Gearing up as NASCAR season looms

It’s hard to believe that the Daytona 500 is less than a month away. It seems like just yesterday Joey Logano was celebrating his unlikely Homestead victory and Monster Energy Cup Championship.

Now in the heart of winter, it’s kind of nice to think about the teams’ return to Florida for the sunny start of the 2019 NASCAR season. It means spring can’t be too far behind.

The new year brings some new faces to the premier stock car series. Ryan Preece of JTG Daugherty Racing and Daniel Hemric of Richard Childress Racing are considered by many the favorites for Sunoco’s Rookie of the Year honors. Hemric will climb into the storied No. 8 Chevrolet for RCR, racing alongside Childress grandson Austin Dillon in the famed No. 3 Matt Tifft and Tanner Berryhill will also vie for rookie honors.

The Monster Cup field is growing younger, as more drivers like Elliott Sadler and Kasey Kahne (at just 38 years old) have chosen early retirement and more family time over the grueling grind of the nine-month Cup campaign and all that it involves.

So fans will have to become acquainted with the new generation of drivers, and perhaps re-acquaint themselves with shrinking numbers of the old guard.

Jimmy Johnson is back in 2019, marking his tweets with the hash tag #chasing8, looking for a record eighth Cup championship. The winningest active driver is one of just a few drivers with grey around their temples and in their beards as he begins his 18th season in the top series.

Former champion, Kevin Harvick, another 40-something, has flirted with the top of the leader’s board in recent years, and continues to chase another title of his own.

But the numbers denoting a driver age, and even the millions of dollars invested are not the ones NASCAR should be most concerned with.

The fan base and television ratings continue to be on the decline. ESPN reports another big dip in television ratings throughout the 2018 season and across multiple networks, including an 11 percent decline in viewership for the championship race compared to 2017.

The sport’s many efforts to draw in the new generation of followers are sparking anemic results. The revamped championship chase, stage racing and engineering packages, all designed to make racing more exciting, have not been interesting enough to make more fans tune into the television broadcasts, or make the trip to a track to watch in person.

Some say the efforts to create more close-quarter racing put a greater emphasis on money while devaluing raw talent. Others simply miss some of the personalities of drivers from the good ol’ days. But regardless of the challenges, the new season brings new opportunities for drivers, teams and the sport itself.

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at