon will be another rookie to follow as he moves up to the Cup Series in the No. 13 Germain Racing Chevrolet. Dillon finished fifth last year in the XFINITY Series with nine top fives and 17 top 10s.
One of the biggest obstacles to NASCAR’s success could be the revamped race format that was revealed on January 23 and will be implemented in all three of its national series.
It was met by favorable responses from most of the drivers, including Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“I love the fact that the bonus points or the playoff points will carry through the playoffs all the way to the last round,” he said. “So everything you do throughout the season is really going to help you throughout the playoffs. That’s a great change.”
But the fan response has been mixed, at best. The format changes, which include running the races in three segments with playoff points awarded to the segment winners as well as the overall race winner, are the basis for a playoff structure that seems to get more convoluted each year.
For many longtime fans, this may be the final straw.