It certainly isn’t famous faces in Victory Lane. In the six races so far this season, we have seen Winner’s Circle celebrations for Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Jimmie Johnson (twice). Flags have flown, crowds have cheered and confetti has drifted down like rain.
All of these 2016 race winners are NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions, with the exception of Hamlin, and that’s only a matter of time.
Even Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans are happy, for the most part. Junior won a Can Am Duel race at Daytona, has posted three top 10 finishes this year, and is 10th in the overall driver standings, so he’s hanging in there and it’s entirely reasonable to expect him to once again make the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs and contend for a championship at the end of the season.
We’ve seen some tight races, enjoyed watching some happy winners and, Heaven knows, the big names have done what big names are supposed to do.
Still, something is missing in NASCAR.
There was a time in stock car racing, not so very long ago, when every race was a must-see event for fans. This level of enthusiasm was the result of the fact you honestly never knew what was going to happen. Cale Yarborough could go flying over the wall at Darlington, or flying out of his car at Daytona, spoiling for a fight.
The early 2000s were the setting for an intense feud between Jimmy Spencer and Kurt Busch. Footage of a full-blown fistfight between the two is a must-watch for race fans, many of whom sided with Spencer -- a workingman’s sort of racer -- over Busch, whose hot temper and sometimes snide attitude hasn’t exactly made him a contender for NASCAR’s most popular driver award.
After an incident at Pocono in 2010, Joey Logano suggested -- very publicly -- perhaps it was DeLana Harvick who wore the firesuit in the family, rather than her husband. You can imagine how well the remark went over.
Boris Said didn’t mince words at Watkins Glen in 2012 when, after an issue with Greg Biffle during the race, he called Biffle “the most unprofessional little scaredy-cat I’ve ever seen in my life.” Boris can drive, but his insult skills could use some work. Joey Logano’s are way better.
These true stories are the kind which never get old, and are often prefaced with the phrase, “Do you remember when?” I’m pretty sure I speak for most of NASCAR nation when I say the answer is yes, we do remember when, and that’s cool … but we want more than that.
Something is definitely missing in NASCAR.
Every week when I sit down to watch the race, I expect Johnson to win.
I expect Earnhardt to take the lead at some point, and when that happens, I expect to see 90 percent of the fans jump up from their seats and start cheering their heads off, even if it’s only lap 12.
I expect either Busch brother (they’re fairly interchangeable) to knock someone out of their way, and depending on who that somebody is -- Kevin Harvick, this means you -- I expect there to be a round of fisticuffs or other shenanigans after the race.
These expectations are often met, but I want to see someone different win a race, and I want to hear them say something different. Aren’t you kind of on the edge of your seat waiting for Chase Elliott to win his first Sprint Cup Series race, for example, and then hear what he has to say about it? Heaven knows what might come out of his mouth; he is Bill Elliott’s kid, after all. I have no idea what to expect.
According to Darlington legend, when Bill won the Southern 500 and an unprecedented million-dollar bonus in 1985, a broadcaster asked his wife, Arlene, what she was going to do with all the money, and she said, “I’m gonna buy me a microwave.” How great is that?
Yes, something is missing in NASCAR, and I think I know what it is. The thing I do not expect is the very thing I want to see most -- the unexpected.
(Cathy Elliott is the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway and author of the books Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR and Darlington Raceway: Too Tough To Tame. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column, My Brain on NASCAR, is made available through the S.C. News Exchange to the Chronicle-Independent, Camden, S.C.)