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Thursday, Nov 15, 2018
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Fennelly: NASCAR needs some ghostbusters

DAYTONA BEACH — Has there ever been a sport more built on good-byes than NASCAR?

It's never about hello.

And that's a problem.

Jeff Gordon is gone. Tony Stewart is gone. Carl Edwards is gone. Matt Kenseth is gone. Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's most popular driver, just went out the door, the biggest hit of all. Even Danica Patrick is out after one final Daytona 500.

In general, the more the future demands attention, the more NASCAR dwells on a past that isn't even behind the wheel anymore. The wait for the next big thing has been tedious. Little wonder that attendance at NASCAR tracks and TV ratings are dwindling.

NASCAR needs a reboot.

Instead, we talk this week about 1998, the one and only time Dale Sr. won the Daytona 500. A memorable day, amazing even, but it was 20 years ago.
NASCAR isn't alone. Look at how desperate golf became when Tiger Woods fell into the abyss. Watch the NBA wring its hands over the prospect that one day LeBron James will step away.

It's worse with car racing. Only baseball dwells on history more. But there are baseball players coming up every season. NASCAR could use that kind of love.

Why, it's so bad that we're wondering what it will be like to say goodbye to Patrick, who will make her final Daytona 500 start Sunday.

What, exactly, are they going to do, stop Sunday's Great American Race and walk out to 29th place to give Danica a commemorative plaque? Or ask about her new boyfriend, Aaron Rodgers? Useless. Even worse, sexist and useless. Good gosh almighty.

"We need personalities, 100 percent," said driver Elliott Sadler.

It's sad, isn't it? How can you just turn a blind eye to guys who did so much for the sport, the Earnhardts, the Gordons, the Stewarts. These are the guys who won races, won a bunch of big races.

"Our sport is so different from other sports. If you're a Colts fan, and you love Peyton Manning, but Peyton Manning leaves, you're still a Colts fan.

When Matt Kenseth leaves, you just don't go to the next person. It's not like a stick-and-ball sport."

By the way, I had to ask someone who Sadler was after I talked to him. Race suit didn't give him away.

What does it say when we're saying goodbye to Patrick, who ran some fine races, but never really won a thing at this level?

"I'm not going down that road," Sadler said.

NASCAR is going down that road. Or is it the drain?

What does it say when the first T-shirt you see in the window of an infield gift shop is … No. 88?

Dale Jr.

Senior, Junior, it's about the past with NASCAR, to its fault.

Maybe Chase Elliott can save the day with a win this season. Maybe Kyle Larson can step up.

Until then, the story lines are rather obvious and just as tedious. How much can we stand around and talk about Patrick's impact on the sport? Or what Bubba Wallace, the first full-time African-American driver in 47 years, will do to change the face of the whitest fan base this side of a hockey game?

Maybe Jimmie Johnson will ride to the rescue with a record eighth points championship in 2018. On the other hand, Johnson will turn 43 this season. Also, Johnson, one of the truly great drivers, kind of helped land NASCAR in this position with his sheer redundant excellence and monotonous personality.

"This new generation, there is different pressure in this digital age," Johnson said. "There are a lot of big names who have stepped down and there are shoes to fill, fan bases to feed into. But there is a lot of great talent out there, a story in each one of them."

Maybe it's our fault, always wanting the shortest distance to a story. It's time we stopped crying in our oil pans and NASCAR do the same. I thought that as I arrived at Daytona 500 media day Tuesday.

As I walked in the door, there was a single face on a TV screen.

Junior.

Always good-byes.

Say hello to trouble.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

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