NASCAR was in crisis in 2010; at least it was if you read a lot of the stories out there and listened to the radio or watched television.
Ratings were down, interest was seemingly waning, and a lot of fans were tired of hearing about the unprecedented and somewhat predictable dominance of Jimmie Johnson.
I was one of them.
I preached about the need for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to run well to get the sport back on top.
I searched high and low for a legitimate challenger to Jimmie Johnson, and got excited when it was a three horse race going into Homestead last fall.
There were a lot of folks just like me.
Those two things could still happen again.
Dale Jr. could start performing at a level that would allow his fans to get excited about winning again, and Jimmie Johnson may face a serious challenge again this year that may ultimately de-throne him.
Interestingly, though, while those two storylines would generate great interest indeed, some of the greatest blessings are the ones you didn’t see coming.
Two weeks ago, there weren’t a lot of people picking Trevor Bayne to win the Daytona 500. He was too young; driving for a team that time had perhaps passed by; and certainly didn’t pose a serious threat to the heavy hitters from the super teams.
Despite the fact that hardly any of us gave him a chance, he pulled off what is nearly an impossible feat.
He won the 500 in his first attempt—at just 20 years old—driving for the Wood Brothers, and, well, you’ve heard the story by now.
Even if you don’t follow the sport week to week, Bayne’s story was hard to miss.
It appeared on the front pages of newspapers and made its way into the news sections of most of the websites run by the major news outlets.
It was the kind of transcendent story NASCAR has needed to break outside of the fanbase and reach a different audience.
Seven days later, NASCAR struck gold again.
It’s hard to argue that Jeff Gordon didn’t at least in part play a role in the NASCAR’s boom in the 1990s. He was a different type of personality in the sport and brought a different type of fan with him.
However, he’s been out of the discussion for the last few years.
He’s won. He’s made a valiant effort at regaining the title heavyweight role he last carried in 2001. But he’s been largely eclipsed by his teammate, Jimmie Johnson. For 66 races, the driver once known as "Wonderboy" in his youth had been shut out of victory lane. For 66 races, a fanbase besides Junior Nation has suffered.
On Sunday, Wonderboy showed he’s still got the magic.
He’s older. He’s got some gray hair. But he can also still pull the fans out of their seats.
In running down Kyle Busch in thrilling fashion, and then giving him the slightest nudge to make the pass, Jeff Gordon proved that he’s still relevant.
For NASCAR, that’s important.
Gordon defined the 1990s. He brought fans in and posed the perfect foil to the hardscrabble Dale Earnhardt as he went from upstart to multiple-time champion.
Trevor Bayne and Jeff Gordon may be the one-two punch NASCAR needs to pull itself out of the ratings doldrums.
For two weeks straight, NASCAR has seen its ratings up from 2010, and maybe that will allow the suits at NASCAR to stop wringing their hands for a few minutes.
People like what they’re seeing, and more people are seeing it now than at this time last year.
NASCAR may be on its way to health again.
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