Is Danica Patrick a picture of NASCAR’s rise and fall as a national sport? (photos) – cleveland.com

CLEVELAND, Ohio – NASCAR’s downward spiral continued this week with Danica Patrick’s announcement that her contract with Stewart-Haas Racing will end after this season. She has no current racing plans for the future.

Patrick, 35, told ESPN; “I have no interest, as I’ve said for years now, running 20-25th. That’s not fun.”

Yet her career best finish in the annual points race is 24th. She has never been competitive in six years with NASCAR despite racing for one of the top teams, leading to the conclusion her racing days could indeed be over.

For NASCAR, the news is flat not good coming so close behind the retirements of Jeff Gordon in 2015, Tony Stewart in 2016 and now Dale Earnhardt Jr.

If NASCAR does not quickly find a way to reconnect with a sport losing fans and sponsors, its rise and fall as a national sport will be much like Patrick’s; historic, yet meteoric. A comet that has come and gone.

The three drivers, along with Patrick, were key in taking the sport from niche to mainstream on the heels of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.

It’s not Patrick’s fault NASCAR fans are staying away from the tracks. But she is part cause and part victim within a sport in transition. In retrospect, she arguably helped NASCAR far more than NASCAR helped her.

Most point to the same core reasons for the sports demise: NASCAR management, the economy, and possibly a waning love affair with the automobile, considering even the most elite auto racing series in the world, Formula I, is experiencing a comparable decline.

Where race teams once hired drivers, then went after sponsors for high dollars to help pay them, the system is now reversed. Where Patrick once had GoDaddy, Aspen Dental and Natures Bakery as powerhouse car sponsors, GoDaddy left her last season, Natures Bakery this season. A Stewart-Haas deal originally set to end in 2018 is now cut a year early.

And Patrick is not alone. Teammate Kurt Busch and Brickyard 400 winner Kasey Kahne are not locked in for next season, either. More and more NASCAR drivers are required to bring at least some sponsorship to the team in order to get a ride. Competition for one of the 43 spots on the NASCAR grid is becoming fierce.

Even among race teams.

The iconic Richard Petty Motorsports this week thought it had a handshake deal for continued sponsorship with Smithfield Foods, only to see Stewart-Haas get the deal inked with Smithfield for 2018, although no driver has been signed for the car.

Youth is being served in a big way for NASCAR and throughout motorsports, in great measure because youth is also cheap.

One week after team owner Earnhardt Jr. said young Xfinity Series wunderkind William Byron, 19, would return to the support series next year, Byron was signed to drive for Hendrick Motorsport for the Cup Series next season instead.

“It’s just incredible what this young man has achieved in such a short time,” Earnhardt Jr. tweeted after the announcement.

Indicative of the current trend, Rick Hendrick will now have his own “Brat Pack,” with Byron joining Chase Elliott, 21, and Alex Bowman, 24.

It leads one to reflect, just how did this happen? How did NASCAR go from the hottest sport in the country to this?

In the 1990s, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart were young Indiana-bred racers rising from the sprint car and midget racing series. Both actually had a strong following in open wheel that they carried with them to NASCAR.

At the same time NASCAR was spreading its wings from a sport strongly aligned with the South, open-wheel racing was in the midst of a Hatfield-McCoy type feud.

Not only was there a split between those who strictly wanted to race ovals vs. those who liked multi disciplines (speedway, short oval, road courses and street courses), there was a split between those who wanted to push the technology envelope and those who wanted to slow it down. Add to that, icons Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Danny Sullivan were ending their careers.

NASCAR benefitted from this and more. Where open-wheel was international, NASCAR was purely American, easily identifiable by the cars they drove and the drivers behind the wheel.

Adding Gordon and Stewart, plus tracks from Indianapolis, near Stewart’s home,  to California, where Gordon grew up, helped grow the sport as well.

The crown jewel came in 2012 when NASCAR lured Danica Sue Patrick, yet another open-wheel racer, into their fold.

She flashed speed — twice leading the Indianapolis 500 and later earning the pole for the 2013 Daytona 500 — and sex appeal, twice appearing in the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition. She was a marketing gold mine for NASCAR, good for everything from TV ratings to coveted media hits on the internet.

But in recent years, Patrick’s novelty wore off as the wins did not come. Gordon and Stewart retired, NASCAR attendance and marketing dollars from sponsors looking for the next hot trend left the sport.

And this came as a closer look at the flags many NASCAR fans waved showed just as many with stars and bars as stars and stripes.

Also, after a decade with the “Car of Tomorrow” a uniform chassis with the automotive badge (Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge and Toyota) being the only difference from team to team, there is no longer a real brand allegiance for fans to attach to.

Add what seems to be a constant string of rules changes and race gimmicks leaves the impression NASCAR just can’t figure itself out.

Now the last pure NASCAR icon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is ending his career. In a perfect world, Patrick would become the face of the series, nurturing the new young guns. Yet since Patrick has been in NASCAR she’s basically been a racing Kardashian — “famous for being famous.”

She has never won a race, never even finished in the top five, and only seven times finished in the top 10 after 180 NASCAR cup events.

For Patrick this amounts to possibly a glass ceiling end to a career that certainly proved women can perform in a male dominated world. Yet her failure to crack that glass equals NASCAR’s current failures across the board.

The challenge for both is finding success in the future.

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