Photo: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

TORRES: Blaney Could Save NASCAR’s Driver Relatability Crisis

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

A week removed from the annual NASCAR Media Tour, the buzz around media tabloids wasn’t about Speedweeks or season expectations, but drivers being vocal about NASCAR’s promotion towards the future as the sport enters its 70th season without a strong media darling like Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

The first wave of the “Young Gun Movement” from the early 2000s are now the established veterans who are carrying the sport, but we’re seeing a promotional shift favoring the second movement with drivers Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Chase Elliott and Darrell Wallace, Jr.

To no surprise, some of the veteran drivers shared their frustrations, including 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch.

In an interview on January 23rd, Busch described this push as unfair to the veterans who worked their way up the NASCAR ladder and aren’t getting top billing.

“We’ve paid our dues and our sponsors have, and all you’re doing is advertising all these younger guys for fans to figure out and pick up on and choose as their favorite driver,” Busch said. “Some of these marketing campaigns, pushing these younger drivers, I would say is not all that fair.”

Regarding Busch’s comments, I see why he’s upset about the marketing approach because there wasn’t that big of a push on the younger drivers not named Dale Jr. and Jeff Gordon.

When Busch became a full-time Cup driver in 2005, it was rare for drivers under 25-years-old to succeed and advertisers may have felt it’s not worth the risk promoting a driver who won’t pan out.

Busch was one of the rare drivers who proved age was just a number and I view him as one of the best personalities today. Busch’s response towards his detractors on Twitter can brighten or anger people and it’s what NASCAR needs, a number-one villain.

At the same time, his attitude and desire of winning has rubbed people the wrong way, but he’s the closest thing to Tony Stewart we have today.

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is among the all-time greats, but compared to Gordon, he hasn’t had the same mainstream success because of his Formula One-like corporate image. Whatever people’s opinion of Johnson is, I can’t deny his role as the sport’s general.

However, Hendrick Motorsports’ senior driver won’t be around forever and a new ambassador must be found. This is where Blaney comes into the fold.

The following day, Blaney responded to Busch’s comments, saying a lot of the younger drivers are more approachable than veterans like Busch.

“I feel like if some drivers were more willing to do these things, they’d get asked more to do it,” Blaney said. “And the reason why I get asked to do it a lot is because I say yes a lot, because I think it’s good for the sport and myself. I can tell you personally, (Busch) doesn’t like doing a lot of stuff, so they don’t ask him.”

Blaney’s comments had valid points that aren’t new to long-time NASCAR fans. Drivers must appease its sponsors and draw new fans into the sport. On the contrary, fans have been vocal about driver personalities being nothing but corporate spokespersons without charisma.

Drivers back in the day were relatable because of their backgrounds. Dale Earnhardt represented grass roots, hard working persona. Journeyman J.D. McDuffie became a fan favorite because he didn’t let financial setbacks hinder his passion of competing against the big boys.

From all accounts, Davey Allison was a humble, family friendly man and arguably considered NASCAR’s poster child until his death in July 1993. Then there’s the drivers who had charming Hollywood looks like Gordon and Tim Richmond, who also put the sport on the map. Those personalities made the sport unique compared to the NFL, NBA and MLB.

To gain new fans, they must have a strong presence in social media. The three drivers I think of are Blaney, Wallace and Matt DiBenedetto. The trio understand the impact social media can do for their careers and aren’t afraid sharing their lives in front of the world.

Dale Jr. publicly said Blaney’s the guy Junior Nation and fans alike should root for this season and beyond. He’s the man I can see become a transcending star based on his early success on the track and intriguing personality.

Blaney brought pizza to fans who attended the Goodyear Tire test at Texas Motor Speedway in early January, even spending time interacting with them. If I were NASCAR, this is great stuff to promote him as an early favorite for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award.

I expect Blaney contending for several wins as he’ll drive for Roger Penske’s No. 12 Ford after spending the past few years at Wood Brothers Racing. If he can do that, sky’s the limit for the 24-year-old from Ohio.

With a plethora of drivers retiring, the second “Young Gun Movement” can make the difference in reigniting the sport’s attendance and ratings slump. This is why the remaining two years of the 2010s will be crucial for NASCAR because if one of these young stars dethrone Busch, Johnson and reigning champion Martin Truex, Jr., it’ll help the sport in the long run.

Success is everything and ultimately should matter on who gets promoted, adding pressure towards the veterans who are on the hot seat of being kicked to curb.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media and a four-time National Motorsports Press Association award winner in photography. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography with ambitions of having his work recognized.