Opinion: Cars Need More Stars

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

MRN's Pete Pistone says that a variety of reasons are causing some of NASCAR's biggest names to step away from the sport. (Photo: Getty Images)

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The list of drivers who have or will leave NASCAR since 2015 reads like a Hall of Fame ballot: Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and - in all likelihood - Danica Patrick, and quite possibly Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne.

That’s a heck of a lot of star power gone from the sport.

Sure, NASCAR has seen successful and had popular drivers leave before. The sport is and will always be cyclical. When Bill Elliott, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Sterling Marlin and Ricky Rudd rode off into the sunset, there was another group of drivers ready to ascend to the top tier.

But this latest wave seems different and has a very distinctive vibe. While some of these drivers are leaving on their own terms and conditions, others may be forced out because of a lack of sponsorship.

Patrick’s announcement Tuesday that she would not return to Stewart-Haas Racing didn’t include any statement about leaving the sport completely. But the fact is that when the Nature’s Bakery sponsorship dried up for the No. 10 car and no replacement could be found, the handwriting was on the wall.

If nothing else materializes and Patrick’s NASCAR career does come to an end, something she seems at peace with based on recent interviews and media coverage, it will be a big blow. Love her or hate her, Patrick has done a tremendous amount of good for NASCAR in terms of publicity, exposure, marketing and connecting to both a female and younger audience. She continues to score high on advertisers’ lists of recognizable athletes and personalities.

Patrick’s performance speaks for itself. By any measurement, it has been sub-par and disappointing to her team owners, sponsors and Patrick herself. But anyone who believes she won’t be missed is dead wrong.

Patrick transcends both NASCAR and auto racing into the mainstream’s consciousness. When she’s gone, there will be a tremendous void left to fill despite Patrick never putting a notch in the win column.

There’s no question that the influx of young talent getting their chance to shine is tremendous. Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and William Byron have years - if not decades - ahead to make their mark. The pipeline in the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series is bursting at the seams filled with another group of youngsters waiting for their shot at the top tier.

However, talent and ability does not immediately equate to stardom. That takes time and a number of variables will determine who moves into the spotlight.

The departure of so many household names seemingly at once presents a major challenge for a sport doing its best to remain relevant in a professional sports and entertainment world more competitive for an audience than ever before.

NASCAR needs a hero or two ... or three ... and it needs them now.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.

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