By Jenna Fryer Associated Press
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kyle Larson balanced a car seat on a suitcase as the thick strap of another bag tightened around his neck. Her two children were spinning on the metal poles outside LAX airport and Larson couldn’t find the bus for rental cars.
“Just what a champion looks like, huh? he’s laughing.
The NASCAR champ. He is like us.
NASCAR kicks off its version of the Super Bowl this Sunday to open its 2022 season. The Daytona 500 is the official kickoff, though NASCAR opened two weeks before “The Great American Race” with a star-studded experimental exhibition race at the interior of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The Clash opened for more than four decades the “Speedweeks”, which have now been reduced to just six days of cars on the track. NASCAR’s decision to move the event away from Daytona International Speedway, its only home since 1979, has angered purists, but it was a resounding success and NASCAR must now figure out how to capitalize on the buzz across Daytona and the 37 next weeks of racing.
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Larson will be a key player in NASCAR’s efforts to expand its reach to a younger, more racially diverse audience. The defending champion returned to the series last year to drive for Hendrick Motorsports after a nearly year-long suspension in 2020 for using a racial slur.
Larson had an incredible comeback, winning 10 times, the Cup Series title and the All-Star race, while criss-crossing the country running a sprint car in his spare time. Larson is a fan favorite and represents the kind of base racer that NASCAR fans have long embraced.
But many others relate to the 29-year-old for other reasons: he’s a father and a family man, a symbol of redemption, a changing of the guard. Larson is also half-Japanese and the first Cup champion to come out of NASCAR’s diversity program.
He’ll again visit pockets of the country where people don’t go to many NASCAR races as part of his busy 2022 extracurricular schedule. But his goals? Larson has yet to define any.
“At the end of the day, the goal is always to win the championship,” Larson said. “As far as the number of wins, I never really set myself a target until we’re about a month into the season. That’s when you get a sense of where your cars compared to the competition and the potential you have.
Even this is not a foolproof method this year.
The next generation emerges
This season finally marks the debut of the Next Gen, a new car that has been in development for years and is designed to solve many headaches. The Next Gen was a collaborative project between NASCAR and its stakeholders and the car is designed to reduce costs, help small teams close the gap with the big ones, make a new owner’s entry into the sport profitable and give builders greater brand identity. .
The pandemic set the car back a year and the Next Gen didn’t see the racing action until the Coliseum, where it performed very well. The car held up well in car-to-car contact – “we can bump and bump,” said Clash winner Joey Logano – but it’s still a wildcard.
NASCAR held an industry crisis meeting in Nashville in December to allay driver concerns about performance, and many of those same drivers now sit on the seven-person board of directors of a “Drivers Advisory Council.” announced last week.
The council gives drivers an organized voice to lobby for adjustments or changes.
“Communication between drivers and other stakeholders in our industry has been a challenge for years. This will most definitely help clarify driver feedback,” said board member Logano. “Safety, fan experience and a great on-track product are just a few of the goals.”
A new identity
The fan experience will be key as NASCAR navigates its new identity. The series has made so many changes over the past few years that many of its loyalists no longer recognize the sport that began with Southern smugglers running ahead of the authorities in their moonlit cars.
The Confederate flag was banned and Ice Cube performed at halftime at the Coliseum in an unprecedented break from a run for a hip-hop show. NASCAR has said it wants to be apolitical, but it has long been tied to religion and politics.
The derisive ‘Let’s Go Brandon’ chant about President Joe Biden evolved from a NASCAR race, and Brandon Brown, the Xfinity Series driver at the center of the hubbub, had an off-season showdown with NASCAR over associated sponsorship to the LGB feel.
Brown will ultimately not feature the chant-associated cryptocurrency on the car fielded by his family team in NASCAR’s second-tier series.
So many NASCAR decisions seem alien to longtime fans – a radical overhaul of the schedule last year slotted six road courses and turned Bristol into a dirt track for its spring race – and NASCAR this year added Gateway to the roster. ‘outside St. Louis on the schedule and will continue to explore non-traditional locations after pulling off The Clash.
It’s a time of change for the production car series, which needs new fans alongside its loyal base. Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and director of racing development, acknowledged the differences between series leadership and drivers that made discussions “sometimes difficult.”
But the dialogue has improved since the December meeting, O’Donnell said trust had been built and the industry was buzzing with excitement as NASCAR left Los Angeles last week.
“I definitely feel like we have a much better relationship in terms of listening, but also understanding when we make a certain decision, there’s a reason behind that,” O’Donnell said. “Because we went left, you wanted to go right, that doesn’t mean we didn’t listen.”