What means more in the long haul when it comes to promoting a new star in NASCAR? Results, or marketability?
One would think results, but in the case of Danica Patrick, that was not the case. For the sake of the argument, her story must be repeated. Lands a ride with a championship-caliber organization, but in 191 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup starts she earned seven top-10s and a pole. Was she any better in XFINITY competition? How does a top-five, seven top-10s, and a pole in 61 starts sound? Granted, XFINITY equipment isn’t the same as Cup equipment, but the results speak for themselves. Yet somehow, she was chosen to be a leading face of the sport.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, remember Dylan Kwasniewski? Two-time NASCAR K&N Pro Series champion with a total of 11 wins in 45 starts between 2011 and 2013. Where’s that guy? Where’s the effort that was invested into his career? This guy was even named part of the star-studded NASCAR Next class of 2013, a roster that included Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Bubba Wallace, Kyle Larson, and Brett Moffitt. Now, he’s joined the ranks as a real estate agent along with another former NASCAR champion, James Buescher.
The above may only be a test case, but checking the roster one can’t help but wonder what the agenda is for the 2018 NASCAR Next class. Sure, some of the drivers have had some success in stock cars. Zane Smith seems to be the hottest ARCA ace right now, while Derek Kraus finds himself with a shot at a championship in the K&N Pro Series for Bill McAnally Racing.
And…that’s pretty much it.
Among the nine drivers, there are 11 total wins in stock cars. That might sound respectable until the fact emerges that those 11 wins came across 162 starts. Once again, that’s decent for a single driver, but 162 starts across nine drivers is not a promising stat.
Therefore it begs the question, why these kids? Sure, Smith, Kraus, and Riley Herbst are proven winners, as are Will Rodgers and Anthony Alfredo, but does a win a superstar make? Ask Kwasniewski. Ask Buescher. Then again, Patrick earned a smidgen of top-10s yet look at how she was revered. By that measuring stick, the others in this year’s measuring stick look to be okay.
Where’s the rush to put Austin Theriault in top-notch equipment; Theriault, the 2017 ARCA Champion for Ken Schrader Racing? His 2017 season was proof that added time climbing up the ladder helps with experience, especially after his debut campaign for Brad Keselowski Racing’s truck camp in 2015. Or Cayden Lapcevich, who happens to have six wins in 31 starts along with the 2016 NASCAR Pinty’s Series championship. Despite those accolades, Lapcevich’s team had to close down after the 2017 season due to lack of funding, not so different from Theriault’s current situation. Two stock car champions, proven to be fast and consistent as well as good learners, yet both are out of a ride for 2018 while a group of green kids takes front and center in NASCAR’s Next program.
Speaking of, the lack of experience is glaring. Ryan Vargas, the 17-year-old from La Miranda, California, has only made five K&N Pro Series East starts in 2018 and has scored a solitary top-10 (a ninth at Langley Speedway). Tanner Thorson, despite making a grand total of seven starts in stock cars (including a debut Truck Series run at Dover), has a grand total of two top-fives and three top-10s. Hailie Deegan only has three top-10s in three K&N Pro Series starts.
Is this what the program emphasizes? Who to look for on a program? Or who to look for in Victory Lane? Granted, these kids could improve greatly if given more time to grow in stock cars, for sure. But despite the few whom NASCAR is currently celebrating that have actually won, the hunt for who to add as a DLC for the next NASCAR Heat game seems a touch more prevalent. Therefore, some of these very green kids are being rushed up the ladder, not because of their accolades, but because they’ll sell a magazine cover. Year after year, that has proved to not be a good thing.
This isn’t saying that these kids don’t have talent. Talent, like fruit, takes time to ripen. Therefore, don’t put these kids on NASCAR’s forefront yet. Give them time to grow. Give them time to mature. Otherwise, has anyone heard from Ryan Gifford? Where is Cameron Hayley? Luis Martinez, Jr., perchance? Because none of those guys are gracing covers right now. They don’t have Lionel Diecasts out for sale. While James Bickford is on the comeback trail he’s not featured in commercials right now. Nicole Behar doesn’t have a t-shirt for sale at Walmart.
Sure, some great stars have come through the Next program, stars with pedigree and results like Elliott, Blaney, and John Hunter Nemechek. Wallace, Larson, and Moffitt are winners, and Cole Custer is coming along nicely in the XFINITY Series. But Austin Hill isn’t making cameos on hit NBC shows, Gray Gaulding is struggling to survive in NASCAR, and Kenzie Ruston isn’t even racing anymore.
Get the point?
Either the NASCAR Next program can be used to solely focus or educate a driver’s appeal and driver growth, or it could altogether go away. Let a driver’s appeal and growth be organic. Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t have the same record as Jimmie Johnson or Richard Petty, but the sport loves him just the same. Kenny Wallace never won a race but he’s one of the most followed NASCAR personalities on social media. Likewise, if there’s a champion on the hunt for a ride like Theriault or Lapcevich, then emphasis should be placed on getting those guys to the top of the list in terms of filling in a quality ride because let’s face it, folks may love all of the drivers, but it’s the winners who usually get more attention.
Family money and connections shouldn’t have ever had anything to do the climb up the ladder in the first place.