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Ryan: For a contact sport, NASCAR’s newsmakers need more conflict

NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race

NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race

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It was intended as a playfully snarky jab about the TMZ-esque transcendence of the most potentially transformative personality that NASCAR has.

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Amy Reimann announced their engagement as dawn broke Wednesday – ensuring a full day of nonstop chatter about a sport desperately fighting for a larger slice of water-cooler relevance in the crowded American cultural and sports landscape – Yahoo Sports! writer Nick Bromberg cracked wise about the occasion tantamount to a royal wedding in NASCAR Nation (witness fans asking about pay-per-view availability).

Bromberg was kidding, of course, but there was a kernel of truth wrapped deep inside his sugar-coated snark.

Think about where the betrothal of Earnhardt ranks on the list of this year’s biggest talkers:

-- Sprint Cup drivers vote to create a small collective designed to meet regularly with NASCAR brass about pressing concerns and initiatives.

-- Several big names miss races for myriad reasons, from domestic violence allegations to injuries to mysterious ailments.

-- NASCAR executives curiously vacillate (“Next year’s rules at this year’s All-Star Race! No, wait.”) on a blueprint for incremental rules changes hailed as critical to create captivating racing.

Notice what’s missing?

With the very notable exception of Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing’s sudden and impressive emergence as a championship powerhouse, not enough is happening on the track to drive the compelling storylines that make the Sprint Cup Series spin with an emotionally charged epochal flair for 10 months a year.

Aside from a spike in SAFER barrier construction (triggered by the season’s most negative racing-themed development this season in Kyle Busch’s broken limbs from smacking an unprotected concrete wall in Daytona), there hasn’t been much action to follow between the green and checkered flags every week. A dearth of the door-slamming feuds that add a pleasingly cantankerous sheen when stock cars hum along in perfectly dysfunctional harmony.

Disjointed, though, was the lasting memory of Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway, where the erratic weather patterns created the choppiest race in recent memory and a search for any significant takeaways. Among the biggest developments was Tony Stewart’s inexplicably pedestrian 28th-place finish, which also underscores the overarching theme of 2015.

Instead of what is happening on track, it’s what isn’t happening that is guiding the narrative.

“Smoke” isn’t winning (while teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch run circles around him) – and neither is Jeff Gordon, whose farewell season has been pockmarked by self-induced missteps of misfortune and tumult rather than the expected parade of weekly triumphs signifying his greatness.

The Busch brothers aren’t racing – or at least neither was for the first month, leaving an odd void of polarizing personalities.

Meanwhile, stars aren’t feuding.

Outside of Earnhardt’s engagement Wednesday and NASCAR’s announcement Tuesday to reduce downforce for next month’s race at Kentucky Speedway, the juiciest morsels to emerge this week were the latest raft of written warnings issued to teams for multiple attempts of failing inspection – a familiar morass of procedural red tape that represents the closest resemblance to a consistent stream of controversy.

It’s normal for an off week to be quiet, but Michigan signified another race lacking the necessary reverberations to stoke fans’ passions. Ryan Newman’s recent vow of retribution against A.J. Allmendinger for a crash at Pocono barely would have registered on the payback scale in most seasons (a la the end of 2014 when it was the People v. Brad Keselowski). But such sparks of contentiousness have been nonexistent this year.

There could be a plethora of reasons for the absence of animosity.

The driver council, while formed by good intentions, raises the disconcerting possibility of too much collegiality. The ongoing baby boom in the driver motor home lot (where more than two dozen newborns have arrived in the past eight years) has fostered a sociological Petri dish of otherworldly suburbia in which more drivers are raising families together in close proximity than at any time in NASCAR history. There’s an unprecedented amount of intertwinement with significant others and kids, and that makes it so tricky to carry the grudges that have been a cornerstone of partly building NASCAR through its memorable conflicts.

But the most obvious rationale is this: Even when drivers want to put their relationships at risk by pushing the envelope, they say they can’t because their cars won’t allow it – and their claims are backed by the statistics.

While passing has been on par throughout the field, there’s been much less where it matters most: the front. Lead changes have declined in 12 of 15 races and plummeted 23% overall.

It’s dovetailed with a decline in game-changing caution flags and wrecks – a natural if sometimes unfortunate byproduct of drivers battling hard for positions – that engender the ill will and indelible moments that shape a season.

Which brings us to the July 11 race at Sparta, Ky., the epicenter of Sprint Cup snoozers. In four races with NASCAR’s premier series, there have been no passes for first in the final 10 laps. There have been fewer lead changes than any other 1.5-mile track on the circuit.

Announcing a major reduction in downforce for Kentucky was a shrewd move. This race is guaranteed to receive as much positive buzz since its 2011 grand opening – goodwill that quickly faded when a six-hour traffic jam preceded a high-speed parade.

The place where nothing largely has happened on track now is being given a unique chance to help shift the conversation. It’ll be a focal point of fan anticipation until the green flag – keeping the focus on the track with a rules package designed to promote more passing for the lead.

But will fans still be talking about what happened on the track afterward?

For NASCAR, that’s the true barometer for success.

It’s past time for its biggest storylines to revolve around popping a rival with a bumper rather than popping the question.