So who’s right? Rick Hendrick recently said NASCAR is thriving and that the sport has a promising future. Former driver Jeremy Mayfield said the current state of NASCAR is like watching the NFL with high schoolers suiting up.
Is Hendrick simply promoting the sport with which he’s heavily involved? Is it sour grapes for Mayfield, who was suspended twice within two months from NASCAR and never returned?
Rick Hendrick on NASCAR: ‘The sport has a lot of momentum’
Hendrick is a businessman and a very good one. The owner of Hendrick Motorsports, Rick is the winningest owner in NASCAR. His team has compiled 13 Cup Series championships, and he is a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, inducted in 2017.
Hendrick was recently in the news after announcing he brought four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon on board. Gordon, another Hall of Famer, will serve as Hendrick Motorsports’ vice-chairman. Hendrick also spoke about the state of the sport, emphatically saying it’s thriving.
“The sport has a lot of momentum,” said Hendrick, according to NBC Sports. “We have a whole crop of young drivers who are winning races and developing into stars. We have a huge fan base and they’re coming back in a major way after the pandemic. When you see 100,000 people at Road America, that’s very exciting.
“NASCAR has done an excellent job with the schedule and introducing new venues. The business model is also changing and making things more attractive for potential new owners. It’s a great time for the sport.”
Jeremy Mayfield has a different outlook on NASCAR
Mayfield was one of the young NASCAR stars when he was suspended in May 2009 for allegedly failing a drug test. NASCAR said Mayfield’s failed drug test was for methamphetamines, something he vehemently denied. His suspension was overturned by a judge, but in July, he allegedly failed another test. Things got ugly between NASCAR and Mayfield, who never raced again.
Last month, Mayfield was a guest on the “Live at 5” portion of 102.7 The Game’s talk show. Hosts Stephen A. Turner and Blake Smith brought up the sport’s declining ratings, and Mayfield gave his thoughts on the topic.
“Nothing against the drivers that are there now, but back when I was coming up, you had a seniority-type deal,” Mayfield said. “You had the Earnhardts, the Waltrips, Petty, and all those guys that had been there forever. They’re the ones that built the sport.
“The next generation of drivers that come through — Labonte, Bobby Labonte and Terry Labonte, and Rusty (Wallace) and Bill Elliott — you don’t have any of those right now.”
Mayfield said NASCAR had some good drivers, like Kyle Busch, but he believed the sport was lacking in proven veterans.
“I always use this example,” Mayfield said. “It’s like if you took the whole NFL league and took the main players out and put a bunch of high schoolers in there and expect them to play good. It’s not going to be the same. The people aren’t going to rally around you and won’t want to watch that stuff. They want to see the guys that’s been there. That would be the first thing I would try to figure out is how to get that back in the sport.”
Did Hendrick or Mayfield make the stronger point?
As one would expect, Hendrick offered nothing but praise for the sport that pays his bills. Mayfield’s comments could be taken as someone who is still miffed about the incidents from 2009, although he has stated those trying times have made him a better person.
Both Hendrick and Mayfield make fair points. NASCAR is evolving and will be rolling out the Next Gen car for 2022, which should certainly bring more attention to the sport. Mayfield would likely counter that, although the sport is evolving, fans just don’t have that racing name — Petty, Earnhardt, Labonte — to cling to.
Mayfield said without the big names, “It seems like the foundation of the sport is gone. You don’t have the personalities involved anymore.”
It’s an interesting debate, and only time will tell if guys like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson will become those legendary names Mayfield is talking about.