Our experts weigh in on five of the biggest questions in NASCAR as the offseason begins:
Turn 1: Are you surprised Dale Earnhardt Jr. is coming back?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: Three or four months ago I would have been surprised, but all indications have been that Dale Jr. had been making progress and has the desire to once again compete. I was proud of Dale for taking the extra time and being his own advocate for health and safety and returning to competition only when he felt 100 percent physically and mentally. It appears he is there, and I hope he wins the 2017 Daytona 500.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: No. I think we all know him well enough to know that he wouldn’t come back unless he’s done his due diligence and really feels like he’s up for it. Personally I think everyone here in this discussion can tell you about the marked improvement he’s made since summer. The reality was that he got very low. He’s far beyond that now. But I also believe that this has been enough of a life lesson and a warning shot that, if he ever feels like he’s not performing like he wants to and he believes that it is because of head injuries, he will walk away.
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: Surprised? No. He obviously wants to continue racing, and now that he has been medically cleared, he’s going to do it. But I do I feel apprehension. I’d hate to see him get hurt on track running out the last few years of his career when he has so much to offer NASCAR outside of being a driver. I’m hoping his return is safe and successful.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: Not too much. In July, it would have seemed more surprising than it would have in September, when it appeared he had made improvements. Racing is enough of Earnhardt’s soul that not only does he want to continue to compete but he likely wants to determine for himself when he hangs up the helmet. He said he was going to put faith in his doctors and let them guide him, and that’s exactly what he did.
Turn 2: What are your thoughts on Monster Energy entering NASCAR as the top series sponsor?
Craven: Monster Energy will help introduce us to new viewers and consumers. I expect creativity behind their marketing and excitement behind their campaign. I do not buy into the concern that our existing loyal fan base won’t find appeal in what Monster is selling. They sell energy. We need energy!
McGee: The initial reaction was relief. There’s been a stress level that’s permeated the garage all season as each week went by and there was still no announcement. My second reaction was curiosity. I don’t care much about the financials of it vs. Sprint and/or Winston. Expecting this to match those was never realistic. But the activation part of it will be interesting. That was the biggest difference in how Sprint attacked the gig as opposed to what we were used to with R.J. Reynolds. I’m sure there will be some “extreme” stuff that will irritate some folks, but I will say this, having seen what Monster does with other series, they aren’t shy. So, interesting it shall be.
Oreovicz: I’m relieved that NASCAR was able to sign a title sponsor but concerned by the figures that are being reported for the deal because it demonstrates just how rapidly the value is draining out of stock car racing. Sponsorship is the lifeblood of auto racing, and the number of dollars in play across the board is shrinking quickly. NASCAR is still getting a bigger piece of the pie than other forms of motorsport in America, but there will be more belt tightening ahead.
Pockrass: NASCAR probably did as well as expected considering its time crunch. At least it has a company that knows the pulse of motorsports. The question is whether Monster fits NASCAR’s brand and vice versa.
Turn 3: What were your thoughts on Nico Rosberg‘s retirement announcement shortly after winning the Formula One title?
Craven: It had to be a straight from the gut, straight from the heart decision. He expressed how big a toll the season had taken on him, described the exhausting effort he gave to capture the title. This suggested to me that the decision was probably made long before the season ended, but winning the title provided the courage to make it official. Nico Rosberg’s dad (former F1 champ Keke) sums it up best with this quote: “The pressure should never exceed the pleasure.” Perhaps it had?
McGee: It’s up to him, obviously, but his career will always feel like it has a grade of “incomplete.” At least until he inevitably makes a comeback.
Oreovicz: My initial thought was “He finally did something that got everybody’s attention!” But actually I have a great deal of respect for Rosberg’s walking away. He worked long and hard — 18 years — to defeat Lewis Hamilton in a championship fight, and in all likelihood it wasn’t going to happen again. He becomes one of a handful of F1 stars who quit while on top, but I’m not convinced he’s done racing for good. His announcement merely said he was stepping away from Formula One, and a comeback a couple of years from now in sports cars or DTM would not surprise me at all.
Pockrass: Good for Rosberg. Would love to see him in NASCAR bringing the brashness and the competitive spirit. It would make for great drama.
Turn 4: Roush Fenway Racing changed up its front office, said farewell to Greg Biffle and lent out Chris Buescher. What’s the path for this team to get back among the sport’s elite? Or is there none?
Craven: The path for Roush Fenway to return to former glory will be filled with twists, turns and hurdles. This is an organization once built around a five-car system, but it must now become lean and mean in its preparation, and laser focused and efficient financially. Most critical, at the very end of the operation, each team must have drivers capable of squeezing every ounce of speed from the race car for 400, 500 and 600 miles — with success — 36 times each year. That last part of the equation is the most critical because, without that, you never really know where you stand! Very little about the past few years resembles Jack Roush’s drive, determination or will to succeed. Jack Roush is a winner. It’s never paid well to bet against him. I’m pulling for Jack!
McGee: This is the path. There needed to be drastic steps taken, and they are taking them. One year ago at Homestead, I casually asked Biffle “Hey, bud, how’s it going?” and it turned into a 45-minute list of everything that was off at RFR. He said then that they had to wipe the slate clean and start over. That’s what they are doing, starting with young drivers and now moving into the front office. They can certainly get back one day, but it’s going to take a while. Widespread changes are hard, especially when the old ways of doing things worked so well for so long. The trick is to not wait too late to trigger the extreme makeover. If it does work, perhaps the sport’s big bosses across the street at the NASCAR offices will take notes.
Oreovicz: Forge a closer technical alliance with Team Penske to better understand modern chassis and aero setups and start fresh with new drivers. Roush’s best drivers (Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards) left, and the current ones haven’t shown they are top-tier Cup series drivers. Maybe Buescher gets another chance with Roush in 2018 if his year with JTG Daugherty goes well, but RFR needs a proven star in the other seat and will have to look outside its internal network of drivers to find one.
Pockrass: The 2017 season is a pivotal year for the organization. It needs Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne to win races and attract sponsors. If that doesn’t happen, it might need to look at merging with another organization or a sale. Don’t rule out a change in manufacturer if a new one comes in that could boost its competitiveness.
The Dogleg: Tommy Baldwin Racing shut down, HScott Motorsports shut down and Roush Fenway has cut a team. Cause for concern or because Furniture Row and JTG Daugherty are adding teams is it just survival of the fittest?
Craven: I suppose it could be referred to as NASCAR’s version of Darwinism — Get bigger and stronger or disappear.
McGee: Survival of the fittest. But now, with the charter system, there is at least something that can be sold as a team walks out the door. It might not be as much as a team owner wants, but it’s way better than auctioning off one’s belongings for pennies on the dollar.
Oreovicz: Both. The sport has always been about survival of the fittest, but there is a much smaller pool of financially fit team owners than there has ever been. Costs for competitors are higher than ever, and the value of sponsorships and just about everything else in NASCAR is declining. That’s not a happy combination, and it will ultimately result in the number of teams and overall car count shrinking to an even smaller number than at present.
Pockrass: A cause for concern because it shows that the business model is still built on sponsorship. That shouldn’t be a surprise, but it was hoped that the charter system might encourage people to invest in these teams. So far, it doesn’t appear to have happened.