Texas should give a good idea who title contenders are

ByRICKY CRAVEN via <a href="http://espn.go.com/" title="ESPN" class="espn_sc_byline">ESPN </a>
April 09, 2016, 2:27 PM

&#151; -- With a half-dozen races in the books, a report card would suggest the new rules package has been a huge success. But the primary beneficiaries of the low downforce package are about what we expected: the sport's most talented drivers.

Each of the five races using the new package (exclude Daytona) has been won by a former Sprint Cup Series champ.

Jimmie Johnson (twice), Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

Is this a theme we should expect to continue? Yes, and if there's another round of "less downforce," or perhaps even a reduction in side force (the rumblings I'm getting from inside the garage), those four drivers will continue to benefit. There is simply no substitute for talent when the degree of difficulty is increased.

With that said, who represents the new talent? Who among the impressive few are capable of challenging and one day replacing the old guard, drivers such as Matt Kenseth, who hasn't won yet this year but will. Once again, with this package, talent will prevail.

I bring "replace" into the equation because it's never too early to consider the repercussions of losing a Johnson, Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Kenseth.

These are very popular brands that fans associate with our sport, and they are difficult, perhaps impossible to replicate.

This became most apparent to me during this week's conference call from International Speedway Corp., a publicly traded company (ticker: ISCA) that operates roughly half the tracks that make up the Sprint Cup Series schedule.

Although the first-quarter report was healthy on the back of strong Daytona Speedweeks results, the company cautioned that the next quarter is trending below 2015.

One of the explanations from an ISCA executive hammers home my point. Regardless of the type of company you operate, you must protect your brand names. Here it is:

"Despite strong sales in the first quarter, we are seeing some softness in attendance for the second quarter with advanced sales trailing 2015 by approximately 10 percent. We believe a number of factors are influencing these trends in the second quarter, including strength and demand shifting to the fourth-quarter events as a result of the new Chase format, Jeff Gordon's retirement and Tony Stewart's absence from racing during his recovery from his accident."

I understand and appreciate the view that fans might be putting off plans to attend a race in the summer to participate in a "playoff" atmosphere at the same facility later in the year. But I believe it's a small part of the equation.

Here is why. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart both contributed to what is often considered the greatest decade in our sport: the 1990s into the 2000s.

It might not have been the best decade in terms of competition, but it certainly was the best in terms of growth and attendance.

These are two drivers who qualify as once-in-a-generation talent -- I know, because I teamed with and competed against them.

They are both exceptional. So it only makes sense that we feel a recoil, or opposite effect, in their absence.

Jeff Gordon has been excellent in the broadcast booth, but people do not buy tickets, T-shirts, or hats for commentators. At least not for very long.

It always has been, always will be about drivers and their personalities.

So I fast-forward to this weekend's race at Texas Motor Speedway to share my final thought and most important point.

The adage is, as goes your potential at 1.5-mile tracks, so go your chances at a NASCAR championship because they are the most abundant discipline of track on the Sprint Cup schedule. Tracks of this length also represent half of the 10-race Chase.

Going forward, employ that same strategy when attempting to discover our next Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart.

Like it or not, it's far more important for young drivers to perform well at this weekend's track than it was at Martinsville, last weekend's track.

I absolutely believe Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and  Kyle Larson could be big stars in our sport. Could be!

And you should keep your eye glued to Erik Jones; he is the real deal. But regardless of which driver you pull for, or believe in, put extra emphasis on how well they perform at tracks like Texas this weekend.

It kind of feels as though we all are dependent on it!

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