February 20, 2022: The Thunderbirds prior to the Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, FL.  (HHP/Tom Copeland)
Daytona International Speedway. (HHP/Tom Copeland)

Phelps: ‘I Believe The Best Days Of NASCAR Are In Front Of Us’

MOORESVILLE, N.C. — It was a season filled with controversy and turmoil for NASCAR. It was also a season filled with tremendous milestones leading into NASCAR’s 75th season in 2023.

Instead of opening the season with The Clash at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, it was held at the end of January at the Los Angeles Coliseum in front of a new demographic of fans from the sprawling urban market.

It was the first year of the NextGen car, which completely changed the dynamic of the NASCAR Cup Series garage area. In many ways, it made the playing field more equal as a record 19 different drivers won races in 2022, including five drivers that scored the first Cup Series victories of their career.

It saw Trackhouse Racing emerge as a power team with three victories between Ross Chastain (two) and Daniel Suarez.

The NextGen car meant everyone in the field was driving the same car built by a single-source supplier. Although the car provided much better racing than the previous generation, its modular design made it more rigid on impact, sending several drivers to the sidelines with concussions.

Kurt Busch, the 2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion, has stepped away from racing completely as he continues to recover from a concussion. NASCAR Playoff contender Alex Bowman of Hendrick Motorsports had to miss five races in the 10-race playoff after he sustained a concussion in a crash at Texas Motor Speedway on September 25.

NASCAR Cup Series drivers voiced their concerns over the safety aspects of the new car. Beginning with the Bank of America ROVAL 400 Weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, NASCAR began weekly safety updates with the drivers that day before that contest on October 8 with a Driver Advisory Panel.

One day prior to that, the Race Team Alliance (RTA) said NASCAR’s economic model was unsustainable. Jeff Gordon, Vice Chairman of Hendrick Motorsports, said the team had lost money the past five seasons.

Ross Chastain speaks to the media following the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville. (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

NASCAR is in the middle of negotiating a new television contract, one that could see an even bigger increase of revenue spread among three networks and a streaming partner. The new package could include current partners FOX and NBC, while bringing back previous partner ESPN.

Extra content could end up on a major streaming platform.

In 2023, the NASCAR Cup Series will stage its first ever street race in downtown Chicago on Fourth of July Weekend. That creates even more opportunities for NASCAR moving forward.

“It’s all important,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said. “What we do for our sport to bring those story lines to life, to our race fans, is important.

“When I took over this role, we were a sport that frankly was struggling. Our ratings were down; our attendance was down. There weren’t a lot of bright spots.

“But I stood in front of you and talked about our best days being in front of us. I know that seemed kind of foolish. Maybe some of you were snickering, like, ‘I’m not sure that’s going to happen.’ But where we sit here today, I think that’s exactly what’s happened.”

Before COVID shut down the world in 2020, NASCAR was hoping for a rebound after a positive 2019. When spectator sports were dramatically impacted by a World-wide shutdown, NASCAR was dramatically impacted.

Phelps points to the pre-COVID days that NASCAR was ready to make a rebound but had to wait a few years before the world return to a sense of normalcy in 2022.

“Look at 2019, our ratings were up, and our attendance was up in 2019,” Phelps said. “In 2020, we started the season off with a sitting president at the Daytona 500 and then the extraordinary events of Ryan Newman at the end of that race, how scary that was.

“You look at the first four races of that year, our ratings were up.

“Then COVID hit.

“COVID was a brand-new world for us. On March 13th, when we closed, shut down our operations, sent everyone home from Atlanta, that following Monday Steve O’Donnell and other senior members of the team, sat down in Daytona Beach, Florida, and we devised a plan or started to architect a plan that would get us back to racing, which is exactly what we did.”

NASCAR and the international sports world shut down. Instead of actual racing on TV, it was replaced by Sim Racing, esports and vintage telecasts from days gone by.

Johnson Cleared
Jimmie Johnson. (HHP/Harold Hinson photo)

“That was a very scary time,” Phelps recalled. “Those 71 days, what our industry did to come back, collaborate, to get back to be the first sport competing, which is what we did on May 18th at Darlington. Initially without fans, then the first sport back to competing with race fans when we went to Homestead-Miami Speedway, then on to Talladega.

“It was the events that happened in June of 2020 that I think set the course of NASCAR to change where the sport was from a reputation standpoint and from a relevance standpoint. That was the stance on social justice.

“Jimmie Johnson led a group of drivers to create a video that talked about learning, being educated, doing better with respect to understanding what was happening in this country and kind of the reckoning that was happening.

“Jimmie gave permission for the sport to come out and do the things that we did and say the things that we did. That changed the face of this sport forever.”

Changing a sport that had deep roots in the “Land of Dixie” proved to be difficult for some, but NASCAR made that decision and never looked back.

“You look at the results that have happened just in 2020,” Phelps said. “New ownership with Michael Jordan and Pitbull and others. People of color coming to the sport. Our own hiring practices and what we’ve done. What has happened throughout the garage. Drivers like a Daniel Suarez winning this year. Bubba Wallace winning again this year. It’s important. It’s changing the face of the sport as we move forward.

“You can do that without taking away from what’s happening with your existing fans, fans who have been here for 30, 40, 50, 60 years. They want great racing. They want story lines. They want their drivers to win. They want us to serve them content that is interesting, unique, and special. That’s what we’ve done while we’ve been able to serve this new fan.

“Having finished 2020, I think it was a terrific year. Again, attendance was a bit wonky.”

Phelps believes 2021 was a special year because NASCAR made bold changes to its schedule. It also set the stage for even more dramatic changes in 2022.

“The thing I was struck by is you think of the Clash at the Coliseum, the importance of what the Busch Light Clash of the Coliseum, what it meant to the sport,” O’Donnell said. “It was a proof point that we could do something like that, that we could build a track inside a stadium, certainly an iconic one. That was important for us.

“Again, it showed being bold and being innovative and being relevant. The biggest thing to me, and that was incredibly important, frankly I’ve never been to a NASCAR race that every single person that you talk to in this industry, drivers, fans, everyone had a smile on their face, everyone. It was unbelievable. Never seen that at a NASCAR race. Someone is always complaining about something, right?

“Not there.”

Joey Logano in victory lane at Phoenix. (Ivan Veldhuizen Photo)

While NASCAR was reaching out to a new audience, it also developed a new car.

That created even more opportunity from a competitive standpoint.

“The introduction of the NextGen car was so important,” Phelps said. “Before the NextGen car, you had to have a relationship with one of five race teams if you wanted to come into this sport. You had to.

“This car changed that. What does this car do? There was a relevance to this car for OEM partners. The styling was fantastic of this car.

“Then the question would be, Well, what’s the raceability of the car? The raceability of the car was such that it resulted in 19 different winners, so more than half the field won a race in NASCAR this year. Five first-time winners. More passes throughout the field in a single season.

“I would say the racing that it has delivered, has been terrific.”

The racing is better, but there remain safety issues to address. NASCAR hopes to make the parts more crushable to absorb the tremendous spike in G-loads when a car hits the wall.

“The car was designed with safety as the No. 1 priority for that car,” Phelps said. “It was designed to make sure that the horrific situation that we saw with Ryan Newman at the Daytona 500, the intrusion that happened into his vehicle, or the crushed roof that happened with Joey Logano at Talladega, that those things needed the strength of the car to be there.

“That is something that was first and foremost into why that car was designed.”

Through hard work, sleepless nights and bold moves, NASCAR was able to move forward. It had to brush aside uncertainty, and even criticism, as it was locked on its path to make this major changes.

“A year ago, I think someone asked me, ‘What keeps you up at night?’” Phelps said. “The car kept me up at night, whether we could put that car on the racetrack at the Clash at the Coliseum. You had supply chain issues, all the rest of it.

“If you think about it, imagine if we get to the Clash at the Coliseum, and we don’t have a race car? There was no safety net. You can’t go back to the old car. It’s too late. You’re done. We wouldn’t race.

“I know that sounds dramatic, but if you think about it, there was no safety net, no wires. It was our car and needed to be on the racetrack.

“Then working with the race teams and the drivers, we made sure the car was as racy as it could be. I think it delivered against that, too.”

As Phelps looks forward to 2023, he sees a season of celebration as NASCAR turns 75. In his mind, the sport has never been better with even bolder changes ahead.

“As we look forward to our 75th season, more exciting news,” he said. “For the first time in our 75-year history, we are going to race a street course. Not just any city; we’re going to race in Chicago. Not at the outskirts of Chicago; we’re going to be in downtown Chicago, Lake Michigan, Lake Shore Drive, Michigan Avenue, Columbus Drive.

“It’s going to be like any NASCAR race ever, not just because it’s on a street course, but because of what we are going to do around the development and the hospitality of that racetrack. It will look nothing like any NASCAR race we’ve ever had.

“As a race fan, I’m incredibly, incredibly excited about that.

“We are thrilled for where this sport is. Thrilled for where the sport is going as we head into our media rights negotiation next year, as we head into kind of unchartered territories with the Chicago Street Course. We are going to continue to be bold and we’re going to continue to be innovative.

“I believe the best days of NASCAR are in front of us. I believe that to be true.”