The Frontstretch: Did You Notice?... Martinsville's Second Swan Song?, Silly NASCAR Warnings, And Roush On QVC? by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday March 31, 2010

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Did You Notice? … Martinsville’s finish was one of the best we’ve had in the past several years, causing longtime fans to breathe a little easier about its future?

I wish I could say I’m with you on that one.

Certainly, if these decisions were based on racing alone Martinsville would be assured a second date forever. But as we all know, businesses don’t survive without making money, and with profit margins down at ISC that’s going to become more of a focus than ever before. This much we know for 2011:

- Kansas Speedway is on its way to building a casino that would make ISC plenty of money (opening by 2012). – With the casino nearing completion, that cold, hard cash is enough to give them an automatic second date – no matter how good or bad the racing is at the speedway. – The current Cup schedule won’t expand beyond its current slate of 36 races.

With those thoughts in mind, it’s clear someone’s going to lose a race when the schedule is set for 2011. And with NASCAR’s shaky truce with SMI’s Bruton Smith, you can be sure adding an ISC date won’t come at the expense of any of his tracks. Don’t expect independents like Dover, Pocono, or Indy to lose a date either.

So who’s at risk from the pile of ISC tracks? It’s a “race” (and not the good kind) between Phoenix, Michigan, Fontana, and Martinsville. You would think, considering Fontana’s usual snoozers versus the type of competition we saw on Monday, Martinsville would have knocked itself down to the bottom of the list.

Instead, it worked its way back towards the top. Attendance for Sunday (hard to compare rainout numbers) was listed at 58,000, roughly 7,000-9,000 short of capacity. That’s the smallest crowd for the half-mile oval since ISC took it over in 2004. And if you want to look at the ugly rain-delay numbers … they’re even worse. Officially, the count was posted at 40,000 but reports from the track claim that number seems slightly inflated, with 30-35,000 a more realistic total.

The grandstands at Martinsville this past Monday much resembled those seen at Fontana last month, and did little to take the historic paperclip off the bubble of losing one of its race dates.

Those numbers pale in comparison to the “72,000” that Fontana was able to attract this Spring (a number also in quotes, as many claimed it was drastically overinflated). So on pure numbers alone, even though Martinsville sold out a higher percentage of its seats (roughly 85 to 90 percent) Fontana has a much greater ceiling in terms of overall capacity. Add in the fact it’s close to a major market, and you can make the argument that when the economy recovers, the track’s got greater potential to make more money. (Remember, these folks in business suits ignore things like “side-by-side racing” and “tradition.” After all, those ugly Lexuses they’re driving don’t get paid with ‘historic significance.’)

“No way!” you say. “More fans watch Martinsville compared to Fontana on TV. It’s simply not possible for NASCAR to make such a ridiculous move.” Ah, but here’s another dirty secret: Fontana’s TV ratings are actually higher. Check it out:

Spring Fontana Race Ratings:
2007 – 6.7
2008 – 6.2
2009 – 6.0
2010 – 5.0

Spring Martinsville Race Ratings:
2007 – 5.3
2008 – 5.3
2009 – 4.6
2010 – ???

Shocking, but true: from 2007 through 2009, Martinsville ratings were 22 percent less than Fontana’s, the second race of the season. For the hardcore fan, this freak of nature has a simple explanation: Fontana always carries with it the momentum generated by the season’s highest-rated race, the Daytona 500. But again, these men in suits don’t have time for explanations. Their flight to Jamaica is running late, and they need to make the Tiki Bar by 7:00.

“But you don’t understand!” you’re saying, now slightly deflated. “The ending of that race was enough to make them reconsider!” Hmm… have any of you forgotten how the last Rockingham race unfolded? Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne came to the line side-by-side, producing a finish that was almost too close to call (Kenseth won by a nose). In fact, two of the last three races at the Rock were instant classics like that – but in the business world, that didn’t matter. Those races are gone.

Remember the final Southern 500 in 2003? Terry Labonte pulled off the last win of his career, fighting through a race that featured 24 lead changes (the most there since 1996). The fall race the following year, moved to November, set another standard with 27 lead changes, won by Jimmie Johnson after a thrilling late-race battle with Jamie McMurray.

The next year, that fall date bit the dust.

So I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but in a business sense Martinsville hurt its chances to keep both its Sprint Cup dates in 2011. But before you go scream/cry/throw obscenities at me, take a deep breath … there’s hope. Both Michigan and Phoenix (along with Fontana) are undergoing economic evaluations by the ISC, and both have been hit hard by the current economy. Pulling a date from Phoenix would make the most sense tradition-wise (they’ve only had a second date since 2005) and their seating capacity of 77,000 doesn’t give them much upward potential. As for Michigan … well, they could be the true wild card. Attendance badly slumped last year, as has the quality of racing, not exactly an easy sell for fan disinterest combined with an unemployment rate approaching 25 percent. So by no means is a Martinsville date loss set in stone … it’s just not completely out of the question. And that’s a shame.

I’ll close in saying losing a date at Martinsville would crack my heart in two, as it would with many fans on the circuit. I don’t (and won’t) have the luxury of walking away if that happens, but I can certainly understand how for many that follow this sport that’s the final straw. Which is why I leave NASCAR with this quote from Michael Phillips:

“Money will come to you when you are doing the right thing.”

The right thing is to keep two dates in rural Virginia.

Did You Notice? … Jeff Gordon trying to snooker the field on restarts? The way he was choosing to step on the gas was the opposite of smooth, equivalent to a little brake check road rage in front of you on the highway. In my opinion, his struggle to get up to speed at the right time during the green-white-checkered finish opened the door for Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, and Denny Hamlin to take their shots in a race that should ultimately have been Gordon’s to win.

Jeff Gordon’s conduct at the front of the field on Monday was called into question by a number of competitors, but hardly seemed to draw even a raised eye from NASCAR.

But what really bothered me is an incident early in the race where Gordon jumped the start. Following a caution on lap 70, the No. 24 got so far in front of the field with his acceleration pattern he was already five car lengths ahead by lap 71. NASCAR’s response was to “warn” Gordon about how he conducts himself in such restarts in the future, a move which might have played into the funky way he did them the rest of the day.

Some will say that message had the desired effect, ensuring Gordon didn’t snooker the field and break the rules when it counted the most. But did teammate Mark Martin get a “warning” when an air hose violation was discovered in the pits? Did Dale Earnhardt, Jr. get a “warning” for speeding on pit road last week? It’s not like Gordon’s a rookie here … he knows how to handle himself on restarts. So in my opinion, anything less than an outright penalty on the track for that type of stuff is unacceptable.

NASCAR wonders why it’s accused of playing favorites. Well, the second they say the word ‘warning,’ they leave themselves at risk for that very criticism.

Did You Notice? … Attitude can be everything inside the race car? Mark Martin and Kurt Busch both suffered through two major problems Monday. For Busch, his team chose to keep him out on old tires under an early caution flag, leaving him a sitting duck for the pack behind him on fresh rubber. In Martin’s case, it was that air hose penalty which left him 22nd with just 125 laps to go.

Two drivers facing adversity … two different reactions. For Busch, the poor decision led to an angry tirade on the radio, throwing him off his rhythm and easily into the clutches of his competitors around him. Second on lap 175, he was ninth by lap 200 and never so much as sniffed the top 5 the rest of the day. Eventually, a loose wheel dropped him three laps off the pace, killing momentum from an average finish of 1.5 these last two weeks and causing Busch to wonder aloud, “Why do I even try at this track?”

In contrast, Martin’s approach was to buckle down, take a deep breath and focus on fighting to the front. On lap 375, he was 22nd; 75 laps later, he was seventh and heading towards a certain top 5 finish until a bout with the outside wall ultimately sent him fading to 21st. During that time, the 51-year-old never complained, never screamed at his crew for causing him hardship … just chose to give nothing less than 110 percent.

People say sports is just as much mental as it is physical. Need any more proof?

Did You Notice? … A very unique way in which Roush Fenway’s selling sponsorship? Found on allleftturns.com, you’ve got Sean Pragano, PR director for Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s No. 6 Ford, attempting to sell sponsorship through a television format similar to QVC. The video’s well worth watching; it’s certainly a hilarious, creative way for potential backers to take notice of the up-and-coming 23-year-old (although in my opinion, it does start to run a little long).

There’s just one part where the sell gets a little tricky; when you get to the part where you give out Stenhouse’s actual results (not mentioned in the QVC catalog). Because after all, aren’t businesses interested in the bottom line? So far this season, the rookie has crashed in every one of his four races, posting a best finish of 25th, 33 laps off the pace. That puts him behind such household names as Josh Wise, Eric McClure, and Willie Allen (who has one less start this season). If there’s any consolation for Stenhouse, teammate Colin Braun has also yet to score a top 15 finish so far this season, putting the duo in Jack Roush’s doghouse before we’re even close to the Dog Days of summer. And considering the amount Roush Fenway charges a potential sponsor, those are the type of finishes that could make sponsors go with one of those underdogs at a bargain price instead.

So Nashville now becomes a crucial race for both men, especially considering Roush is funding half their programs out of pocket. If another bad day forces both to qualify on speed going forward (they’re right on the cusp of falling outside the top 30) you wonder how committed Roush will stay to funding both programs for the full schedule. Because when Mr. Roush doesn’t call the QVC line back … then you know you’ve got a real problem.

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Kevin from PA
03/31/2010 11:24 AM
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If Brian France was in charge of other sports:

There would be 2 football teams in LA: The LA Packers and the LA Saints (do you really think Mr. France would have waited 5 weeks let alone 5 years before moving the team?)

Wrigley Field would have been torn down and replaced with a multi-functional facility in the Chicago city of Kenosha, WI.

My point is that sometimes tradition and the betterment of the sport should take presidence over increasing the almighty dollar.

And isn’t strange that every time NASCAR makes decisions based on the “business” and not the “Sport” – business actually suffers as well as the sport.

Carl D.
03/31/2010 12:47 PM
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It’s not that I don’t agree with you, Thomas… unfortunately, I do. Still, when a cookie-cutter racetrack gets a race date because of a casino, and one of only 6 short track races gets cut as a result, well then you might as well stick a fork in the sport.

Kevin
03/31/2010 12:47 PM
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I maintain the position I’ve held for a while now. With nascar’s “back to basics” attitude of late, trying to reclaim more of their traditional fan base, I think they realize that taking a date away from Martinsville now would completely devastate that plan. I was also encouraged by ISC’s announcement a while back that they are evaluating the three tracks you mention—and Martinsville was not among them.

Finally, I think that attendance number is actually very good when you consider the circumstances. Going into Sunday, it was a near certainty that the race would be cancelled, and I think most people were aware of that. The rain also had to hurt walk-up ticket sales as well as last-minute sales in general (we knew as early as Friday that the race probably wouldn’t be on Sunday). But in spite of that, we still had a crowd that close to capacity? That is pretty remarkable! Remember that it is wise to look beyond just the numbers.

RamblinWreck
03/31/2010 12:54 PM
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Tom-
NASCAR seems pretty consistent to me in always giving a warning to the leader for pulling cheap restarts… and unlike pit rules, the restart rule isn’t a safety rule, but a competition one that should enforce itself once other drivers realize that Gordon is well-known for his restarting, um, prowess. I can’t think of a time when NASCAR has given the black flag to the leader in a case like this, though; perhaps it hasn’t been necessary? I suppose if the tower thought it was a really bad restart, they would have waved it off, as that does happen from time to time.

Kevin from PA
03/31/2010 03:00 PM
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Wasn’t there a race about 8 – 10 years ago when the officials waved off the restart because the leader kept trying to slow way down and then accelerate once he saw the flag?

wcfan
03/31/2010 05:21 PM
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Rusty was black flagged (late in the race) back in the day 10-12 yrs ago at a short track (it was a monday race) and it cost him the race.

Marybeth
03/31/2010 06:58 PM
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“So in my opinion, anything less than an outright penalty on the track for that type of stuff is unacceptable.”
Perhaps JG’s penalty was when Kyle spun, instead of letting JG go another 100yds. and get the win, they threw the white flag right away. Jr. wasn’t just warned, he was sent to the back of the pack. That is the penalty.

clfenwi
03/31/2010 07:43 PM
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Re the TV ratings, California has an advantage of falling in a quiet period as far as sports go (Winter Olympics years, notwithstanding). Martinsville, on the other hand, competes against the NCAA tournament. Because of that the Martinsville race has few of the casual viewers that California gets.

mkrcr
03/31/2010 08:36 PM
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The only reason Fontana gets higher spring numbers is inflated anticipation of a good race after Daytona. After all, it is the second race after the winter layoff.

Bill B
04/01/2010 11:13 AM
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LMAO
Edwards didn’t get a penalty for purposely wrecking Kesolowski but now you expect Gordon to get a penalty for a questionable restart?

Pass that thing over this way please.

Steve
04/02/2010 12:49 PM
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There was a race last year in which Jimmie Johnson jumped the restart completely (he was not the leader and beat the leader to the start finish line when the green came out) and was not penalized. This was late in the race as well. Do you expect Nascar to penalize Gordon for that?

 

Contact Tom Bowles

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