WAID’S WORLD: NASCAR Needs New Heroes But It Has At Least One Villain

I’ve read more than once that a means by which NASCAR can alleviate its attendance problem, and the perception that it is a sport in decline, is for it to be blessed with a young driver who becomes a dominant competitor.

That would certainly be a positive factor. Several of the most popular and successful drivers in NASCAR are now out the sport. They have retired at ages that once in the sport were considered young – like 42 or 43.

Gone are Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr., by far NASCAR’s most popular driver of the last two decades.

That some left the sport came as a surprise to us all. We were dumbfounded – Edwards, Kenseth and (gasp!) Earnhardt Jr.?

There are many reasons why they retired but a strong one is that racing was not their sole source of income (honestly, they had earned plenty of money) and therefore, why keep doing it and tempt fate?

Seems it would be a better idea to do some farming, take vacations with the kids while they are still young and perhaps even start a family.

Now, in my opinion, it is also true some of these drivers were encouraged to retire. Economic times have not been the best for racing and perhaps some team owners felt it only prudent to replace a veteran with a much younger driver – who would cost a lot less money.

Understand, this is only a theory.

But it is a fact that some of the top teams that have lost veteran stars have replaced them with younger talent – in some cases, much younger.

Drivers like Chase Elliott, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney, Daniel Suarez and others have come into NASCAR showing a lot of promise. None of them are 30 years old.

Some have already won races while others are expected to do the same – a lot, by the way.

Observers believe that the first young driver who can back up his promise with performance, bring with him a pleasant personality and a talent for gathering, and keeping, fans will become a powerful karma for NASCAR.

There’s no argument here. Just about every NASCAR era has had its dominating personality and winner, from Richard Petty to Cale Yarborough to Bill Elliott to Dale Earnhardt to Gordon.

But let’s change the subject, shall we?

I am one of those who have said, repeatedly, that as much as NASCAR needs heroes, it needs villains – and not guys who merely do or say unpleasant things.

Rather, they are villains who are strongly competitive, win races and compete for championships. They back their words with deeds.

Which makes them more despised and drives interest – can some driver give this character his comeuppance?

In the past Darrell Waltrip filled the role. Believe it or not Earnhardt did for a time and so did Stewart.

I am not disposed to call any driver a villain but I daresay that if a poll were taken among the fans, the man who would rank No. 1 is Kyle Busch.

In many ways Busch fills the role. He’s outspoken, he won’t back down from confrontation, he’s willing to speak against the sanctioning body and happy to give as much as he takes on the track.

I think any driver who does all that is good for NASCAR and he’s called a villain.

Busch does wear the black hat.

He also does something else. He proves that as a competitor he can do much more than run his mouth. He is a top-flight talent.

Busch is only 33 and already in his 16-year career he’s won 43 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup races and a championship in 2015.

Interestingly, he was just 20 years old when he started full-time in 2005, the year in which he won twice.

He’s won a record 91 XFINITY Series races and 50 more on the Camping World Truck Series.

But over the years he’s also been involved in more than his share of controversy. So much so that it’s almost expected of him.

This season, Busch is in top form. He finished among the top 10 in five of six races and wound up with three seconds and a third in the last four events.

It is little wonder he’s first in points.

He said after Martinsville he had a championship-caliber team and that “we will get there.”

I think it is reasonable to assume that eventually Busch will find himself immersed in controversy, big or small, as a result of his words or action.

I’m not sure he wants to play the role of villain.

But I would say that if he continues to produce the way he has, heck, he would wear the black hat.



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By Steve Waid

Steve Waid has been in motor sports journalism since 1972, the year he first started covering NASCAR, when he started his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. From there Waid spent time at the Roanoke Times & World as well as NASCAR Scene, where he was the executive editor for 10 years. After retiring in 2010 he became the Vice President of Unplugged Auto Group for its website, and has now joined POPULAR SPEED as an editor and columnist. Waid has won numerous writing awards and other such accolades. In January of 2014 he was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame.