It takes a lot to upstage the NCAA on Selection Sunday but NASCAR did their very best after their race in Las Vegas. Not only has the postrace fight between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano become the talk of the sports world but even in mainstream media as well as the morning talk shows.
I am in no way condoning fighting, but this sense of rivalry like what could develop between Busch and Logano is what NASCAR needs right now in order to grab the headlines and attract casual and non-NASCAR fans to become fans.
Today, NASCAR drivers as a whole are so polished and robotic because they’ve been run through the PR machine so many times that many of them are afraid to be rough around the edges when the cameras are on them for fear of losing fans and losing valuable sponsorships that keep them in racing.
Throughout the years, you had rivalries in NASCAR that lasted for years and got fans to choose sides and become invested in loving one and disliking the other. In the 60’s and 70’s, it was Richard Petty vs. David Pearson. In the 70’s and 80’s, it was Cale Yarborough vs. Darrell Waltrip. When Dale Earnhardt Sr. was winning championships in the 80’s and 90’s, he had run-in’s with Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon. And speaking of Jeff Gordon, he had his own rivalries early on in his career. And let us not forget the original fight between Yarborough and Donnie and Bobby Allison at the end of the 1979 Daytona 500 that put the sport on the map.
But in the 2000’s, things changed and the drivers seemed like they were way too focused in not ruffling any feathers and played nice among everyone. One reason why fans don’t like Jimmie Johnson, despite him winning seven championships, is because he is like that. He does his thing quietly and efficiently and does it without making people mad at him. But because he’s that “vanilla,” some fans just roll their eyes and boo him anyway.
In today’s NASCAR, you have some drivers who aren’t afraid to be either loved or hated but they are few and far between. Logano and Busch are two of those people who don’t care if you love or hate them and that shows when they are introduced before every race. Sometimes they’re cheered, sometimes they’re booed and most of the time it’s a mix of both but they got noticed by everyone.
Now that you have drivers who aren’t afraid to be loved or hated, the next step is for those rivalries to naturally develop. There have been skirmishes in the past but usually those things wear off after a few days. The only memorable rivalry over the past decade or so that lasted more than a few weeks was Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards, who had a very intense rivalry that lasted well over a year. But after both drivers flipped as a result of the other driver, it was time to pump the brakes on that before anyone got seriously hurt. Logano and Matt Kenseth had a rivalry a couple years ago that resulted in both taking each other out of the championship and Busch himself has been suspended for intentionally wrecking someone but these haven’t resulted in a full-fledged rivalry that lasted for a while.
NASCAR’s role in these rivalries is to be like an NHL referee. Whether that means these drivers express themselves in interviews or its a bit more physical, NASCAR seems willing to take a cautious step back because it helps the drivers release steam and the fans love it. All indications appear that NASCAR won’t penalize Logano or Busch for what happened in Vegas. But at the same time, you don’t want it to rise to a point where someone intentionally wrecks the other at 190 mph and risk seriously injuring or killing anyone.
You want drivers to show their true colors and their personality. Everyone in NASCAR travels around each week for nine months of the year but like any family, there is conflict and family members who flat out don’t like each other. NASCAR’s family is just as dysfunctional as any family so let’s see more of that and have actual, genuine emotion coming from these drivers regardless of what the sponsors think.
Think of it like WWE (minus the predetermined results of matches). There are good guys and there are bad guys in any rivalry. Some people love the bad guy and some hate the good guy. But when done right, they both make money and gain attention for themselves and for the sport. And that can bring people in watching every week.
It’s no different for NASCAR. NASCAR needs something that causes people to talk about what happened on Sunday throughout the week and into the next race weekend. Joey Logano and Kyle Busch are two of the best and biggest names in the sport and their rivalry could be the next big thing in NASCAR. NASCAR just needs to know when to let them go and when to rein them in so they don’t hurt themselves or anybody else.