NASCAR 2016 awards: NASCAR’s search for a new sponsor is the story of the year – SB Nation

Just as NASCAR conducts an annual year-end ceremony, SB Nation does the same. But whereas NASCAR’s official gala is a staid, button downed affair, SBN’s fictional awards shindig features fewer tuxedos, an open bar, a musical act that isn’t eligible for Social Security (i.e., Sting, who played the Sprint Cup banquet on Friday) and the doling out of hardware in a variety of categories honoring the best of what NASCAR offered in 2016.

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of several that will run throughout the week.

Story of the year

When the sport’s most popular figure announces he’s sidelined indefinitely after sustaining another concussion and putting his career in peril, it would seem obvious it would be the dominant news story of the season. And in many aspects, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s injury and subsequent absence and recovery spanning the entire second half of the season was in fact the central focus.

But Earnhardt’s adamant stance throughout that he would return to racing if he was medically cleared — and with that now appearing to be a distinct possibility following a successful rehabilitation program — means 2016 will no longer be viewed as the year when NASCAR had to see its biggest star call it a career prematurely.

There is also Jimmie Johnson, who struggled for much of the regular season before a resurgent playoff run culminated with him capturing a seventh series championship. Except his credentials as one of NASCAR’s best-ever were already well solidified even before he tied the record shared by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. At this juncture Johnson is merely cementing that status.

The preeminent story of 2016 was one that actually began two years ago when Sprint announced it would cease its position as the Cup Series entitlement sponsor effective at the end of this season. Optimism abounded then that NASCAR would quickly pinpoint and secure a replacement, a partner that would take it to unforeseen heights much like R.J. Reynolds and Sprint had done previously.

However, it became apparent that while NASCAR had a lot of positives to sell to a prospective company, continued woes with television ratings and attendance would be sizable hurdles to overcome.

That search carried into this season, and became the cloud lingering over just about every decision NASCAR enacted. An ominous indicator that not only intensified with each passing month, but eventually manifested into increasingly loud whispers within the industry regarding NASCAR’s perceived lack of leadership and direction.

NASCAR finally revealed Sprint’s successor last week with Monster Energy taking on the role. Even then, doubts still remain.

Exact terms of the contract were not disclosed, including the length of the deal; a stark departure from when NASCAR publicly touted its 10-agreement when Sprint (then Nextel) took over from R.J. Reynolds and the stability it brought. Then there is the issue whether NASCAR is truly willing to embrace the changes needed to make itself an enticing product to capture the attention of millennials, and how it will do so by not further alienating an already jaded fan base that frequently expresses dismay over how the sport is governed.

All of which is why even in spite of the two-year sponsorship search having concluded, the far-reaching implications are too great to ignore. Significance that even exceeds Earnhardt’s health and Johnson’s legacy.

Other deserving mention: The creation of the franchise-like charter system that provides teams some level of security; Stewart-Haas Racing defecting to Ford; continued emergence of young talents in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series; NASCAR instituting a 2017 rule capping the number of races a Cup driver can run in other divisions; TV ratings continuing to decline.

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