With a season that began in a hospital room and a fear that he might never race again, Kyle Busch stood tall as King Kandy at Homestead-Miami, with the final lap call that “The checkered flag goes to Kyle Busch, and the Sprint Cup Championship goes to Kyle Busch!”
Sidelined for the initial 11 races of the season because of a broken right leg and left foot sustained in the NASCAR XFINITY Series Daytona race crash in February, Kyle Busch finished off one of the most remarkable comebacks in NASCAR history by winning Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and, with it, his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship after eleven seasons in the sport.
Busch, piloting the M&M’s Racing Crispy Camry, delivered a plethora of “firsts” by winning the season finale. In additional to his inaugural Championship, Busch brought home his first win ever in a Chase playoff race, the first Sprint Cup championship for Toyota Racing, the first title for his long-time sponsor Mars/M&M’s after 25 years in the sport, and the first title for his rookie crew chief Adam Stevens.
Shrewdly, Kyle Busch matured this season and realized that he could not get it done on his own, proclaiming “I’m not sure we could have accomplished what we did if it wasn’t for this injury.” During Busch’s comeback, he showered accolades on his crew chief Stevens. “He’s obviously a great leader of this team,” Busch said. “I love him to death. He’s done a really good job, and obviously we’re having fun doing what we’re doing.” That’s stellar praise from a turbulent driver who hasn’t always a solid rapport with his previous crew chiefs.
Many were surprised by Busch’s resurgence and patience to overcome the turmoil and physical challenges of his comeback. Given his prior success in the XFINITY and Camping World Truck series and his self-proclaimed boast that he was “King of the Minors”, the only question mark that remains is how many future titles Busch will capture now that he has finally delivered on the promise of his wheelman talents and demonstrated an appreciation for the collective contribution of his team and partners to his success.
Remarkably, NASCAR closed out a drama-laden second year of its contemporary elimination-style Chase playoff, with the four surviving Championship contenders once again battling up-front in the final laps and facing the necessity to finish first to both close out the season-ending race and capture the Sprint Cup crown. As reigning 2014 champion, Kevin Harvick finished second 13 times this year, including the final race at Homestead, and that still was not enough to secure the title.
The NASCAR Chase Championship playoff seems to have elevated the engagement of fans, with the both of its last two races of the season at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami being sold-out; as well, the Homestead TV ratings delivered the highest overnights since 2005. So will the storybook finish leave NASCAR fans wanting even more in 2016? As the sport heads to the offseason, NASCAR must continue its metamorphous into a more exhilarating product, inculcate its emerging young stars, and showcase innovative technologies to help revitalize its aging fan base, by attracting new (read younger) fans with shorter attention spans. Amid a plethora of entertainment options, NASCAR remains at a critical inflection point to stay relevant as it looks towards the 2016 season by resolving several thorny matters:
- Acquiring a New Title Sponsor for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. Sprint, and its merged predecessor Nextel, have been the entitlement sponsor of NASCAR’s top series since 2004, so this selection entails a monumental investment and long-term commitment, and is critical to the sport’s continued vitality in staying relevant to its mainstream audience.
Whoever the NASCAR Series title sponsor will be, substantial time will be required to develop customer activation programs, establish corporate on-track hospitality, and build a collective marketing/branding campaign, so NASCAR must move quickly to vet and secure a new partner. At the same time, the dollar investment by a Corporate partner is nothing to sneeze at; only a finite number of companies have the financial resources to be willing to spend anywhere from $75 million to $100 million per season. Ideally, a forward-looking technology company (Apple, Google, Amazon – are you listening?) flush with cash would be a great partner, particularly to showcase the integration of technology into the sport.
- Success in Implementing the Low Downforce Aero Package. For 2016, NASCAR has adopted a new low downforce aero spec with the expectation that the racing will be tilted back in the hands of drivers. Now, as race teams prepare for 2016 and build a strong baseline of data, the fan anticipation is that the racing will be even better (meaning closer with more passing).
Moreover, with the upfront lead time, the new low downforce rules should allow Goodyear to dial-in tire combinations for each track that complement the new package and produces more fall-off, which hopefully leads to more passing. A softer tire, like the one built for Darlington, required drivers to manage their tire while slipping and sliding all over the track. If the new Aero package does not deliver better on-track competition, the Chase drama itself will not sustain the growth of the NASCAR franchise.
- Elevating Brand Identity for XFINITY and Camping World Truck series. Both series are struggling with attendance and sagging ratings, particularly at stand-alone events not partnered with a Cup race. This weekend, with Roush Fenway Ford driver Chris Buescher only needed to finish 14th to clinch the second-tier XFINITY Series Championship, we got a mostly ho-hum race as Sprint Cup drivers dropped down to whip up on the rest of the field.
Both of these Series have already slashed allowable entries in each race (from 43 to 40 in XFINITY and 36 to 32 in Trucks) to weed out uncompetitive, poorly funded teams and ideally improve the on-track racing and available purse money.
In both the XFINITY and Truck Series, a champion is still determined via a season-long points system. Might it be a time for a Chase for the Sprint Cup championship type of system to decide the Champion in these series? Apparently, NASCAR thinks so, with its Official Fan Council of 16,000 members receiving an opinion survey in the past two weeks to float this idea, including a suggestion of restricting regular Sprint Cup Drivers from participating during the playoffs in these two series.
- Promoting Future Stars and Technologies to Capture the Youth Demographic. NASCAR has a bright crop of talent coming up through the ranks, but now more than ever Sprint-cup rides are limited by sponsorship dollars. Nevertheless, several drivers are breaking through this coming year, including Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, both of whom come with renowned racing pedigrees and are proving to be the total package.
Elliott, 19, is stepping into the iconic #24 Hendrick Motorsports ride vacated by Jeff Gordon, while Blaney, 20, will run for the Wood Brothers (with support by Ford Performance and a technical alliance with Team Penske). These two young guns have both won races in NASCAR’s lower divisions and present a perfect opportunity for NASCAR to showcase a meaningful battle for the 2016 Rookie of the Year, as well as a potential breakthrough berth in the Chase.
As well, to broaden its appeal to technology savvy fans, NASCAR is exploring ways to digitally deliver its product, taking fans more into the cockpit and chatter, with the 2016 introduction of the “digital dash”. This customizable dashboard of 16 preset screens is a great way to immerse fans in the driver experience, and the sooner the better. In a sport where it is hard to connect to what the driver is experiencing in the cockpit, fans will benefit from deeper access to more comprehensive real-time data, along with expanded digital platforms to access in-car race broadcasts. The NBCSN HotPass simulcast this weekend was a great starting point, offering a four way split screen of each Championship contender, along with live race communication between drivers and crew.
On our holiday wish list, we hope that NASCAR leads the way in reinvigorating its product with an improved level of on-track competition, promoting new stars with an uncompromising and fresh mindset, and capitalizing on emerging technologies to inclusively bring fans into the cockpit. Otherwise, the waning interest in America’s showcase racing series does not bode well for the fortunes of any of America’s besieged racing series, including the Verizon IndyCar and TUDOR United Sports Car series.
By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged