Bryan Davis Keith · Wednesday September 28, 2011
Editor’s Note: Tom Bowles and Bryan Keith switched columns this week. Looking for Tom’s writing? You can find it here.
Did You Notice?… That for all the talk of just how boring Sunday’s race at Loudon was, lacking much if any side-by-side racing, NASCAR scored a major TV ratings coup. The numbers, released Tuesday show a 19% increase – yes, 19% in viewership over the Fall Loudon race of a season ago. And this was on an NFL Sunday, no less!
Frankly, after hearing those numbers I’m shocked Brian France and Co. haven’t put out a press release already, describing how fans have accepted the Chase and all its glory of the past seven years. And, love the Chase or hate it, love the racing or hate it, that kind of showing amongst TV viewers is a major plus for the sport. That uptick serves as great news in particular for teams that now, in the postseason or not, are in fever pitch mode trying to secure backing for 2012. But how did this happen? Interest in football has done anything but wane, there was no great blizzard keeping millions more viewers at home, and the crowd at Loudon was still solid enough that a mass exodus of butts from the seats would not bump up ratings that much.
The possibilities are varied. This Chase is definitely shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable seen since the inception of the format back in 2004, with straggler Tony Stewart winning the first two races and wild card Brad Keselowski and his No. 2 team looking much like Juan Pablo Montoya’s 2009 campaign, where the middle-of-the-Chase pack No. 42 car proved to be red hot for the first half of the playoff. Jimmie Johnson has looked surprisingly mortal as well, falling short on fuel at Chicagoland and getting in over his head on multiple occasions at Loudon.
Let’s also not forget the rainout situation at Chicagoland last week. Love the Chase or hate the Chase, it inherently resets the field, bringing a dozen drivers into immediate striking distance of a Cup title. And thanks to a Monday green flag, a huge number of stock car racing fans didn’t see that battle for the title start off. All they saw was a standings sheet that saw J.J. falling backwards and Smoke winning out of left field.
More than anything, though, these numbers are hopefully a lasting example of just how dedicated stock car racing fans truly are to the sport, no matter the idiots in charge. No matter the format, no matter the struggles of the cars to pass or the tires to wear, Sunday is race day… and millions tuned in to the race. Here’s hoping it carries on into Dover.
Though the question that really needs to be asked… just how are these numbers being calculated? One can only hope somehow, someway, NASCAR’s ever influential sanctioning body isn’t applying the same rules it counts attendance by to TV viewers.
Did You Notice?… That, speaking of Jimmie Johnson, his current Chase troubles seem to go beyond two unlucky finishes? Namely, that both in leading up to the Chase and now two races in, Johnson is doing the one thing that he consistently has not in the previous five years… he’s getting himself into trouble on the track. The episodes with Kurt Busch at Pocono and Richmond over the summer were disconcerting enough for No. 48 fans, but more telling is the situation that Johnson put himself into racing Kyle Busch at Loudon. Sure, Busch gave no quarter to the No. 48 as Johnson tried to pass low in the corners, but that’s not his place to do so, either. Johnson knew who he was racing, knew where he was on the track… and still forced the issue.
Sound uncharacteristic for the No. 48 driver? It was. What’s more, it was truly an ill-advised move, be it Johnson or anyone more aggressive approaching Busch. That’s because, despite just how hard passing on the track was proving to be, the No. 48 car was making up ground in chunks on four fresh tires. It wasn’t a 20th to the top 5 type of run, but Johnson started at the back end of the top 20 and was battling Busch for 13th before nearly spinning trying to pass the No. 18 and losing a number of positions in the process. Five, six spots lost over the course of a run at Loudon, especially on this past weekend’s rock-hard tires, was not small change… especially when Johnson was on course to grab more, perhaps ending the race at 10th or better. Also worth noting, by taking four tires during a cycle of stops that nearly everyone else on the lead lap took two, the two-tire option for track position was on tap for the No. 48 should they have needed it during a final caution.
In short, as tough as the sledding was for any driver trying to make headway through the field at Loudon this past Sunday, the No. 48 was in position to get a result they needed. Instead, the driver of the No. 48 forced the issue with a powder-keg on wheels, and was perhaps fortunate that he only lost control of his own car and didn’t take out the No. 18.
Because imagine what Kyle would have done to the No. 48 now and in the weeks to come had his hopes blown up at the hands of Mr. Five-Time.
Did You Notice?… That the future of two Truck teams currently operating under the Kevin Harvick, Incorporated banner now have some sense of direction? Eddie Sharp Racing, the same team that won the 2009 ARCA Racing Series championship with driver Justin Lofton, has acquired controlling interest in the Nos. 8 and 33 Chevys, intending to field three full-time trucks in 2012 (the team currently is fielding the No. 6). Team owner Sharp was quoted as stating that he has acquired a “turn-key, successful program at the ready.”
On paper, maybe. But in reality, it’s far from certain that the backing of ESR is going to keep two teams that have been plenty successful at the front of the field in 2012. There’s no doubting that Eddie Sharp is an owner that knows how to win — from 2008-10 his teams were among the best, if not the premier, entries in the ARCA Racing Series field. But that level of success, coupled with a driver the organization was familiar with in Craig Goess (who finished second in ARCA points last season driving ESR’s No. 81 ARCA car) didn’t prove to be a turn-key translation to Truck Series success. Now, with Lofton behind the wheel of the team’s truck, ESR’s entry sits 19th in owner points, with only two top-10 finishes through 19 races this season.
Furthermore, to accommodate the acquisition of these two new teams, ESR will be making the move from longtime manufacturer backing with Toyota to Chevrolet. KHI has proven capable of winning races with the Bowties on the hood, even as Toyota has proven to be the dominant manufacturer in the Truck ranks, but can ESR duplicate that? Teams that have switched over to Toyota have proven able to quickly emerge as contenders (Germain Racing, Wyler Racing immediately come to mind) given the manner that Toyota handles its truck program… and the same can’t be said for Chevrolet. Unless a major partnership with Richard Childress Racing comes as part of this package, it’s going to be up to an ESR organization that’s struggled to get even one truck up to speed to figure out a new manufacturer as well as manage tripling its size.
Sure, Eddie Sharp’s to be commended for picking these two trucks up, and one can only hope this venture is successful. But it’s far from turn-key.
Did You Notice?… Just how hard NASCAR is working to make sure that Talladega doesn’t turn into another two-step dance party at 200 mph? They’ve made the restrictor plates bigger. They’ve made changes to the coolant systems within the race cars, in an attempt to limit the amount of time two cars can stay hooked up to one another’s bumper. And now they’ve even limited the lubrications that teams can apply to their cars; everything from grease to cooking spray is now forbidden.
NASCAR deserves some credit for this one, because they truly do appear to be listening to just how much fans and drivers alike have spoken out about this newfangled plate racing. Sure, there’s self-interest there; Talladega, love it or hate it, is arguably the most anticipated race of the Chase from the end of Richmond on (read: the show can’t suck) and amongst driver critics of the current two-car tandems, none have been more vocal about disliking the racing than Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
The sad thing is, like in so many instances before, listening to the outcry is coming too late, after the damage has been done. The luster of the restrictor-plate races has been severely tarnished this season by the tandem racing that removed the pack and drafting from the equation in favor of choreography. More notably, though, this style of competition has come to be solely because of repaving jobs done on the high banks of Daytona and Talladega. Whether the repaves were needed or not is a moot argument… even if they weren’t needed now, tracks do wear out and require new asphalt every once in awhile.
What can and should be done whenever these repaves come up is testing and prep work after their renovation. Goodyear needs to be tire testing like mad, finding a compound that can wear enough to make handling an issue and durable enough to tackle the curveballs new asphalt can throw (remember what happened at Charlotte post-levigating?). The teams should be welcomed to roll out the testing rigs, figuring out what kind of show they can competitively put on. And NASCAR should be out there observing just what kind of racing can be seen.
Because if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and don’t let it be fixed. For as much as many drivers decried the pack style of racing at Daytona and Talladega, it was wildly popular amongst fans. It drew attention, it drew viewers, and despite the threat of the “Big One” it was a unique form of racing that belonged in the Chase as a proving ground for the best stock car racing has to offer. But instead of taking the steps needed prior to the start of 2011 (and knowing full well what the repave at Talladega did to the racing) to prepare a package that would prevent Daytona from turning into the dance party that it has, NASCAR sat back and got bailed out by Trevor Bayne’s wild upset in the 500.
Note the bailout won’t be coming this time… unless Dale Jr. wins, anyway.
In the meantime, here’s to hoping all of these changes thread the tandems enough to change the racing at Talladega next month.
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