Dale Jr. still NASCAR’s best hope for gaining mainstream fans

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Earlier this month on its website, Forbes released a story that will be in its Sept. 23 issue on Danica Patrick’s impact on NASCAR so far in her first full-time season of Sprint Cup racing. As you’d expect from that particular magazine, there’s a lot written about Patrick – and NASCAR as a whole – from the business and marketing perspectives.

It’s a well-written story from the author, Kurt Badenhausen. But the headline could be something more than a few race fans will take issue with: “A Winning Danica Patrick Is NASCAR’s Biggest Hope To Restart Growth.”

With all due respect to Forbes, if Patrick is indeed NASCAR’s biggest hope to return to its not-too-distant salad days, they’re going to have to hope for a little while longer.

Restrictor-plate racing notwithstanding, Patrick is not a regular contender for victory. At most tracks, she’s still just trying to gain experience. In time, she could be something pretty good in Cup, but there’s still a ways to go before she gets to that point. Let’s see where she stands around mid-season next year.

So if Patrick’s not NASCAR biggest hope, then who is it?

Come on. Who else could it be?

A winning Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains NASCAR’s best opportunity to augment their diehard base with the casual and mainstream fan. Unfortunately for the series, its biggest star – while competitive enough to run in the Top 10 most weeks – hasn’t been doing a lot of winning lately, with just two victories in the last seven seasons.

But while Earnhardt has cooled off a bit after starting 2013 strong, he’s still in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. And he has the opportunity to make a statement when it truly counts.

That’s the beauty of the playoffs in all of sports. You may be having an iffy year by some standards (maybe even your own), but if you can still make the post-season, you have the chance to catch fire at the right time.

One minute, you’re an afterthought. The next, you’re a champion.

And should Dale Jr. become a champion this fall, NASCAR would indeed reap the benefits. While he has been unable to win regularly, he remains the most popular driver in the sport by a considerable margin.

And more importantly, if you walked out on the street and asked any Tom, Dick and Jane if they knew of any NASCAR drivers, he’s still likely to be one of, if not the first name to tumble out of their mouths.

Should Patrick improve by a noticeable margin in the next year or two, perhaps Forbes’ assertion will come true eventually. But at this point and time, Earnhardt is the one NASCAR executives should be crossing their fingers for to do well.

F1 2017 driver review: Nico Hulkenberg

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Nico Hulkenberg

Team: Renault
Car No.: 27
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Best Finish: P6 (Spain, Great Britain, Belgium, Abu Dhabi)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 43
Championship Position: 10th

Expectations were hard to peg for Renault heading into its second full season back in F1 with a factory team, but Nico Hulkenberg was surely expected to be the man spearheading its charge.

With teammate Jolyon Palmer severely underperforming, Hulkenberg did exactly that, bringing home all but 14 of the team’s points in the final standings. However, consistency was never something he truly found.

Many of Renault’s issues were down to reliability issues, sidelining Hulkenberg for six races – four coming in a five-race stint from Singapore to Mexico – yet he only scored points in consecutive races on three occasions.

When Hulkenberg and Renault were on form, they proved to be a potent combination, often topping the midfield fight and even looking faster than Force India come the end of the season. His run to sixth at the final race in Abu Dhabi was crucial for the constructors’ championship as Renault jumped Toro Rosso, securing an extra slice of prize money in the process.

But for a driver who was so often tipped as being a future star in F1, Hulkenberg still has a lot to prove. Renault is set to offer a good platform for the German moving forward with factory support, yet if he cannot beat new teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. through 2018, concerns will surely be raised.

Season High: Charging to sixth in Abu Dhabi despite a penalty.

Season Low: A tough run to 16th in Malaysia.