The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Who's Making Fans Turn Away, Why Martinsville's Lost, And Marc Davis Debuts by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday October 22, 2008

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Did You Notice? … NASCAR’s TV ratings at Martinsville were down significantly this weekend, an overnight 2.9 as compared to a 3.3 in 2007? That low rating isn’t going to do the Virginia track any favors when it comes to whether it keeps a second date beyond the 2009 Cup season. Personally, it’s one of my favorite tracks on the circuit, a short track bullring that epitomizes racing the way it ought to be. But just like with other tracks that have lost dates through the years, NASCAR fans need to start putting their money where their mouth is – or in this case, their remote – before it’s too late.

Certainly, I understand how the economy’s made it tough on everyone to attend events in person. But if you consider Martinsville your favorite track and you’re cutting down from three to one races a year, should that be the one you take the time to go to? Yeah, maybe a Charlotte or a Dover or a Pocono is closer, but what’s an extra few hours when it comes in the name of saving a speedway? And for fans who absolutely love racing at this facility, using the remote control on your television set doesn’t cost a thing. It doesn’t take much to press the “on” button and turn to the channel the race is on. Why didn’t more people stick around? I have my own theory on that, which is…

Did You Notice? … How Jimmie Johnson’s dominance turns fans off. Look, no one’s denying that Johnson’s a really nice guy. But his quest to win three straight titles for the first time since Cale Yarborough in 1976-78 really hasn’t resonated with the fans. For proof, you need look no further than the TV ratings or even the hits on this site. In the past few weeks, Johnson columns penned by our most popular writers have resulted in the worst-read numbers we’ve had all year.

With Johnson, I think we’re all learning a hard lesson here. No matter how great a guy might be in person, no matter how critically acclaimed his actions are on the track, fans are either going to like him or they don’t. And for whatever reason, fans of this generation just don’t resonate with Jimmie Johnson. When Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards were going at it, interest increased and all of a sudden, people were taking a look. But the second Johnson moved to the fore, people wound up turning away.

If TV (and Frontstretch) ratings are any indication, a lot of race fans are either sick or bored of seeing scenes like these.

I don’t know how you fix it, either. Johnson’s between a rock and a hard place. He’ll forever be labeled under the shadow of car owner Jeff Gordon and Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. within his own team. He’s not as vanilla as Gordon, doesn’t have the famous name like Earnhardt, and he’ll never have the type of bonsai moves showcased by Busch, Edwards, or even someone like a Juan Pablo Montoya or Kevin Harvick. It’s a problem that leaves him a no-man’s land where there’s the possibility to create his own niche … but it just hasn’t happened. Honestly, sometimes it seems crew chief Chad Knaus, with his public visibility on SPEED shows and unquestioned control of the team, winds up more popular than Johnson is.

Of course, other sports have been through this dilemma before. The NBA, for example, couldn’t make the San Antonio Spurs popular with the national fan base even though they had every conceivable good quality you want out of a champion. In the end, how did they fix the popularity problem? Simple: find a new champion that resonates with the fan base.

So, after three years of Johnson on top, don’t be surprised to catch some NASCAR execs praying behind closed doors the No. 48 falls flat on its back in 2009.

Did You Notice? … How ridiculous these “technical sharing” agreements are? This weekend, the No. 00 car of Michael Waltrip Racing “magically” becomes the No. 47 JTG Racing car driven by Marcos Ambrose. Are we really supposed to sit here and believe that car magically became “owned” by someone else?

Michael Waltrip Racing is doing everything on that car short of putting their name on the owner line on the entry blank. And you know why they’re not doing it? Because NASCAR has that whole four-team limit thing approaching by the end of ’09. Not only does Daugherty give the sport its first minority owner since Sam Belnavis in ’03, but it allows MWR the right to expand to five teams, not four, because someone else’s name is on the No. 47.

We’ve mentioned it several times before in this space, but that type of skirting around the system will allow us to have just six de facto owners with eight cars apiece within the next couple of years. Yes, I believe in a free enterprise system; to the victors go the spoils. But every other sport has realized these last few decades that to survive, you’re going to have to undergo a revenue-sharing system that allows other teams to compete with the Big Dogs. Otherwise, in the end people get tired of watching the same old people win all the time.

I was watching a clip of the famed 1992 Hooters 500 championship battle the other day, and trying to remember what made that title fight oh so exciting. And what I discovered was you had six different drivers from six different teams fighting to take home the hardware. It wasn’t Roush A vs Hendrick C vs Roush B … it was Alan Kulwicki vs Junior Johnson’s team vs Felix Sabates’ team vs Leo Jackson. It was a bunch of little guys fighting each other for the series’ top honor, giving fans a lot of different options to root for.

Did You Notice? … J.J. Yeley is looking to sell sponsorship for himself on eBay? Believe it or not, this isn’t a new concept … Kirk Shelmerdine tried it with his self-owned team a few years back.

That’s nice, but personally, I like the idea of marketing A.J. Allmendinger’s using: going out on the race track and finishing in the Top 15 more often than not. Which free agent would you rather sign, one with one Top 20 finish all year or one with two in the last four weeks? If I were Yeley, I would keep that sponsorship ad running … but jump in some kind of race car somewhere to show potential backers what he could do.

Did You Notice? … No one’s blaming Goodyear for the rash of tire failures that occurred at Martinsville on Sunday? Based on what I’ve heard, everybody is blaming the heat of the brakes for melting the beads on these tires. Maybe I shouldn’t be bringing it up, but the whole thing just seems odd. I mean, we had the brake issues licked at Martinsville for 10 years, and we didn’t see this rash of tire issues when the Car of Tomorrow first came to this track in ’07. What’s so different now that we saw tires blow left and right? To me, the only difference is the Goodyears … but maybe that’s just me.

Did You Notice? … When people talk mergers, it’s the names such as Petty, Earnhardt, and the Wood Brothers who are fighting for survival. Sometimes, I think about what would happen in baseball if the New York Yankees were about to fold. What lengths would Major League Baseball go to in order to save the franchise?

I wonder why we don’t see that here.

Did You Notice? … 18-year-old Marc Davis will make his Nationwide Series debut in A-quality equipment this weekend, driving the No. 18 DLP Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. Although confused by why the car isn’t sponsored by FedEx as originally announced, the quality of car hasn’t changed any, and Davis is in prime position to score the highest finish for an African-American in the sport’s No. 2 division. With Lewis Hamilton poised to become an F-1 champion, it’s a weekend where NASCAR’s diversity is exposed to be a little behind the times. Let’s hope a strong run by Davis begins to turn that tide in the other direction.

Until next time …

Contact Tom Bowles

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mkrcr
10/22/2008 01:24 AM
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When the racing gets better, I’ll pick up my Nielsen Remote for more than the start and finish or maybe a glance between quarters. Although NA$CAR wants to compete with other sports, they still haven’t put a product out there that does. Football season winds up, NA$CAR winds down. Until they race on snow tires that’s they way it will always be.

Mike In NH
10/22/2008 07:14 AM
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Johnson “isn’t as vanilla” as Jeff Gordon? Are you kidding me? His cardboard cutout at the store has as much personality as he does. I mean, he’s a nice guy and all, but it’s almost mechanical how he just goes about business and keeps winning. He SHOULD be rewarded for that, I suppose, since nobody else is winning consistently, but watching a machine at work is kinda, well, boring. Guess us fans are never satisfied! :)

Michael
10/22/2008 07:33 AM
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Anyone who thinks Yeley can’t drive a race car should go back and examine his record . The fact that he was not successfull in a Cup car means only that . There are far more types of racing , and just as important types of racing than NASCAR .
The NASCAR diversity program has been a sham and a fraud from the beginning . But a few bright spots have emerged from the program in spite of NASCARS’ best efforts to make it slowly , silently die off . Marc Davis is one of those bright spots . I wish him the best . He is certainly with the right team for a first time race .
Free enterprise has put us in the financial meltdown we have today . Regulation , proper regulation , is the answer . And the best thing NASCAR could do for the future prosperity of the sport is find new team owners , help them to get started ( IRL style ) , and carefully control multi car teams .

Ken in Va.
10/22/2008 08:22 AM
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Vanilla is vanilla. Rick hired Jr. for the money but maybe he also was trying to add some flavor to his team. Jr. does not seem happy in interviews with his new team. I think they are trying to make him another shade of vanilla and he doesn’t like it. Robots are efficient but not much fun to watch. When Jimmie takes the lead, I seem to fall asleep.

Douglas
10/22/2008 08:37 AM
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Gee? NA$CAR TV ratings down? What a surprise!

The unfortunate thing is, all the “remaining” fans do have their TV turned on! The problem is the fan base these days is shrinking!

Please call Brian France, he will fill you in on the details! (unless he is out at the bar or busy counting his money)!

But the small fan base these days can be attributed, in my opinion, to a few things:

1. The illustrious CoT!

2. The “CHASE”!

3. Rules? What rules?

4. GOODYEAR TIRES!

I used to attend many races each year, but none this year, I used to watch the races on TV, or at least tape them, all the time. See how I used the words “used to”?

This year? Zero races attended!

Probably no more than 50 laps watched FOR THE ENTIRE YEAR! I intentionally keep my TV turned off when NA$CAR is on, I don’t want to be counted!

NA$CAR has pi**ed on me, a loyal fan, once to many times!

Oh, could you tell me what rule book their using this weekend?

Karen S
10/22/2008 08:38 AM
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JJ Yeley jumped in a midget at Eldora a few weeks back. First time since the Chili Bowl and put on the best show (He and Dave Darland) of the year, some say the best feature race ever. JJ can drive a race car, but you have to have the equipment to back it up. Ask Kenny, Joey, and the other drivers that have been in the 96. I hope JJ finds sponsorship! I miss him in the series.
Good Luck to Marc Davis too.

Douglas
10/22/2008 08:51 AM
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Hey Karen S., I have watched JJ Yeley in Sprint Cars, what an awesome show those were.

I have watched a lot of Sprint Car races in my life, and when someone like JJ is on the track,
well, AWESOME is the way to describe his driving!

Carl D.
10/22/2008 09:28 AM
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I’m convinced that with Rick Hendrick’s money, and Chad Knaus on the pit box, my 72 year-old mama could win a championship in the 48 car. Johnson’s real talent is in how well he communicates with Knaus. The car is always at it’s best at the end of the race, and that’s what it takes to win races and championships.

It would be great to see a Petty, a Wood Brothers, or a Bill Davis team win a race, but that ain’t gonna happen in today’s Nascar. Tradition is history, and Money is the root of all Nascar.

As a fan, I’m done with 2008. I don’t hold out much hope that 2009 will be any better. And I’m really learning to enjoy Hockey.

Ed
10/22/2008 09:42 AM
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1. First off Martinsville is cool and does need to be on the schedule but 2 races a year? Naaa. If they can do it to Darlington then anything other than Daytona and Talladega are on the list to get whacked. Oh, but they won’t whack Speedway Motorsports because there’s a guy who will stand up to NA$CAR and has the money to stand toe-to-toe with NA$CAR in court. But at Darlington NA$CAR left it out of the CapEx money for too many years and then whacks it—their own fault. Pocono, Martinsville and Watkins Glen are the weak links. Personally Watkins Glen (because NA$CAR as always won’t spend the money to modernize) would be my place to whack, or Pocono before Martinsville. Pocono needs to lose a date. The place is out of date. Nice people up there but the place ain’t a Wrigley Field or Boston Garden.

2. “Douglas” you have some very good points. NA$CAR put their radical thinking caps on and began ruining the show when times were good. Now that the show has been hurt by their moves the economy just exacerbates the situation.

A. The Chase isn’t so bad. This whole champ thing has always over the many years come down to 2-3 cars by September. If you look at the old way vs. the way way, ain’t much different. The only thing is, is that Greg Biffle and Jeff Burton have a better chance under this system than the old one and Kyle Busch is farther out than he would be under the old. But the cream come to the top anyway you look at it. JJ would be on top with either championship points award. Of course Jeff Gordon would have won last year. But the whole purpose of the Chase is to make it exciting. And in that way this thing is cool. It does what it’s designed to do: make it a playoff season. Any way the Rays make it to the World Series under a different format? Probably not.

B. The whole complexion of the racing has changed. Many more red flags than ever before, loop data and freezing field, no race back to yellow, the “act of passing,” lucky dawg, green-white-checker, commitment cones, pit road speed limits of 35-45 (pit road speed limits are good but some places—like DOVER—are unsafe pit roads so they falsify the racing by limiting pit road speeds), and on and on…This ain’t yo daddy’s NA$CAR and they did it in a hurry…

C. The one thing I think very strongly about is that the sanctioning body has lost its way. Somewhere along the line some marketing guru convinced Brian and Company that NA$CAR is in the entertainment business. WOW! What a mistake! NA$CAR has gotten greedy because they think they are in the entertainment business. NA$CAR should be in the business of sanctioning and officiating races—and they even don’t do a good job officiating—not in the entertainment business. Leave the “entertainment” aspect of this thing to the speedway promoters and the drivers. When NA$CAR thinks they are in the entertainment business, then that’s when they fudge—throw lying yellows for ‘Jaques Debris’…And NA$CAR knows they do it but lie like a presidential campaign. They falsify the racing and make phony endings by messing in the mix. And they will do it in a heartbeat thinking it’s “entertainment.” Trouble is most folks see thru that crap…we are smarter than they think we are. So the more “entertainment” they think they are giving us the farther away from the sport it drives us.

scm_pa
10/22/2008 09:48 AM
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Mr. Bowles,

Your take on why the ratings are down has some merit. I have nothing against J. Johnson but I feel “Mike from NH” was pretty accurate in his cardboard cutout comparison. However for me that is not what keeps me from turning the race on more often. For me it’s the lack of any real passing on the track. I’m sure you may disagree with me but I think the racing overall has been kind of dull the last few years. I do put part of the blame on how the networks cover the race but that’s a rant for another day. I’m finding an NFL game to have more excitement than a cup race. I’ve probably watched more truck races this season than cup races.

yankeegranny
10/22/2008 09:54 AM
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Tom, are you out of your mind. The one track to go to in person during the season. Go there as a fan and not a coddled sports writer and you will change your tune. I went to Martinsville for this last race and have never been to a less fan friendly race track…absolutely horrible parking,,,rude or indifferent employees…truly dangerous parking facilities for the handicapped and and overall sense of “ we got your money, now the hell with you.” Could the owners of the track be trying to make the whole race weekend experience so bad that first timers such as my daughter and I never come back? I think they want the track to lose a date or maybe even both of them. A track that does not give its fans an enjoyable and safe experience does not deserve a race when there are other tracks out there that do both. We have been to
Darlington, Charlotte,and Richmond this year and are planning to go back in 09. We will probably add Bristol, but we decided as we sat in the muddy grass on the side of a mountain that was the handkcapped parking and watched two parents try to guide a wheelchair-bound child through the mud and the grass to their car, that we would never come back. Take the two races, give them to tracks that are fan-friendly.

midasmicah
10/22/2008 09:55 AM
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Johnson is atypical of the kind of driver na$car wants to win these days. Bland and non-controversial. Just like the bland cookie-cutter tracks they seem so fond of. If they get rid of Martinsville (the tv ratings were down because it was so boring)it’s one more nail in the coffin of my waning interest in all things na$car. Johnson might the nicest guy in the world, but he’s got the personality of a fencepost.

bobby dee
10/22/2008 09:58 AM
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Other years we went to Atlanta & Martinsville. This year no races. TV bores me. I’m not sure why we need 3 in the booth & 3 in the studio to tell me what they think the teams should do on pit stops. BTW, we like Tim Brewer.

FLP
10/22/2008 10:03 AM
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NASCAR fans need to start putting their money where their mouth is – or in this case, their remote – before it’s too late.”

I do not own NASCAR or Martinsville anything. If they want me to spend my money or watch them on TV then they need to provide a better product. I have been a loyal fan since it was the Grand National circuit, however loyalty works both ways. They have added numerous cookie cutter tracks, the phony chase and the COT however, they forgot the one thing that attracts fans – good racing.
Dennis
10/22/2008 10:03 AM
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“he’ll never have the type of bonsai moves showcased by Busch, Edwards…”

Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha. What do tiny trees have to do with driving.

Bonsai, tiny Japanese topiary.

Banzai, War cry followed by a desperate military charge.

Sorry I could not let that pass.

dawg
10/22/2008 10:51 AM
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Speaking strictly for myself. NA$CAR’s current problems can be summed up in two words. Brian France. He’s on this Quixotic quest for the new fan. Sending the Traditional Southern 500 date to California, is a good example. If IROC were such a great idea, why did it go belly up? I don’t live in the southeast, & I’m damn sure NOT a right wing Republican,but I do consider myself a traditional fan.He’s about to lose me, & from all indications. I’ve got plenty of company. If Brian has had a good idea since he took over. It’s gone right over my head. As for JJ, & JJ stories. I think that a huge part of JJ’s success has to be Chad. If you were to take Chad out of the equation. He’d be like Matt Kenseth, good but not great. As for the stories. Maybe we’re all just tired of reading the same story ad nauseum.

Ed
10/22/2008 11:21 AM
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“dawg” you are right on. NA$CAR chased Hollywood in more ways than one. Again, back to my earlier “entertainment” comment. They go after the casual fan who is already on to something else before the checkered falls yet NA$CAR has altered the racing for that fan. NA$CAR thinks having Paris Hilton hang with the oil and gas crowd is the answer. WHo gives a crap about Hilton? I wanna see side-by-side frammin and bammin like the old days. Who cares about luring the Hollywood elite? They don’t fill the seats, Dale Earnhardt and Carl Edwards do. NA$CAR went to Southern California at the expense of their base. Now their base feels alienated (losing North Wilkesboro, Darlington, The Rock, etc) and the Southern California fan can get more excitement out of skateboard racing at Venice Beach.

My point NASCAR as a sanctioning body has lost it’s way. As much of a bully-dictator that Bill Sr and Bill Jr could be in their day, where have all the great leaders of NASCAR gone?

baker
10/22/2008 11:43 AM
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B.B. King sang it best…“The Thrill Is Gone.” Race fans nation wide need to take back the sport/entertainment that attracted them initially or be prepared to simply walk away from it. If the NASCAR brass only want to think in terms of their wallet then so should the race fan. Value for the dollar spent is what all people want to feel they receive…even for a race. If the fan feels the value, then they go to the races. Then, we will buy the advertised products which we are remarkably loyal to. This will keep people employed etc. etc. But the bottom line is the base product. To steal a political line and paraphrase. Brian, “it’s the RACING stupid!”

Ed
10/22/2008 02:18 PM
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Right on “baker”! That’s a good one: “it’s the racin stupid.” On the mark man. This is Formula One in North America except that F1 limits to two hours of no passing. We have in America 3-4 hrs of no-passing. Start on the pole and lead and win; no passing. The only passing is on pit road or mechanical failure/wreck. The Generic race car COT is like sleeping on a cot. All that engineering NASCAR does to make it a better race car. Bunk. Safer yes, better no. Never will be until they yank that splitter off and do a rear spolier like the Nationwide COT. Of course if they do then Cup will be Nationwide Lite and not the other way around.

Pauline
10/22/2008 02:40 PM
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yankeegranny,

ISC oownes Martinsville (ie NASCAR/France family owns it).

jim
10/22/2008 03:34 PM
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nascar has no one to blame but their selves, they have driven away more fans over the years with this circus!…

Rosemary
10/22/2008 03:50 PM
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What I noticed Sunday was a man on a mission handling a racecar around the paperclip turns like it was child’s play. He raced a difficult track like he owned it, and if you all had been following him too, you would have seen an exciting race. Oh, the driver’s name? Jimmie Johnson.

tom1194
10/22/2008 06:31 PM
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nascar has my vote for lost causes. dump the top 35 rule, dump the chase or give the chasers a different scoring method. start sending some of those big teams home when they are not in the fastest 43. dump the impound rule. dump the restrictor plates or dump Dega and Daytona.

Dennis
10/23/2008 11:11 AM
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Why does NA$CAR think parity is exciting. I like the challenge that comes from “creativity”. So a team or manufacturer dominates for a while. Soon the others tweak some R&D and they improve.

Look at Toyota, say what you will, but now it is like our welfare state. Rather than allowing the other teams to get more out of their engines, NAS$CAR slows down Toyota.

They should call the COT, Matt Hasselbeck, because it can’t pass.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Did You Notice? ... Drivers Still Make A Difference... But Silly Cautions Don't
Did You Notice? ... NASCAR's Free Agent Lynchpin, Uncomfortable Reality And Gambling
Did You Notice? ... Toyota Trouble, Limping Into Action And Testing The Waters
Did You Notice? ... Keep On Asking, And You Will Receive A Qualifying Sigh Of Relief

If you want to know more about Tom Bowles or to view all of his articles here at the Frontstretch, check out his archive and bio page.

Want even more Tom Bowles? Check out Tom's archive at SI.com.