At the Track Blog

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s time away from the No. 88 has given us a chance to see what could be the future of NASCAR "if only a few things could line up just right."

I will preface this blog by reminding everyone that the line, "if only a few things could line up just right," has been said by most of us as we imagine our lives events from a daydream sort of perspective.

Obviously, everyone wants to see Dale Jr. healthy and back in the No. 88. This is simply a daydream scenario for if that doesn't happen or a few years down the road when Dale hangs up his helmet. That daydream perspective is exactly what this column is; fun but not nearly likely. That said, let me continue.

We all do know that Jeff Gordon, the now "retired" driver of the No. 24, will not be driving the No. 88 for a full season. So, let's imagine Dale is fully comfortable with coming back but decides it is better for him to enjoy life out of the car. Then what?

Alex Bowman performed well in his one race subbing for Dale but is unlikely to get the call for a full-time ride in the No. 88. Earlier in the year, speculation ran wild that Kevin Harvick would be going to Hendrick Motorsports to replace Kasey Kahne in the No. 5. Instead, he signed a big deal to stay with Stewart-Haas Racing, so scratch Kevin from Hendrick's future. Who next?

Well, Kyle Larson is having a strong season and already some in the media are saying he is performing beyond what Ganassi can or will provide.

So, maybe, Larson to the No. 88 might be a possibility, but I think that would be a "historical" mistake! Now, just a minute, wouldn't Kyle Larson to Hendrick Motorsports would be a great moment in NASCAR? But what I just said was "a historical mistake." Here is where the headline comes back into play within this blog.

Shuffling the deck would be Larson to HMS to fill their open seat, but NOT in the No. 88. Larson grew up a huge fan of Jeff Gordon and the No. 24. Like Gordon, Larson raced on dirt and in midgets as a youngster. Also like the four-time NASCAR champ, Larson is from northern California but raced plenty in the Midwest and has a great mid-American fan base. Currently in the No. 24 is Chase Elliott, whose father Bill famously raced against Dale Earnhardt Sr. while the boys became great friends. Like Dale Jr., Elliott has a rabid southern fan base.

At this point in our blog, you probably can figure out my daydream but please allow me to quickly finish. My "reset the numbers" would be relatively easy: swap Elliott's car number to 88, then Larson joins HMS and the No. 24.

This would then set NASCAR's future historically correct. Marketing and promoting types could then have perfect fitting "Throw Back Thursday" No. 88 and No. 24 promotions, fans of each driver's past could blend the new into their old memories and NASCAR may be able to have a genuine and renewed rivalry between the 88 and 24.

Just a daydream or … ???

The discussion on SIRIUSXM was about who could be America's next Formula 1 racer. Show host, Dave Moody, did an excellent job explaining to the caller why Kyle Busch would not leave his established place in NASCAR to move to Europe to race F1. That is what got me thinking and eventually writing this blog.

If not an established, current driver, then who? PRN's At The Track covers most of the grassroots and up and coming racers in America, so then what racer do we see as someone who would meet the criteria to be America's next Formula 1 racer? Most of you reading this will know the top items in the criteria are unchallenged financial backing, marketability and a high level of talent.

The list of those that have all or most of these is a bit longer than you would think. Short tracks, dirt tracks, legends and kart racers at the highest levels of their particular craft usually have most of these qualities at varying levels. But here is my thought on who currently has the best set of all of these.

If you were to ask me today, "who is America's next Formula 1 racer?" I will tell you it is William Byron. Byron has been a unique case study since he started winning legends races at the summer shootout just days after getting in a race car. Byron honed his craft exactly the way F1 does most of its' testing; by a simulator. iRacing to be exact. Byron would fit right in with an F1 team's engineers while he sat testing via sim for days and nights at a time on the next prototype race car for his team. 

Byron is in the unique position to trade the strong potential of an outstanding career in NASCAR for the potential bounty of becoming America's next Formula 1 racer.

Aided by his advanced ability to use and benefit from computer simulation, similar to that used in F1, Byron has 3 wins and the point lead in the NASCAR K&N Series plus wins and podium finishes in every type of vehicle he has driven to this point in his career. 

Byron's affiliations are breathtaking. He lives in Charlotte, NC in and around many of NASCAR'S top drivers and owners. He drives for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in late models and HScott Motorsports in NASCAR's K&N Series. And his primary sponsor is the rock solid, Liberty University with its' expansive campus in Lynchburg, VA and over 80,000 more students online .

What a great place for William Byron to be at 17 years old. Byron is as handsome as any teen actor or music star. Byron has already won races against many of the racers he would compete against if he chooses to stay on his course toward NASCAR stardom. And he has the unmatched financial backing of those mentioned earlier and others within his network of contacts.

OK, Byron has most of the recipe but what seat would he potentially fill? That brings me to my next reason why William Byron is America's next Formula 1 racer. Let's examine his network and put these final pieces of the puzzle together.

Byron's current late model owner has just come back from a trip to Europe. Although Dale Jr. has never publically said anything about an interest as an owner in F1, his brand would gain from being on a worldwide stage and it would be an interestingly valuable commodity for F1 leader, Bernie Ecclestone to have in his portfolio of owners.

But it is his K&N owner that may be the true deal maker for Byron's future. Justin Marks who co-owns, HScott Motorsports, Byron's NASCAR K&N team is an avid road course racer. Marks is under forty years old with a dynamic touch for building successful racing ventures such as his GoPro Motorplex and LarsonMarks Racing World of Outlaws team. Marks is a calculated risk taker who could pull those resources together to put Byron on the tracks at Monte Carlo, Shanghai, Malaysia, and the rest of the F1 circuit.

Marks, however, has no F1 team to give Byron the seat to. That is where we go back to Byron's hometown for help to find that magical F1 seat. Byron's dealings with Earnhardt Jr. and others have him in reasonably close proximity to Rick Hendrick who has long been assisting Gene Haas with Haas NASCAR program. Haas will answer the phone when Hendrick calls to have lunch at the Speedway Club to get some friends together to discuss a potential racing venture.

Byron, at this point, in this made-up world, now has this line-up at his future-making lunch table. Potential ownership partners, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Justin Marks and Gene Haas with Rick Hendrick, a former road course racer, steering the conversation about the worldwide platform this venture could become. But there is that final and often biggest hurdle for any driver dreaming of becoming America's next Formula 1 racer; financial backing.

Byron also has that final piece close at hand. What better promotional tie, on a global platform, for an American Formula 1 racer, would there be than the word "Liberty". Liberty University is not only Byron's current sponsor but what better magnet for other American companies to pull toward than the world seeing their companies name on a handsome, young racer's car known as "Liberty". Alumni of Liberty University and other marketing conscious CMO's would easily see the instant value in this platform.

I have the vision of seeing America's next Formula 1 racer; he is William Byron, the driver of the Liberty Patriot owned by Gene Haas, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Justin Marks. 

Modifieds and crate/pro/limited late models are keeping fans entertained.  Let me quickly say that I am a fan of super late model racing both on pavement and dirt.  The high horsepower, high dollar machines and teams truly make an event seem, well, super -sized.  That said, not every race has to have the word super in front of it to be exciting or worth seeing.  If you are currently only attending super late model races please consider coming to see the good racing that is taking place around the south east in the modified and crate/pro/ limited late model divisions.

Modified and crate/limited races are filling the gap between super late model events with grassroots based stars and teams with blue-collar budgets that are genuinely becoming Friday and Saturday night celebrities.

The Renegades of Dirt Modified Tour Southern Division are quickly building young, talented racers into social media stars with regional followings that have the kind of "buzz" that makes fans interested in what is happening at their events.  Tour communications director, Steve Summerlin, played a strong part in the social media success that added value and fans to County Line Raceway, in Elm City, NC before he made that step to the series position.  The Tour has quality drivers like Derrick Ramsey, Patrick Lyon, Matt Emmerling, Ryan Ayers and Shon Flanary.  Add to that mix at select races certain regional competitors such as Max McLaughlin, Billy Workman, Slater Blickensderfer and Blake Terry, and more nationally known racers, like Kyle Strickler and David Stremme and the fans see a field of competitors at any given event that they can relate to and cheer for or even against. 

The pro late models on pavement lost a great series a couple of years ago when the UARA had to step aside for family reasons of the series owners.  However, this year pro late models seem to fit nicely into the PASS and newly restructured CARS tours.  This is an excellent opportunity for young talent to transition from the US Legends and other divisions without having to race against veterans with many years of experience.  Names like Kodie Conner, Chandler Smith, Matt Murphy and Zach Dabbs are just teenagers but have graduated from Legends series racing to an important level of competition for their careers to improve at a pace that is sustainable both financially and experience wise. 

Similarly, the dirt crate late models in series such as NeSmith and SECA (South East Crate Association) are providing a racing platform to many racers who are transitioning from karting, legends and other local track divisions of dirt racing.  The crates are a fun show and at some races attract super late model racers to compete in them with the less experienced racers much like the XFINETY Series provides this to Sprint Cup Series competitors.  The super late model racers do well and finish well in these races but the on track lessons they teach the younger drivers and the show they provide for the fans are worth the tradeoff of some better finishes for the less experienced drivers.

My point for this weeks' blog was to encourage fans to go and see these racers, series and divisions even if they are big fans of super late model racing.  Yes, it will be different to watch.  Yes, you will have to get to know a couple of drivers you may not already know about.  But, you will get a fun race to watch, interesting drivers to follow and a good solid night at a track between the times you may travel a bit further to see the super stars of super late model racing.  Thanks for reading.  See you "At the Track."

Rico Abreu, Ross Bailes, Donald McIntosh, Christopher Bell, Dalton Sargent, Colby Quick, Carson Ferguson and the list could go on for this whole blog with the names of drivers who are set to be the next "break-through" driver in the racing world.  Whether you are at the track or at home online you should take some time to get to know who will be charging to the front at the next race you see.

All this young talent that we know, and some that we will be learning about for the first time this year, are what is making the grassroots of racing so energized right now.  Tracks across the country are seeing record crowds to cheer on these racers compete against the established stars on circuits from POWRI to MAXXIS, CARS to K&N, LOS to WoO and beyond.

If you don't already follow a rising star, add a wild card to your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts.  These drivers let it fly on the track and seem to find time to let us all peek in their lives via the World Wide Web between the races.  It is a wonderful adventure getting to know these racers from the words they post themselves before they have public relations folks editing what we get to know about them when they become sponsored drivers.

The race is always on to find the next great driver to thrill us with their unbelievable skills and talent on the track.  In today's world, it is the savvy race fan that finds that driver before the rest through the posts of these young stars-to-be as they climb racings latter.  For instance, which driver is posting that they are in their shop working late compared to the ones posting they are doing something less focused on racing.  Use these social media sites to find information on who has the best crews and what they are doing to make the team a winner. 

Your "follow" can also help your favorite driver obtain a sponsor.  Drivers with large groups of followers are more attractive to sponsors because the sponsor can figure that the driver with the larger audience of followers will have a built-in audience for the sponsor's product.  Drivers can gain horsepower by "speaking" well to their social media audience.  Drivers who develop a relationship with their fans are far more likely to sell t-shirts and other merchandise that then the driver can put the money back in to the machine to help them win races.

Your time on line matters to helping support racing.  As always, support your local dirt tracks, short track, legends and kart racing tracks when they have races.  But between those races tune-in to the byte-byte action each of these new era stars provide us on our cell phones and lap tops.