The Frontstretch: A Sport Without Heroes, A Sport Without Identity: Four Subtle Reasons for the Backlash by Amy Henderson -- Thursday May 3, 2012

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A Sport Without Heroes, A Sport Without Identity: Four Subtle Reasons for the Backlash

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday May 3, 2012


We’re just over a third of the way through NASCAR’s so-called “regular season.” If you look around the landscape, it hasn’t been very pretty lately; ratings are down and complaints are up. It’s been said a hundred different ways. Depending on who you ask, there are probably a hundred reasons for the discontent: lack of close racing, NASCAR’s rules, the car and tire packages. But what about some of the more subtle changes that have crept into the sport and caused some of the things that leave fans wondering where the NASCAR they used to love has gone over the last few years?

In the end, no problem has one cause or one quick fix. But here’s my take on what’s behind the summer of NASCAR fans’ discontent:

In creating the Chase, NASCAR has made the first 26 races virtually obsolete. It’s been well documented that a lot of people don’t like the Chase. In fact, over three-quarters of fans said that they didn’t like the Chase system on a poll last year. And there are a lot of things wrong with it. First of all, the Chase was created because NASCAR and new corporate sponsor Nextel (now Sprint) wanted to be more like other major sports, all of which have some kind of playoff system. What they overlooked was that the longtime NASCAR fans loved the sport because it was different. Perhaps the bandwagon fans who poured in were used to such a system, but it doesn’t work well in NASCAR. Fans were used to a champion who accumulated the most points over a nine-month season, and having one that could work a ten-race system hasn’t set well with many people. That was always the big complaint from fans-the championship wasn’t “real” anymore.

Single-file racing has been the norm for much of the 2012 season, a trend that can at least partially be attributed to the Chase system.

And while that may be true, there’s a bigger reason why the system is flawed: the first 26 races barely count. Sure, who gets into the Chase gets determined then, but teams have figured out two things: like the old title system, consistency trumps all, and if you’re among the teams that are virtually a lock for the Chase, you can use an awful lot of those first 26 races to test cars and gather information for the ten-race title run later on. You can’t blame the teams for working the system. After all, there’s a lot of money at stake as well as sponsorship concerns. But you can blame the system. A big reason why we’re not seeing a lot of side-by-side racing at places like Kansas and Texas is a lot of teams A)simply need to maintain their points position for a few months and B) figure it’s a good time to try an experimental setup, which makes simply logging laps important. It’s not that the drivers don’t want to win; believe me, a driver always wants to win, but teams in general are looking at the bigger picture.

The bottom line is, points don’t count the same now as they do later. A single point would have given Carl Edwards the 2011 title, but only if it had come during the Chase. Because points are reset before the final ten races, only wins and points position count, the actual point total doesn’t play a role. That means that while Edwards needed to take just a few more chances during the Chase, he had no reason to take them during the regular season. And neither did anyone else, save perhaps the drivers looking for the last guaranteed points position or a wild card spot. And that means not pushing the issue for anything but a race win. Under the old system, a fifth place instead of sixth at a race in May had the potential to make the difference in a championship. Now, it has little, if any impact at all. So what race fans are left with is a lot of guys logging laps if they can’t win.

My solution? It’s twofold. First, NASCAR needs to go back to season-long championship; as long as there’s a playoff system, people who remember the old way will never have respect for the system or any champion crowned under it anyway, and those people who do remember are the fans that are left as the bandwagoneers drift on to the next trend.

Second, the point fund money that’s now divided between the top 25 finishing teams at the end of the year should be divided 36 ways and added to the winner’s purse of every race, and only the winner’s purse. The champion should receive that pretty checkered flag trophy and a trip to Las Vegas to celebrate. The other teams should get the same-their finishing trophy and the trip paid for. The championship should be a celebration of the best team from the season, but the focus, and the money should be on winning races. I don’t like the idea of the guy who wins the most races being crowned, because it puts too big a target on people’s backs and too much chance of a regrettable incident. Consistency should be rewarded, and giving more points and more money for wins will make everyone hungry for them. And that would improve the races all year long.

Villains aren’t the same as they used to be. It’s been said that since the death of Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR hasn’t had a real villain. To a large extent that’s true, and it is kind of a bummer. There are guys that are vilified for driving too rough as Earnhardt was. Others seem to get jeered for “winning too much.” But there has been none like Earnhardt, not really.

Dale Earnhardt, as much as he was the bad guy in NASCAR for many years, also had the reputation of being kind of an everyman. No matter how rich and famous Earnhardt got, he didn’t change much in the eyes of the fans. He was the blue-collar hero, living proof that the American Dream was alive and well, living in Mooresville. For every wrecked racecar in his wake, there was a story of the man behind the mustache: the man who sat up with his daughter’s friend all night long because she was homesick on a sleepover or the man who took in a horse because its owners were neglecting it. In some way, just about everyone could relate to Earnhardt. Some people loved him and others loved to loathe him.

Today’s drivers pale in comparison. The ones who would take Earnhardt’s spot as villain don’t have the persona behind them to make people love them the way they did Earnhardt. They often come across as petulant or entitled. There’s more a sense of buying their way through the ranks than earning it (even when that’s not the case). They lack the personality and the blue-collar sensibility. If they run roughshod over the field, there are no stories to humanize them after. If they win too much, they somehow didn’t have to work as hard for it.

So, while NASCAR does have plenty of villains for a variety of reasons, at least if you listen to the crowd reaction during driver introductions, there isn’t one that delivers the whole package that Earnhardt did. The Busch brothers can move cars and make things exciting, but come across as more prep school than old school. Jimmie Johnson can win races at an alarming rate, but he’s seen as too corporate. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has that off-track, behind-the-scenes quality that his father had, but he’s not the same type of driver, choosing not to be the on-track terror his father could be.

Call it a sign of the times or something else, today’s heroes are different from those of the past, the blue collar men who so many Americans could identify with on a level that they simply can’t with most of today’s breed of driver. They have to cater to corporate sponsors as well as to the fans, and that has made them seem distant to the average fan.

The lack of identity in the Nationwide Series Not that most of the new generations of fans would notice, but the Nationwide Series (and to some degree, the Truck Series) is no longer what it was meant to be. The series originated as a series in which drivers could make the leap from regional or local late model and modified series into NASCAR, and learn by running short tracks with a few larger ones. Sure, there were a few guys that made their careers there, and that gave them a built-in challenge for the young guns trying to make it to the Cup Series. The Nationwide Series in particular was primarily an East Coast Series because it was less expensive for the teams.

It wasn’t until the late 1990’s that the NNS teams crossed the Mississippi to race. Tracks like Myrtle Beach and South Boston were staples, and companion races weren’t the lion’s share of the schedule that they are now. A few Cup guys would show up a few times a year, but they weren’t a lock to win most of the time. Even when Mark Martin was terrorizing the series in the 1990’s, he didn’t run close to a full schedule, and it would never have occurred to the Cup guys to run for that series title because the schedule was too tricky. The series gave drivers the venues and the time to really learn how to race in traffic, how hard you could lean on a car and how to give and take. Some of the drivers coming into Cup these days lack those skills because there is no incentive for them to develop properly.

Then a few sponsors realized they could get on a big Cup star’s car for cheaper than the Cup Series and things began to change. NASCAR and sponsors figured they knew best what the fans wanted, and there began to be more and more companion races on intermediate tracks and fewer and fewer short track races. The cost of sponsorship, once a comfortable investment for a smaller company, shot sky high to the point where most of the series best teams are long gone, folded because sponsors couldn’t afford to pay what the teams had to ask for in order to keep up with the Joneses. True Nationwide teams with the singular goal of running in that series are few and far between today, and it’s hard to believe they once dominated the landscape.

What this has done is given the Cup fans a glut of races to choose from in a given weekend, and many choose to wait until Sunday to fill the stands, choosing to travel into town later or simply spend Friday and/or Saturday doing something else. When the Nationwide Series visited tracks where it was the only game in town, it attracted fans who knew and followed its drivers. These days, the fans who do go can simply cheer for the Cup driver they like best in the field and often don’t bother to know the drivers who run NNS exclusively. They don’t know the drivers who built that series the way they know the pioneers of Cup, and overall that hurts both the Nationwide Series and the future of Cup.

The problem that bleeds over into the Cup is that there is a dearth of properly prepared drivers to move into the series, a lack of respect and experience for the ones who do, and finally a lack of sponsors willing to take a leap of faith on a driver who is a virtual unknown compared to the established Cup field. If these drivers don’t have the chance to become popular stars in their own right, it’s harder to convince someone to shell out the $15 million or so to put them in a competitive Cup seat. Sponsors choose the proven commodity, and Nationwide drivers are generally not that.

Sponsors don’t want the best drivers any more It used to be that the best way to attract a top sponsor was to win, or at least run at the front of the pack. But it’s not that simple any more.

Now there are other factors becoming more and more important, often to the point of overshadowing the driver’s performance. Appealing to the right demographic often trumps visiting the winner’s circle. Consider Matt Kenseth, a former Cup champion and perpetual contender, who has several races lined up for which he won’t have sponsorship. He’s a threat to win virtually every week; on the racetrack he and teammate Carl Edwards have virtually identical numbers in the races they’ve both run; in fact they’re dead even in terms of beating each other, with 137 top finishes apiece. Edwards just edges Kenseth’s stats in the races they’ve both run; Kenseth has the edge overall and has a championship. Yet Edwards has more sponsors than he knows what to do with while the driver with the champion’s patch on his uniform struggles. And when it is no longer about on-track talent, the whole sport suffers.

There are some talented drivers without the money to be competitive and you had better believe that affects the overall quality of racing in all three national touring series. If the best drivers can’t race every week, something is missing. Take Trevor Bayne. Not only is he young, well-spoken, and genuine, he can drive a car. His first Nationwide victory came at the expense of Cup star Edwards, when Bayne simply drove by his more experienced teammate when it counted, and the kid is also a Daytona 500 champion! Yet he’s sitting out races for lack of a sponsor when less talented drivers have full backing. It doesn’t make sense, and it ultimately hurts the quality of the racing.

All four of these things are quietly eating away at the quality of the racing in NASCAR. They’re not as blatantly obvious as the cookie-cutter tracks that don’t encourage hard racing, tires that never wear out, allowing teams the luxury of one less strategy to worry about, the racecar with rules that allow no innovation, but they’re just as important to understand in terms of the health of the sport today. They are vital areas for NASCAR to look long and hard at, and just as important for fans to understand so that they can let the sanctioning body know they need to improve their product. They may not be in the spotlight, but they most certainly are backstage running the show.

Contact Amy Henderson

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Beyond the Cockpit: Alexis DeJoria On The 300 mph Women of the NHRA
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05/04/2012 07:12 AM

I am a relatively new fan (2008) but I don’t think I’m a bandwagoner. To me, it seems to be the NASCAR fans who so often come across as petulant and entitled, not the drivers. We had a wonderful season in 2011. This year, so far, its not as exciting. That’s the way it is in sports sometimes but old school fans go on and on about “in the day”. The non-Chase years, Dale Earnhardt. I’m not sure any real season or person could live up to the view from those rose-colored glasses.

05/04/2012 07:13 AM

Great column Amy, you hit on some profound truths.

05/04/2012 07:17 AM

What you’ve said about the Chase is correct, but my problem with it more than anything is that it gives points to drivers that didn’t earn them. Very simple to me.

The Chase might have a smidgen of validity if it only featured the playoff drivers. The reason people tune in for the playoffs in other sports is because they know that all the teams are good. In NASCAR, a playoff event looks no different than a regular season event.

Sponsors no longer want the best drivers…boy is that ever true. Every other driver in a JR Motorsports car has put up a better average finish than Danica since NASCAR welcomed her with open arms.

05/04/2012 08:30 AM

To put it simply, Amen.

05/04/2012 09:07 AM

It’s a different world now than “back in the day”.

Today, drivers are SO careful to not offend anyone about anything so they can keep their sponsor. Kyle Busch is the most exciting thing on the track since Dale Sr. but half the fans absolutely HATE everything about him to the point of writing his sponsors to complain. So we’re left with nice, clean, and vanilla Jimmie Johnson clones.

I remember the days when Dale Sr. and D.W. were booed constantly but it was a different atmosphere in those days.

05/04/2012 09:16 AM

The very LAST thing Nascar wants to do is drop the Chase because that would be admitting it’s failure.

And it would take away from the drivers who won championships during “the Chase years”. Many fans, especially those who’ve been with the sport for years, don’t give credit to those drivers already.

05/04/2012 09:53 AM

Whether there is or isn’t a Chase, the incentive isn’t there for a driver to race hard for an entire race let alone the entire season… and that’s why we have the boring racing we have.

This week will be a great example of that: the first 90% of the race consists not of hard racing but rather preserving the car for the final 10%.

NASCAR needs to not get rid of the Chase but to (1) modify scoring to incorporate running position throughout the race (eliminating the incentive for drivers to just turn laps) and (2) allow drivers a ‘drop’ or two to allow them to take risks without suffering a season ending failure.

Bill B
05/04/2012 12:16 PM

I agree with all your points Amy but you could have summed it up with one word… money.
When big money came into the sport it changed everything. The chase was contrived to make the networks happy so they would pay more money to broadcast races.
Drivers are pollitically correct because sponsors demand it if they are going to write those big checks.
The sponsors in the lower series want the same so that’s why we have cup guys running those races.

On the other hand, we now get to see a crappy broadcast of every race on tv. Crappy because they are loaded with commercials and talking heads that are more about PR and toeing the company line than covering the race and what’s happening on track.

Phony Cup
05/04/2012 12:40 PM

nASCAR has disowned the South so join me and delete the mess from our tv watching.

05/04/2012 01:07 PM

Without doubt one of the best pieces I have read in years, you hit on every point that is wrong with Nascar, if they do not come to their senses soon they will be gone and forgotten very quickly, keep up the great work Amy.

05/04/2012 01:12 PM

Really good article Amy, you drove all the nails in as they should be. It’s funny how those newbie fans just have no clue as to just how good NASCAR was and should still be. They don’t even see how they are being talked down to or actually insulted by the loudest voices in the sport. Keep up the honest reporting!

Matt L
05/04/2012 01:20 PM

I think the main problems are the economy, the Chase and tv coverage.

The eocnomy is what it is and NASCAR can’t do anything about it. Power is in the sponsors hands. The $ factor has forced many favorites off the track and replaced them with a rotation of ride-buyers. Trevor Bayne’s story is a hard pill for fans to swallow. If winning one of the greatest achievements in NASCAR can’t get you a sponsor, does success even mean anything?

Second, if the fans can’t see the racing at home, they will be unhappy. It’s that simple. The outcome of the Richmond race was altered by a debris caution, a piece of debris the drivers criticized and the fans didn’t see.

Finally, the Chase made the points closer, but last year’s points battle came and went and the excitement died down quickly. Does the championship even have meaning anymore? The old system had it’s flaws, like 2003, but it made the whole season count. I’d rather watch another 2003 than see another situation like Jeff Gordon getting robbed of a championship in 2007.

What defines NASCAR fans from any other sport is their passion. Sometimes it comes across too strong, like the unfortunate new buzz word spreading -‘needy’ or ‘entitled’. We know the sport can be better because many of us have seen the sport in better health. With such a large number of variables going into a race, it’s hard to pin down the exact problems. But there are good intentions behind the fan opinions. Years of ‘bitching’ by the fans not only saved Rockingham from becoming a field of weeds, but brought the track back to life when NASCAR returned a few weeks ago.

bud sudz
05/04/2012 02:15 PM

Probably your best article Amy.
In regards to the NW/Busch Series, you are dead on. I loved the old series before it became Cup Lite. I attended races at Hickory (the Saturday before Easter) where you either wedged yourself into the Grandstands or pulled a lawn chair up to the fence in Turn 4 and watched Dick Trickle, Chad Little, Elton Sawyer, The Sadlers, Mike McLaughlin and others do battle.
I also attended a standalone race at Myrtle Beach and had a great day despite the 95 degree heat and the lack of Cup Regulars.
Nazareth, South Boston, Hickory, MB, IRP, Milwaukee, Pikes Peak and other tracks gave the Series Character,
Then, when the series went to Daytona, Charlotte, Rockingham and Bristol, it was fun to see the Busch regulars battle (and sometimes beat) the Big Boys. When McLaughlin won at Charlotte or Kenseth won his first race (as a regular) at Rockingham, it made for a great story.
So did Dick Trickle’s first win and Ed Berrier’s only win at Hickory.
Even Jeff Gordon, Jimmy Johnson and Tony Stewart progressed through the Busch ranks, prior to moving into Cup and did so with Busch teams.
It’s also not just Earnhardt missing from Cup, it’s Jimmy Spencer, Trickle, Dave Marcis, Rusty Wallace, The Bodines, Ernie Irvan and all the different personalities and personal stories that are missing. When Dave Despain used to interview all of these guys prior to Driver Introductions, there was real entertainment and real comments from the drivers.

05/04/2012 03:14 PM

I have never been to a race to see how the points championship was effected. I have however attended them to see who won the race.
Perhaps the focus is being put in the wrong place.

05/04/2012 03:54 PM

Well done.

Would that I had some bit of faith you are not just shouting into a hurricane.

05/04/2012 04:00 PM

I can remember when who won the season long championship was an after thought to the racing we saw every week. Yes, when Earnhardt came close to tying Richard Petty, the title got more exciting, but each race mattered. Yet, many still wonder why Jimmy Johnson’s 5 ‘title’s’ in a row aren’t setting race fans agog in wonder. Maybe it’s because a 10 race ‘champ’ just isn’t as impressive?

alan moody
05/04/2012 06:16 PM

You know what I think the only thing that is entitled in this sport are all these whining fans…everybody has some reason why they hate NASCAR….then why do you still not only watch every race but then come here to whine like your the long lost third busch brother or something. The real reason jimmie doesn’t get all praised over his 5 championships is all NASCAR has left are all you sourpusses talking about back in the day….well. we are no longer there and to be honest….guess what??? change is the only constant in life. So either leave this sport alone or find something you do like because as a FAN of NASCAR I am so tired of hearing people complain so much about something that you don’t have to put up with…go watch some Jr. Back in the day reruns if you liked it back then…simple as that. And to complain that a driver won by the rules someone else made up and discredit it because they beat 43 drivers at it fair and square makes me wonder if anything short of dale Sr. rising from the grave. will make any of you happy…So go mow the yard or get a root canal this Sunday because the all of you complain about free entertainment on tv makes me think those other options would be more fun than watching what all of you describe as your experience with NASCAR these days….so do us both and NASCAR a favor and go watch paint dry on Sundays and leave this sport to all of us that love NASCAR no matter what they do with as long as they are RACINBOYS!!!!

Brian France Sucks
05/04/2012 08:00 PM

alan moody is secretly a deranged Darrell Waltrip. There isn’t much “racin boys” going on these days, especially with the CoT, the tracks, and the Chase. The real reason that fans (including me) complain about the racing (or really the lack thereof), is because NA$CAR has marketing types (Brain France) running it who have no clue what good racing constitutes. In 10 short years France has managed to single-handedly throw away the 30 years of momentum and growth his old man nurtured. Brian the idiot spawn has given us the CoT (the teams didn’t want it), a ban on testing @ series tracks (how do you get better?), and a format that induces conservatism for 70% of the schedule. France is also adept at snagging sponsors to become “the offical __________ of NA$CAR”, which would be better served funding 4-5 race teams and eliminating the need for teams to start and park.

The other problem is that I$C and NA$CAR are one in the same. The Frances run both. So when I$C produces lame, pathetic tracks, they automatically get race dates. $MI isn’t much better. Greed rules the day. You can fit more seats around a 1.5 or greater sized track than a small one. So they build the big tracks dreaming of full grandstands and wads of cash. Problem is, the racing sucks, and the economy is now bad, so people have wised up. Brian France, sadly has not, and probably never will.

05/04/2012 08:38 PM

You make a lot of good points, but all the complaining about these “new” fans is getting tiresome. Who do you think will be watching NASCAR when the old fans aren’t around anymore? The sponsor money points are dead on though. I also think the COT and the hard tires need some of the blame here too.

Phony Cup
05/04/2012 10:55 PM

Maybe Alan wants to go live in North Korea with its propaganda and leader that must be one and the same Brian France.

Brian in Portland
05/05/2012 01:32 AM

Amy, you nailed it on this one. I don’t agree with some of the negative flak you get but I don’t always agree with you either, but this article was spot on.

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05/06/2012 11:47 AM

Whether nascar knows it or not they are dying a slow death. They are an afterthought on sports talk radio…IN THE SOUTH.

They have lost the youth, who could care less about nascar.


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
Fans To Decide Format of Sprint Unlimited at Daytona
UNOH and Kentucky Speedway Extend Sponsorship Agreement
Earnhardt Out For Charlotte and Kansas After Talldega Concussion
Piquet, Jr. Wins K&N East Opener

Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.