Yes, Elliott’s breakthrough win should have been the story everyone was talking about. This is a driver who has been billed as ‘The Next Big Thing’ in recent years.
His father is a Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliott. He replaced Jeff Gordon in the famed No. 24 car in his first full-time Cup season. But he didn’t visit Victory Lane until his 99th career Cup race.
Oh, and NASCAR couldn’t even get out of its own way to let Elliott enjoy the headlines. The sanctioning body’s CEO and chairman, Brian France, stole them away when he was arrested on charges of aggravated driving while intoxicated and criminal possession of a controlled substance hours after Elliott won in New York.
On a conference call with reporters from across the country a couple days later, the second question to Elliott focused on France.
But the sport’s hope is that Elliott eventually develops into a big-time personality. Winning, of course, is the only way that will happen for Elliott or any other budding driver such as Ryan Blaney or Bubba Wallace.
“If they start collecting wins, that’s going to help the sport just like with Tiger Woods,” said Busch, the 2004 series champion who is in his 18th full-time season in NASCAR.
“It’s the sentimental value of coming back after some difficulties and putting on that Tiger-esque run. I think these kids who are coming up now need a couple more wins here or there, and it’s going to blossom from there.”
NASCAR is in desperate need of those drivers to become superstars, especially after so many big names have left the sport in recent years.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick ranked among the most popular and well-known drivers who are no longer competing.
Those are big shoes to fill. Alex Bowman tries not to think of the pressure of driving Earnhardt’s No. 88 car.
But he knows eyes are watching him to see how he performs. So far, no wins in 104 career starts.
“I think there’s a lot of great personalities in the sport. It takes winning to kind of boost yourself,” Bowman said. “It’s kind of hit and miss. You have a guy like Jimmie Johnson who everybody didn’t want to win when he was winning all the time. Now that he’s had a rougher couple of years, I think he’s become more popular than ever.
“So it’s interesting to see how that kind of works, but it’s hard to pick a person (who could be the Tiger Woods of the sport). It just takes time. I don’t think Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, obviously Jeff made a big splash as soon as he got in, but it took time to develop their personalities and their fan bases. I just think it takes time.”
Time, though, is not on NASCAR’s side.
Monster Energy has agreed to be the Cup series’ title sponsor through the 2019 season, but that partnership is expected to end after that. The $8.2 billion, 10-year TV contract with NBC and FOX isn’t up until 2024, but the next round of TV talks isn’t too far off.
NASCAR needs to find itself a Tiger Woods sooner than later.