If someone outside the NASCAR bubble wasn’t watching the racing but formed an opinion by social media chatter, they might think the sky is falling.
Bad racing. Unsafe cars. NASCAR officials not listening to drivers. A lack of respect in the garage. Penalties. The list goes on. It seems there is a lot of negativity floating around the current state of the sport.
But is there really?
“We have a way of making things sound a lot worse than they really are, and that’s just life in general,” Joey Logano said Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway. “People complain more than they give compliments, all day long. You turn on SiriusXM, what does every fan that calls in (say)? They don’t usually give compliments, do they? They usually come in and complain, and that’s just the nature of our society in general. We have negative attitudes.”
The drivers fan those flames, and they admit that.
Logano praised the communication and work between the garage and NASCAR to make things better — particularly the racing. The biggest talking point after last weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway was the continued lackluster racing on short tracks, and drivers were blunt in their assessment of not being able to pass.
Those thoughts aren’t wrong. NASCAR and its drivers both agree something needs to be done, but it’s not as easy to pick one solution to make it better. Logano pointed out that sometimes drivers get out of the car and immediately start talking…and they give the wrong answers.
“We give you our feelings in the moment, but I think when you take a step back and look at where we are as a sport, as a whole, and the racing that we have, it isn’t that bad,” the two-time Cup Series champion said. “Yeah, we have cars that are very equally matched right now. Does that make it harder to pass? Yes. Obviously. Do we want more tire fall off? Obviously, we do.
“We’re trying to work on that. Goodyear has brought a tire that’s too much; it doesn’t fall off. That’s what you want on your street car but not on the race car. The good thing is everyone’s working together.”
Kevin Harvick said there are times he throws things out in the media just to see what happens. There are other drivers who use the media to get their thoughts out there before talking to NASCAR because it’s easier to say it in front of a microphone and hope it helps the cause.
“I would definitely tell you that the communication is better than it’s ever been,” Harvick said. “We’ve had productive meetings, and I think everybody wants to be able to have the cars do different things and have a different style of racing. The racing was good last year because everyone knew nothing about the car. You didn’t know how to drive it; you didn’t know how to work on it. Now it’s all kind of migrated to the same things – a car with all the same suppliers to everyone and eventually you migrate to a spot that everybody is running a very similar speed.
“It needs to be different. I don’t know what that means. But I can tell you, there is more dialogue over the course of the year than there has been in the past. I don’t know what that dialogue is — I’m not on the team side, but I am on the driver side — and I know the dialogue and conversations we have with NASCAR is probably more than I’ve probably had in 15 years.
“So I think some of those comments are a little bit … you can be as involved, and know as much as you want to know, (if) you want to take the time. I would urge the drivers that don’t feel like they know to go sit with NASCAR folks and ask any questions they want because they have been very open with any of the information you want to ask for.”
Harvick was openly critical of NASCAR last year — saying they didn’t listen to drivers when they express concerns and calling the Next Gen parts “crappy” after fire issues.
But the 2014 series champion said Saturday a new car is always going to bring new problems He also chuckled and said “no” when asked if it’s as bad as the comments would suggest, especially given how fans latch onto negative driver comments.
“I think we’ve made a lot of progress in a lot of things,” Harvick said. “From a safety side of things, we’ve done a lot of work inside the car to put the drivers in a more knowledgeable situation with the inspections and knowing what they’re sitting in and all the process that we went through during the winter. You wouldn’t believe the information we have with mouthpieces and driver biometrics. There’s a lot there.
“Yeah, we’d like the car to crash differently, and I think there is still work to do there, but we’re doing a lot of things inside the car to put ourselves in a better position to make up for the deficit of what the car does, and how it crashes.
“I think the cycle of information and news, it always cycles to the bad (being) more popular. The good stories never really get told as much as the bad stories. We have a lot of good things. Yeah, everyone wants the short-track racing to be better, but if you didn’t watch the race and looked at the metrics, they don’t look that much different.”
William Byron doesn’t believe the racing is as bad as people think, but there aren’t as many incidents like blown tires and crashes occurring — things that used to fill out the race.
“It could always be better,” Byron said of the sport. “Could always be more consistent. So (we need to) get back to consistency between weeks with decisions and calls. That’s the biggest thing. I think they’ve been trying really hard, though.
“I think it’s just trying to get back to focusing on the best teams and drivers. When I watch other sports, that’s what I want to see.”
Erik Jones pointed out that there are 38 drivers qualifying and living their dream at Talladega Superspeedway and hundreds of individuals inside the sport who come to the racetrack each week. To him, that’s a good sign for where the sport is at.
“Obviously, that’s not everything, but I think there are a lot of things in the works with TV stuff going on right now that’ll be a big direction for us going forward over the next 10 years,” Jones said. “I don’t know anything about it, but I think things are OK. I’ve been getting to do what I love for seven years now and have another couple of years on the contract, so I think things are not as bad as people think sometimes.”
It’s also a different world now. While problems in the sport have always existed, Jones said it’s a more opinionated world, and everyone has a voice, good or bad, and there are more ways to get that voice heard.
“It’s easy to direct a narrative, and obviously we (the drivers) have a lot of direction on the narrative ourselves,” said Jones. “That directs a lot of the narrative, and that’s where fans get their influence from a lot of times. They also have their own opinions, so it’s not all ours, but if their favorite guy gets out and says, ‘Man, this sucks. The racing is terrible. You can’t pass. I don’t know what we’re doing,’ fans are going to say the same thing.
“You have to be honest as a driver, but fans are going to run off that momentum too. We’re paid complainers. All of us are going to complain unless we’re winning every race, so there’s always going to be something wrong.”
That doesn’t mean anyone wants the drivers to stop sharing their personalities and opinions — Harvick certainly doesn’t.
“I’m glad that everybody is giving their opinion,” he said. “I would never tell anybody to not voice their opinion because I think the opinions are what shape our future, and being able to have those opinions and have them talked about. You have to listen to everybody, and when there is somebody who doesn’t like the opinion, we have a group now who will go talk to that individual and say, ‘Hey, tell us more. We want to understand where you’re coming from,’ and it gives them a way to have a voice aside from in (the media center).
“You don’t have to do it in here. Yeah, this is effective if you can’t get very far, but there are other ways to get things accomplished in our garage today.”
NASCAR and the drivers continue to hold meetings during race weekends as needed. Those started last fall at the Charlotte Roval after weeks of drivers publicly complaining there needed to be better communication across the industry, as well updates on safety changes.
As an owner and a driver, Brad Keselowski found the “sky is falling” narrative interesting.
“We have a natural tendency as an industry, because of how small and tight-knit we are, (to) talk about things in such a manner that you could certainly come away with the perception that the sky is falling,” he said. “Whether that’s real or not…in most cases I think it’s probably not real.
“But it’s OK to have those conversations; we should continue to have conversations about where we are and where we want to be and healthy debates. That’s a very good thing for the sport in some ways. But we have to be careful to not get caught up too much in our own press clippings.”
There are significant business affairs facing NASCAR executives as the sport goes forward. Not only is the conversation ongoing around making the racing better, but the media rights package ends after 2024, as does the current charter agreement.
“I think the big question mark, really, for the health of the sport is revolving around the next TV deal,” Keselowski explained. That’s the biggest needle mover. And the relationship with the owners and NASCAR and if it can get to a solid footing to lead the industry for the next 10 years. I think there’s tremendous potential. Whether we can recognize that or not, we’re going to find out here pretty soon. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I’m caught up with the tremendous potential this sport has.”