The Frontstretch: Gordon's Slump Isn't Helping NASCAR Either by Kurt Smith -- Thursday June 17, 2010

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Gordon's Slump Isn't Helping NASCAR Either

Kurt Smith · Thursday June 17, 2010


NASCAR had to be foaming at the mouth when Dale Earnhardt Jr. signed on with Hendrick Motorsports during the 2007 season.

Prior to the move, NASCAR had indirectly been trying to lend a hand to the sport’s Golden Boy. Limits were placed on team ownership and practices were eliminated. A playoff was created to keep popular drivers in the hunt until the end, and then it was extended to 12 drivers after three seasons in which at least one of the big three—Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr.—didn’t make the cut.

It’s not that NASCAR makes rules giving points to drivers whose names begin with E, but they have definitely made rule changes that they wouldn’t likely have implemented had Junior been driving for Jack Roush. NASCAR doesn’t seem to be wringing their hands about multi-car teams the way they used to.

Brian France himself said at the end of 2007 that a part of the declining ratings that have since become commonplace was a result of Junior’s subpar performance. Needless to say, things haven’t gotten better for Junior or NASCAR since then.

As Little E’s fortunes have declined, so have NASCAR’s, with his fan base the largest by a very wide margin. But we can also ponder the fortunes of the driver with the second largest base, and wonder if maybe his not living up to standard has helped pull down NASCAR.

Seeing Jeff Gordon in victory lane has become a rarity in recent seasons.

Back in the 1990s, it would have been hard to imagine Jeff Gordon scoring just one win in a stretch of 92 races. It’s a little staggering to think about it today even, given that he finished third in the points standings last year and is not exactly running lousy this season. I’m not one of the commentators that think Gordon is in a decline. He has just had stiffer competition, including from his own teammates, and NASCAR has made it much tougher to pull away from the field.

But as race after race passes by without the No. 24 in victory lane, a sight so many had been accustomed to for a long time, maybe it has caused a loss of interest from NASCAR’s second biggest fan base.

Add to that two seasons of scoring the most points with nothing to show for it. Gordon’s fans have more reason than anyone to dislike the Chase.

When Wonderboy hoisted his first Winston Cup in 1995, he was a hotshot with a Nestle Quik mustache from Indiana, in a sport full of tobacco chewing fishermen. Second through fifth in the standings were Dale Earnhardt, Sterling Marlin, Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace. In the next few years he would become the most hated driver in the sport, mostly because he was beating everyone else’s favorite drivers.

But Gordon also helped expand the sport’s fan base out of the Southeast, and suddenly the entire demographic changed. By the time Jimmie Johnson showed up to stink up the show for four years straight, the only Southern types left behind the wheel, besides Earnhardt, were Jeff Burton and Mark Martin. The landscape of drivers’ home states has completely changed. The top five drivers in points as of this writing are Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth. Of them, only Virginia’s Denny Hamlin is from the Southeast, and no one says Hamlin’s personality reminds them of Cale Yarborough’s.

Fans in Alabama still pull for Junior, but everywhere else they’re most likely rooting for Jeff Gordon, or for Tony Stewart if they find Gordon too polished.

With Earnhardt Jr., Gordon, and Stewart falling behind guys like the less colorful Jimmie Johnson, the occasionally less mature Kyle Busch, and less known Denny Hamlin, the sport has interested fewer fans as a result, at least for now.

As if all that weren’t bad enough, one of the sport’s fiercest rivalries is gone. Gordon and Junior fans often used to come to blows at events; good or bad, at least people got fired up about the two drivers battling each other. And Gordon and Junior understood that, often engaging in some spirited scrapping whenever they got near each other. It was the last rivalry that sold t-shirts.

Once they became teammates, that was all snuffed out. When was the last time you saw the No. 24 and No. 88 beating on each other for 20 laps? Carl Edwards vs. Brad Keselowski is not enough to churn up a fan base. And Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have yet to have a serious problem with each other.

NASCAR may have brought some of this on themselves, but they couldn’t have counted on it blowing up in their faces this much. When it comes to their biggest stars, things couldn’t have worked out worse for NASCAR of late. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has just one win in his last 149 starts, and has failed to make the playoffs three out of six times. Jeff Gordon is one for his last 92, and has had at least one championship denied him by a mystery debris caution in the standings. Tony Stewart also seems to be in a funk, barely in the top 12 at the moment, winless in his last 22 races and not seriously contending for a title in some time.

With Earnhardt and Gordon driving equipment made by the very best in the game, you would think it would have turned out better than this. Junior is running mediocre, Jeff Gordon is running well, but not well enough, and both drivers’ fans don’t want to choke each other like they used to.

Maybe fans miss all that as much as they miss the Southern 500 on Labor Day. NASCAR does without a doubt.

Kurt’s Shorts Special Edition – On The Michigan Debris Caution

  • Part One: Whether there was a piece of rubber on the track or not, and I have no reason to think Kasey Kahne is lying, here’s the real question: if Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch were beating each other’s fenders on the edge of wrecking with 18 laps to go, do you think the yellow would have flown?
  • Part Two: I have said many times that I don’t mind when a yellow is thrown for a gum wrapper on the track. But I have seen cars spin out on the track with no reaction at all from the officials. On green-white-wreckers especially, the flagman’s arms stay folded as all kinds of mayhem ensues. It’s not the debris caution that bothers me, it’s the inconsistency. There shouldn’t be any exceptions to a dangerous situation on the track meriting a yellow.
  • Part Three: Michael Waltrip on his Twitter account compared the debris caution to the TV timeout or the walk out to the mound, both of which it is absolutely not. Then Waltrip somehow used the issue to take a shot at baseball, accusing them of “living in the past” for not giving Armando Galarraga his perfect game after Jim Joyce blew a call. I don’t have the space to explain why baseball did the right thing (just think “can of worms”), but Michael knows better than to take a shot like “living in the past” at a sport that still respects its history better than any other. If NASCAR had lived in the past a little bit in the last decade, they might not have lost half of their audience.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
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Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
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06/18/2010 06:54 AM

I remember a Chevy commercial with the 8 and 24 battling for the win that had two endings – one with Junior winning, one with Gordon winning, and the loser would congratulate the winner by slamming his car into the other guy’s. Good stuff.

06/18/2010 09:20 AM

I will watch racing as long as Jeff Gordon is in a car on the track, but it sure isn’t as much fun as it was in the 90’s.

Plus, the ugly car, the idiotic chase and terrible TV broadcasts – yes, Fox and ESPN, I’m talking to you have made me more likely to DVR the race and watch later. Plus, now you have NASCAR manufacturing excitement with its greeen-white-wreckers and then they have the nerve to say they throw cautions for reasons of SAFETY. I don’t think so. It’s not a sport it’s racer-tainment.

When you’re driver gets screwed out of a couple of championships, it makes it hard to take the sanctioning body seriously or get real excited about the end of the season. Go back to a full season championship. Right now, Johnson is a 4X CHASE winner, not a 4 X champion for 4 seasons.

Don Mei
06/18/2010 10:20 AM

Forty-five days and counting to Brian’s birthday!!! Time to start thinking about gifts.

06/18/2010 12:28 PM

To change a famous quote, “twas a twit sent by an idiot…signifying nothing”

Bad Wolf
06/18/2010 12:59 PM

Jr. is not that good and Gordon is getting old with a family and has lost the fire.

06/18/2010 02:23 PM

Your first three paragraphs are as biased as most of my posts. The difference is, I post opinions you are trying to write a journalistic article (I assume).

What proof do you offer that the rule changes wouldn’t have been made if Jr drove for Roush?

How can you claim that “NASCAR” was foaming at the mouth when Jr signed with Hendrick? NASCAR is an organization – it can not foam, it has no mouth.

The statements you made today are as ridiculous as the theories that NASCAR invented the chase so Jimmie Johnson could win 4 championships, and the top 35 rule to drive Robby Gordon out of the sport.

AND Jeff Gordon is NOT the 2nd most popular driver in NASCAR. Tony Stewart isn’t the 3rd. If you look at NASCAR drivers based purely on National name recognition the 2nd and third would be Jimmie Johnson and Danica Patrick. Like it or not, Danica Patrick is a bigger name in racing than Jeff Gordon. Jimmie Johnson and Danica Patrick lead sportscenter, tony and jeff don’t even lead NASCAR Now.

As far as NASCARNation is concerned you could make an argument for a different hierarcy among well-informed race fans. Drivers like Denny Hamlin and The Busch brothers have a loyal fan base from their home states, but its the national media that will grow the sport, not local markets.

Or wait… Did NASCAR also sign their TV deals to kill Jeff Gordons souviner sales??!?!!?!

Chris Evans
06/18/2010 02:30 PM

I tend to agree about Gordon and the lack of fire. I would lose no respect for him if he decided to wrap up his career in the near future and live his life with his family. He doesn’t have to prove a thing to anybody. He was one of the greatest drivers during the ’90s and early 2000s. He is still very competitive but I can definitely understand if he has other things to think about than racing.

Jr. just really isn’t that earthshaking of a driver anymore. I like him and he is decent when he wants to be but the shadow of his father looms large. I’ve wondered how if Dale Sr. had lived how Jr.‘s career and life would have turned out differently. I think that he would have given Jr. a great guidance through his career and someone he could have really talked to when the going got tough.

Great comment on Michael Waltrip! It is great to see him called out on his truly idiotic statements.


Bill B
06/18/2010 02:57 PM

Being a Gordon fan, I have not stopped watching just because he hasn’t won. On the other hand having bogus cautions and rules that turn the end of races into crapshoots isn’t helping. It would be nice if he would have won the races in which he dominated. Also being robbed of a championship in 2007 has really stuck in my craw. The truth is, even without winning, he is the only thing keeping me watching – loyalty to my driver. I am with Jersey Girl (to a point), once he retires I will be re-evaluating my involvement with NASCAR. I probably will always watch some races but my days of planning Sundays around races will be a thing of the past.

I usually try to ignore your posts because it seems you view the world (and racing) through a different lens than most people but:
Forget about national name recognition that means nothing. Those people aren’t watching or spending money on NASCAR. What most people use as a barometer for popularity are souveneir sales. Afterall only those willing to put their money where their mouth is should really have their vote counted. I know who Kobe Bryant is but I am not a fan, nor would I buy a t-shirt. Name recognition does not make him popular just well known. As another way of making this point, Charles Manson is/was well known but would you say he was popular?

06/18/2010 04:46 PM

Webster’s would disagree:

popular: frequently encountered

And if we are required to “put our money where our mouth is” and vote by spending money, then lets revisit the 3/4ths compromise shall we.

06/18/2010 04:47 PM

3/5ths that is.

Bad Wolf
06/18/2010 04:51 PM

Dans Mom is the Danica Patrick of replies here on Frontstretch, lots of exposure but lacking on substance.

Bill B
06/18/2010 06:18 PM

And therein lies part of the problem with your posts. You pick shaky and narrow premises on which to base your arguments…
Here is the definition that popular would be equated with by most people:
regarded with favor, approval, or affection by people in general

Synonyms: favorite, approved, liked

Most non NASCAR people, i.e., those that do not put their money where their mouth is, might know a driver by name but they wouldn’t describe them as “favorite, approved, liked”. They just know of them like I know of Kobe Bryant. He is not popular with me but I do know of him.

06/18/2010 08:25 PM

You mean the popular definition of popular?

Thats redundant, thats redundant

06/19/2010 11:59 AM

What is this thing Dans Mom has got for Danica Patrick.?? She brings her up in every post. Known fact, I am a member of Jr Nation and you know nothing at all about Jr or you wouldn’t be spouting all this bull all the time. How long have you been a Nascar fan ???? seems you never know what is the truth or what is going on. Do you just like to see your name in type!!!!

06/20/2010 02:33 PM

What is there to know about dale jr? He lives off his father’s name and sucks at racing. Done and done.

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