NASCAR finally is back, and so too is its biggest star — Dale Earnhardt Jr.
After sitting out the final 18 races of last season to recover from concussion-related issues, Earnhardt is back for the 2017 season and will start on the front row at Sunday’s Daytona 500. Earnhardt’s return is a great sign for his career and overall health, but it’s also hugely significant for the well-being of NASCAR.
A driver of Earnhardt’s stature impacts the sport in a variety of ways, and here’s why NASCAR stands to gain so much from his return to racing.
Earnhardt’s return comes at a crucial time for NASCAR. The sport now has a new sponsor on the Cup level in Monster Energy, and TV ratings, for the most part, have declined in recent years. Moreover, NASCAR has implemented a new stage-based racing format that might not be easily digested by casual viewers.
A driver with Earnhardt’s star power has the ability not only to draw in new fans to the sport but also to provide a familiar, stabilizing presence amid so much change. The fact remains Earnhardt is NASCAR’s most popular and most marketable driver, and he can boost viewership in the same ways athletes like Ronda Rousey, Tiger Woods and Sidney Crosby can in their respective sports.
Setting a precedent
Concussions are huge talking points in all sports right now, not just in NASCAR. Earnhardt’s issues helped spark a revamping of NASCAR’s concussion protocol, while also facilitating more dialogue on head injuries among the sport’s drivers.
More importantly, though, is how Earnhardt handled his situation. While concussions generally are taken much more seriously now than they used to be, sports still face issues with athletes continuing to compete when they shouldn’t be. Earnhardt bucked that trend, opting for a more responsible approach by taking an extended absence from racing in order to get himself right. Earnhardt is the face of the sport, and thus his actions are representative of the sport at large.
Losing Earnhardt for an extended period of time wasn’t ideal for NASCAR, but his return — especially a healthy return — is a sign the sport is dealing with these issues in the right ways.
The Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s signature race, and Earnhardt is its signature driver. Much like how having Tom Brady in the Super Bowl or LeBron James in the NBA Finals is good for the viewership of those respective sports, the same can be said for Earnhardt’s participation in the 500. Aside from perhaps Danica Patrick, Earnhardt is the only driver who transcends NASCAR, someone who is easily recognized by even by non-racing fans.
Like the start of a new season for any sport, the Daytona 500 allows NASCAR to start fresh, and having its biggest star allows the sport to carry on like nothing has changed. In this case, though, Earnhardt’s return might be a sign of change for the better.
Thumbnail photo via Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY Sports Images