I have been a fan of NASCAR since I was a kid. Cale Yarborough was my favorite racer when I was young. When he retired I became a fan of Dale Earnhardt. That was right around the time that NASCAR started moving into mainstream popularity. You'll recall that the "NASCAR Fans" were an actual political constituency that experts thought was going to decide a Presidential election one year (it was the one between Evangelicals deciding the winner and "Soccer Moms" being the desired demographic). You would see people wearing pit crew jackets in public with all of the ridiculous logos for every product under the sun on them. NASCAR was getting Sunday ratings approaching NFL games--and they were being referred to as the "Fourth Major Sport".
But then Dale Earnhardt died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500--and for many racing fans, so did NASCAR. To put it into perspective, it would be like the Green Bay Packers stopped playing football right in the middle of an NFL season. We're not talking about moving to Las Vegas--we're talking done forever. I don't think many fans would be trading in their green and gold for some other team.
Some of us transferred our allegiance to his son--Dale Earnhardt, Jr--placing upon him the expectation to be as dominant as his father had been. There were certainly some great highlights--winning the July 4th weekend race at Daytona five months after his dad was killed there was certainly one. But Dale, Jr was in the impossible position of filling unfillable shoes. And now, he has announced plans to leave racing at the end of this season--after missing much of last year due to a crash-related concussion.
While I applaud Junior for walking away from the sport on his own terms--and not like so many others for whom serious injury or death ended their careers--he leaves behind a sport that many of us who loved the way his father raced with few options for a new favorite driver. NASCAR has become a face-less sport where all of the drivers and cars are basically the same. Trevor Bayne is like Joey Lagano--who is like Denny Hamlin--who really isn't that different from Austin Dillon. And template vehicles mean you have no way of knowing the difference between the Fords, Chevys and Toyotas that make up the field every week. Most of the tracks are identical now--with one and a half mile circuits at Charlotte, Kansas, Texas, Chicago, Phoenix, California and Homestead making for some of the most boring racing on the planet.
What I hear now is more fans just disliking drivers than actually having a favorite--with Kyle Busch and Danica Patrick being the usual targets of scorn. But that's really not the way to market a sport "Come boo the racers you hate this Sunday at Talledega!!" With the end of Dale Earnhardt, Jr's career, I think we may be seeing the end of NASCAR's "glory days" of popularity, exposure and revenue.