There’s a giant billboard currently on display at Texas Motor Speedway (TMS) proclaiming that “Chase Elliott is the People’s Champion.”
This creative – and largely unsubstantiated, based on the fact that Elliott has won zero NASCAR Cup Series races to date — piece of advertising is the track’s response to a heated post-race exchange between Elliott and Denny Hamlin at Martinsville on Oct 29. Hamlin wrecked Elliott from the lead with two laps remaining, earning the ire of fans and allowing Kyle Busch to claim the checkered flag and a guaranteed spot in the championship final four in the process.
That was quite the triple whammy. Good job, Hamlin.
While fans were probably still trying to exit Martinsville’s parking lots after the race, TMS went to work, taking advantage of this fledgling rivalry. Despite the events at the historic track nicknamed “the Paper Clip,” Hamlin and Elliott remained in the top eight and are still eligible to win the championship. Cue the fireworks; things are only going to get better from here.
TMS’ decision to fan the competitive flames by bestowing the somewhat grandiose “People’s Champion” title on Elliott, in addition to being a fantastic case of deliberate pot-stirring, is really kind of brilliant on a number of levels. Hamlin has earned the reputation of being rather volatile during his racing career, so I’m guessing that seeing his much less experienced competitor being so highly touted isn’t sitting very well.
And Elliott, while wildly popular with fans, still has a lot to prove on the track … winning a race would be a good place to start. Duh.
Taking advantage of controversy to drive ticket sales is hardly a new strategy. Almost two decades ago, the late Jim Hunter, who then served as president of Darlington Raceway, took masterful advantage of what could have been a discouraging situation for a track promoter.
At the same time the race was being run at Bristol in late August of that year, a hurricane was heading up the coast toward South Carolina, where the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series was scheduled to run the very next weekend.
The end of the race resembled the Fourth of July more closely than it did the upcoming Labor Day weekend, as Dale Earnhardt Sr. basically knocked Terry Labonte out of his way on the final lap to take the checkered flag, creating plenty of fireworks in the process.
Hunter picked up the phone after the race and called an artist buddy, and on the following Monday morning, the editorial pages of newspapers around the country featured a cartoon depicting the cars of Labonte and Earnhardt, along with the famous hurricane weather icon, all bearing down on Darlington.
Phones in the ticket office rang off the hook, as Darlington had reminded people of the things that attracted them to the sport of stock car racing in the first place: excitement; hard-fought, closely-won contests; and the thrill of not having a clue what might happen next.
Elliott and Hamlin aren’t exactly Earnhardt and Labonte, but the concept certainly stands the test of time. The current lack of real rivalries in NASCAR is one of the fans’ major complaints, and I agree with them. It’s no fun to pull for your favorite team or athlete unless you have a competitor on the other side to boo, hiss at and generally revile. (Yes, Duke University, I’m talking to you.)
Texas Motor Speedway is owned by the same company that controls a number of other great tracks in places like Charlotte, Atlanta and Bristol. Their PR machine is virtually fearless, aggressively taking advantage of chinks in the racing armor to yes, drive ticket sales, but more importantly, to drive interest in the sport.
In this particular case, it may also drive a national conversation. TMS really went out on a limb with the whole Chase Elliott coronation campaign. It makes me curious to see what the fallout might be, given the fact that we all know who the “People’s Champion” really is … and his last name isn’t Elliott.
Cathy Elliott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.