ORLANDO (TNS) — Stars twinkle at night, and all hours of the day, in professional sports.
They foster love-hate relationships, an emotional train wreck that takes us along for the ride. Tom Brady, Floyd Mayweather Jr., LeBron James _ and Muhammad Ali, back in the day _ have made us cry for joy or sucker-punched us in the gut with anger.
Speaking of, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick are two of the main reasons NASCAR is still in the fight today among your sporty smorgasbord.
Junior is the son of a NASCAR icon and blueblood who helped grow the base from the back roads of North Carolina to boardrooms in New York.
Danica is the polarizing queen of stock cars, a pioneer who broke boundaries and then caused heads to explode when discussing her inability to stretch her marketing reach once the engines started to roar.
They will both be gone in 2018. Dale Junior announced his adios a while back, and will step away after concussions issues gave him clarity about the future. He doesn't want to take another violent hit, and end up drooling on himself 10 years later.
Danica announced she won't be back with Stewart-Haas Racing this week. She is out of money, sponsorship money to be precise, the stuff that makes every marriage in NASCAR work. Unless somebody steps up with a big pile of cash, she is done, walking away without ever winning a race in five years but driving the marketing parade of interest in the sport.
Junior has been voted the most popular driver in the sport 14 consecutive years, even though he has never won a Cup title. Do the math, and you see NASCAR's star-power exiting and turning stage left, leaving the sport in a quandary.
NASCAR has been very pro-active in marketing young stars like Daniel Suarez, Bubba Wallace, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney. They are all extremely talented drivers, and come with bonus points. Suarez and Wallace bring diversity into the conversation. Elliott has the family legacy forged by his father Bill. Blaney is an introspective and entertaining fellow at 23-years-old.
But to quote the late Prince's haunting melody, "Nothing Compares 2 U" as we serenade Dale Jr. and Danica on their way out the garage.
"She's a true pioneer in this day and age of social media and the power of media recognizing that she's moving the needle even though she wasn't running consistently up front." said Kevin Harvick, Danica's teammate.
Moving the needle is what certain stars do in every sport. It goes far beyond statistical excellence. There has to be a compelling narrative attached to the name.
Dale Jr.'s story is etched in the tragedy of a daddy who died in the family business, and a conflicted son who has carried that emotional baggage, and the expectations of millions, since February 2001.
Danica came to NASCAR from the open-wheel circuit, busting down stereotypes in a sport built on Southern traditions when the womenfolk got their man a beer instead of trying to drive faster than them.
All these others young drivers are talented and poised, but they need a story that captures the attention of the casual fan in Peoria. NASCAR, a sport already struggling on various fronts, needs to give their fan base a compelling reason to tune in for the playoffs that begin this week in Chicago, and moving forward into 2018.
NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip has an idea.
"If you have a young, up-and-coming driver that fans don't know well, pair them with a veteran like those who have retired and have them work together in various capacities," Waltrip said. "Fans might not know who the young kid is, but they'll recognize the older one standing alongside him."
Whatever it takes to get everyone's attention. Apathy can come at you fast, even when you're driving 200 miles an hour.