In today’s media world, where podcasts are quickly becoming a preferred method of communication, one of my favorites has quickly become the weekly Dale Jr. Download.
Basically, it’s a weekly show that former NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. puts on his with his co-host, Mike Davis. The show in recent weeks has also been bringing on a weekly guest, everyone from Jeff Gordon to Tony Stewart.
It’s a fascinating look behind-the-scenes at not only Earnhardt’s life, but the NASCAR world at large. Some of the stories you hear Earnhardt and his guests sharing are just... priceless. NASCAR’s access and availability to fans has always been its calling card, its differentiating hallmark in the greater sports landscape, and this is the perfect example of that with a captivating host.
Now if this were just Dale Jr. and Davis shooting the breeze, talking about current events — as it was in its earlier forms — then that in itself would be incredibly interesting. But the fact that that duo now brings on guests, especially ones as relevant to the sport as they’re able to land, moves the Dale Jr. Download into an entirely different echelon.
On this week’s episode, Earnhardt and Davis sat down with NASCAR president Steve Phelps. Phelps was named NASCAR president in September 2018, and since then, has been very vocal about changes the sport needs to reverse its current downward trajectory. Already he’s promoted the biggest schedule shake-up in recent history, and as he discussed on this week’s podcast, there are countless more changes to come.
One of the things I like most about Phelps is his transparency. There are plenty of difficult jobs in the world, and ones far more important than anything in the realm of sports, but Phelps has a tremendous capacity for answering up for a very much “under-construction” operation. He doesn’t give away all the secret codes from the castle, but on the whole, he’s forthcoming, down to earth, and understands things on a macro level. Those are essential qualities for someone in his position.
So when I learned that Phelps, who already has proven himself comfortable in front of cameras, agreed to go on with someone as easygoing as Earnhardt, I was overjoyed. And the episode, which you can find online, certainly did not disappoint. Here are a few of the biggest takeaways from this week’s Dale Jr. Download with Phelps:
▪ Phelps is clearly an intelligent guy — you don’t get to the places he has otherwise — but the more impressive thing about him is how well-rounded he is. In addition to over a decade with NASCAR, Phelps used to be an executive vice president of sales and marketing with Wasserman Media Group and vice president of corporate marketing for the NFL. On the podcast, Phelps even mentions a one hour-long NASCAR chat he had with former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue before a meeting with former NASCAR president Bill France Jr.
I mention that because Phelps isn’t so insulated in the NASCAR world that that’s all he knows. Rather, he appears to have a comprehensive grasp on sports business from a variety of positions, which makes him more well-equipped to manage an entity as diverse and complicated as NASCAR. He can realistically deal with sponsorships, marketing campaigns, scheduling, media rights, and talent, and have a well-informed background in all of those fields.
▪ Credit Earnhardt for soliciting questions for Phelps from social media — selectively, of course — and coming back with some tough ones. Earnhardt and Davis asked everything up-to-date NASCAR fans would be interested in knowing if they had the chance to sit down with the president: more schedule changes in the future, why NASCAR continually changes its rules package, if more manufacturers (like Dodge) could enter NASCAR in the near future, and so on. But the most common answer Phelps gave is illuminating, especially as far as what NASCAR values above everything else at this point in time.
“At the core of what we do, it’s about competition. It’s about the racing itself. So we want to make sure that racing is as good as it can be, and I know it looks like we’re chasing it a bit — and sometimes we are: low downforce, lower downforce, the lowest downforce ever — and then kind of a complete switch with less horsepower, more grip, more downforce,” Phelps said. “The test really is what do fans want to see and what have they seen so far.”
▪ That NASCAR is prioritizing what the fan wants is significant, not just for what it signals for the future but what it says about the past. And in that regard, Phelps is open. In an interview before the Daytona 500, he admitted NASCAR hasn’t always made its fans feel valued, and he re-iterated that on the podcast:
”We’ve made some mistakes. We’re not the only business that’s made a mistake, that’s for sure,” Phelps admitted. “I think we chased a new fan at the expense of an existing fan. We’ll never do that again. So it doesn’t mean that we can’t have new fans in the sport — of course we can — but we want our new fans and our existing fans and our avid, longtime, loyal fans ... we want them to nurture and grow these new fans.”
NASCAR’s slow decline in recent years can be traced back to the early 2000s and the sort of shift Phelps mentions, but honestly, what matters most now is understanding that history to avoid repeating it in the future. This should be music to a NASCAR fan’s ears.
▪ A few newsier notes from Phelps, including that NASCAR has had discussions with Dodge about potentially returning to the sport in 2021 and beyond. Likewise, in regard to NASCAR adding new tracks to the schedule once its current contracts expire after 2020, Phelps said, “It’s absolutely on the table.” Lastly, he mentioned that NASCAR’s Generation 7 Cup Series car is still on track for 2021 and a new engine similarly for 2022, but that NASCAR and all parties involved still had a lot of work to do in that time.
▪ On the topic of NASCAR leadership, Phelps was incredibly honest about Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’s current managing director of Racing Operations and International Development and the son of current NASCAR co-owner Lesa France Kennedy. Earnhardt asked if Kennedy, 27, was being groomed to eventually succeed Jim France as NASCAR CEO, and after lauding Kennedy’s work to date, Phelps said this:
“To answer your question, yeah I think Ben is. If that’s what Ben wants to do, is to run his family’s business, I think that’s fantastic. He’s smart, he’s passionate about the sport, he did drive and was a winner in the Trucks and Xfinity. I would think it would be a great natural step to have him in there. How soon he comes in and runs the place, that really is between Jim and Lesa, his mom, and Ben, but I wouldn’t bet against it.”
That would be a fascinating development, especially given the crisis in NASCAR leadership after former CEO Brian France was arrested last year. Kennedy is well-liked in the industry, has the requisite surname, and has already proven himself capable given his contributions to NASCAR’s new 2020 schedule. Definitely something to monitor as time goes on.
▪ The idea of Phelps struggling to change out of his suit in the middle of traffic on I-77, while stuck behind a police officer, is hilarious. Seriously, give this week’s episode a listen, and make the Dale Jr. Download part of your regular podcast rotation if you have any interest in NASCAR.
This Week’s NASCAR race at Bristol: What you need to know
Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Food City 500.
Distance: 500 laps, or 266.5 miles.
Where: Bristol Motor Speedway, a 0.533-mile concrete oval in Bristol, Tenn.
When: 2 p.m. Sunday.
TV: FS1. Radio: PRN.
Last year’s winner: Kyle Busch.
Also this week: Alsco 300, Xfinity Series, Bristol Motor Speedway, 1 p.m., Saturday, FS1.
Worth mentioning: Last year’s race was postponed from Sunday to Monday midway through the event because of rain.
Who’s Hot/Who’s Not
Denny Hamlin: A second win already this season, and it’s safe to call this is a renaissance season for the No. 11.
Kevin Harvick: He hasn’t won yet this season, but outside of an underwhelming Daytona 500, he’s finished Top 10 in every other race this year.
Ryan Blaney: A week after a promising finish at Martinsville, Blaney led 45 laps at Texas... only for a mechanical issue to sink his day.
Joey Logano: He’s still fourth in the points standings courtesy of his win at Las Vegas, but he’s been more irregular this season than you’d expect from a reigning champion.