Loss of two popular divers most liekly to hurt betting handle
On Sunday, two drivers retired from NASCAR and it will likely hurt the sport immensely. Danica Patrick will probably try and get a ride in the Daytona 500, but she has pretty much resigned herself to the fact that her days attracting a regular ride are over. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. officially retired from racing to focus on his family. He will work part time in the broadcast booth, but has decided the dangers of the sport are no longer worth the risk. While it can be argued that neither driver was a superstar, and in fact Danica never finished in the top 5 in any NASCAR race, it can't be ignored that they have been instrumental in NASCAR's popularity in the last decade.
Patrick broke all barriers when she became the first woman to get a full-time ride in the top series in 2013 and she has been consistently named among NASCAR's most popular drivers. Her feistiness and outspokenness were welcomed by many female viewers and it was said that viewership and attendance by females at NASCAR races rose dramatically once Danica became a full-time driver. There were also some races on superspeedways where Patrick looked like she could win and her popular ads for Go Daddy in her early years where she used her femininity and tenaciousness to sell web hosting services were legendary. At least two up and coming female drivers pointed to Patrick in helping them believe it was possible in the Southern male dominated sport.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., on the other hand, has 26 wins in 19 years of racing in the top series and had several wins in the lower series although he never achieved the success of his father. Earnhardt was a fan favorite being voted NASCAR's most popular driver every year from 2003 to 2016 even though his best overall finish in the series was 3rd in 2003. Earnhardt's popularity rose dramatically as the result of a tragic incident in the 2001 Daytona 500. He, his teammate Michael Waltrip and his father Dale Earnhardt were running in the top 3 on the final lap of the race and his father wanting to protect the lead for his son and Waltrip went up the track to block oncomers. He was hit by Sterling Marlin, crashed into the wall and died at the track. The tragedy, created a new set of NASCAR fans to follow Earnhardt Jr's career afterwards very closely who were hoping he could replace "the Intimidator" in their eyes. He was still the type of racer most NASCAR fans loved, a southern good old boy with a deep NASCAR family history. And make no mistake, when Earnhardt drove, gamblers spoke with their wallets. I recall asking the linesmaker at a Las Vegas sportsbook how he could have Earnhardt at odds of 10/1 for a race when it was clear he wasn't that competitive and offshore sportsbooks had him at 20/1 and higher. The sportsbook manager told me that in Vegas there were always people betting Earnhardt Jr. and the lines had to reflect that action.
"There are three drivers we have to always be mindful of when setting odds, just because they have such a loyal following here – Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart."
Ironically, Jeff Gordon retired after the 2015 season and Tony Stewart retired after the last season.
I asked a different sportsbook manager if he expected a decline in action after Earnhardt leaves this year and he replied that betting on NASCAR has been declining for a while, and this certainly won't help. Jimmie Johnson has never been overly popular with fans, so his dominance hasn't helped the sport and there really hasn't been any new drivers that spark excitement. Mention the names Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez and few fans will care. Chase Elliott has the ability to generate new interest as the son of NASCAR champion and fan favorite Bill Elliott, but that could take time and Darrell Wallace Jr might spark some new fan interest as the first black driver to get a full-time ride in the top series, but that's not a certainty.
In the meantime, NASCAR teams are feeling the pinch as the decline in interest is making it difficult for them to find full time sponsorships. In fact, even Miller brewing company is cutting back on their sponsorship of the #2 car despite the company having been one of the first sponsors, since the early days of the series.
So, it's now crunch time and it will be interesting to see how it plays out.
Will fans continue to tune in or will they look for other avenues to spend their Sunday afternoons? And what about bettors? Will they be willing to put their money on races where they don't have a driver they truly care about or will they save their dollars for other sports instead? There is no question NASCAR could be in for some rough times in the next few years and both las Vegas and online sportsbooks could feel the effects.