The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... How Michigan Saved Itself, Ringers Unemployed, And Fixing Mark by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday June 16, 2010

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Did You Notice? … How Michigan’s attendance for the June race increased by 5,000 between 2009 and 2010? It’s an interesting twist during a year of continued attendance declines, especially considering the state unemployment rate, as of March 2010, was hovering just under 15 percent.

What gives? I think there’s a bit of a pattern we can detect on the heels of Charlotte having the same type of healthy crowd. In both cases, there was a major rivalry occurring mere days before the race: Hamlin-Busch for CLT, and Harvick-Logano packing a punch at MIS. The additional press of DeLana’s “I wear the firesuit in my family” T-shirts certainly helped spread the word something big might be going down at the speedway this weekend as well. And while the first 90 percent of NASCAR races still often leave something to be desired, the last 10 percent have been significantly improved this year. It’s that type of highlight reel action, especially in the last month, that’s enough to make casual fans turn their heads and say, “OK, we’ll head back to the racetrack after all.”

While far from a sellout, Michigan saw a small bump in attendance that may well be attributed to the late-race antics of Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano.

Not only that, but while I think there’s far more than the economy causing the recent downturn in attendance, MIS has been extremely sensitive to conditions in the area. Prices were slashed anywhere from five to 63 percent, including letting children 17 or younger into the stands at half price. That reduced general admission for them to as little as $12.50, with the adults’ minimum price set at $25. Compare that to Bristol, let’s say, where the lowest single-day walk-up ticket price was a shocking $93.

The Speedway also made significant improvements, spending $50 million on a better media center, a brand new set of suites, and a grandstand filled with wider seats, replacements anywhere from two to four inches larger. Add in a dedicated commitment to improving traffic, which sources say was better than ever last Sunday, and you’ve got a facility that’s creating a positive impression inside and outside the community.

Too bad the racing itself left a lot to be desired, something that ultimately will determine the future of putting fans in the seats. But you’ve got to give MIS credit, especially considering the tenuous position they were in just a few months ago. Once considered on the short list of possible tracks losing a date to Kansas next season, a source tells me the focus within ISC has now shifted to Phoenix and California, with Michigan and Martinsville not out of the woods but “all but safe” with two dates in 2011.

Both those tracks accomplished that goal in different ways: Michigan with capital improvements, Martinsville with the quality of racing. Now, if only they’d put two and two together … each one would be one of the top facilities we’d visit each year.

Did You Notice? … How road course ringers are finding it harder than ever to slide into rides in the Cup Series? Notice that missing from the entry list this week is longtime ringer Ron Fellows, on track to miss his first Infineon race in nearly six years. In his place steps just a small handful of drivers: Jan Magnussen (No. 09), Boris Said (No. 26), Brian Simo (No. 36), and Mattias Ekstrom (No. 83), stepping in for Brian Vickers. I’m not going to even count P.J. Jones as a fifth, because we’re uncertain whether the car is going to run the full distance (it hasn’t in the past).
That’s a rather small list on the Cup side, half the amount that entered this race five years ago. Gone are the special road course teams put together for men like Said and Scott Pruett, designed to focus on just Infineon and Watkins Glen.

What’s caused the change? Part of it is money; teams just don’t have the extra cash to float around, paying a ringer for a one-race deal and in some cases putting together an extra team with the sponsorship and pit crew needed to compete. There’s also no incentive for Hendrick, Roush, Penske, et al, to field extra teams for research and development when there’s no road course within the 10-race playoff. Compare that to the Nationwide side, where rides could be bought for a dime-a-dozen these days and, to no one’s surprise, over a dozen ringers are entered in a race where only a handful of teams even worry about the championship.

There’s also the simple matter of on-track success on the Cup side. For the ringers, it’s harder than ever to step into the Car of Tomorrow and adjust in the course of three days. Unlike five or six years ago, there are also fewer opportunities for guys to step into top-tier equipment, reducing the ability not only to win, but earn a top-10 finish. Since the Car of Tomorrow came into existence in 2007, ringers have scored just one top 10 since at Infineon (Said, ninth with his own team that first year). More notable have been their epic failures, even pre-dating the CoT. Fellows finished 37th for Cal Wells in ’06, running a specially prepared car that cost the team hundreds of thousands of dollars and continued their downward spiral out of the sport. Last year, Said was blamed for being too aggressive, causing several incidents on the track en route to finishing 24th in the underfunded No. 08 car.

It all adds up to an environment that’s anti-“ringer” right now. Certainly, a solid run by someone like Magnussen or Ekstrom, both making their Cup debuts this weekend, would work wonders in changing things around. It’d be nice to see them have good runs and put some new faces in a running order that’s been increasingly predictable in 2010.

Did You Notice? … Everyone’s trying to figure out what’s wrong with Mark Martin? With just one lap led the last 10 races, he’s yet to earn a podium finish this season and sits a precarious 12th in points. Certainly, as I mentioned in SI earlier this week the distraction of the Kasey Kahne situation is clearly bothering him. But the more you think it through, he’s probably the best example of how racing has become so technology and simulation-based.

Mark Martin’s ability to make a difference on the track is being countered by Hendrick Motorsports’ increasing reliance on computers to set up their race cars.

People think at 51, Martin can provide the answer to virtually any chassis problem. Unfortunately, using computers to set up your cars, something Hendrick specializes in more than anyone else, takes the driver out of that equation more than ever. And if you get to the track with your software off-base, there’s just not enough practice time to get caught back up, no matter how knowledgeable the man behind the wheel might be. I don’t think it’s a matter of Martin losing a step; it’s a matter of technology getting in the way so he can’t make the team’s lost step back up.

That’s why I’m paying particular attention to this new chassis Hendrick is bringing out for the No. 5 car this weekend, one that hasn’t been tested or raced. You’d have to think they’re going to be more aggressive in the coming weeks, with Martin’s place in the Chase hardly assured. And will they make some changes to help tinker with the chemistry, after losing engineer Chris Heroy and mechanic Kevin Hulstein to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.‘s No. 88 team?

It’s a tricky situation, with five teams within 107 points of Martin for that 12th and final Chase spot. You don’t want to get too aggressive with changes, but at the same time, this season is reminding many of Matt Kenseth’s difficult spring and summer last year. At the time, no one believed the 2003 champ would miss his first ever Chase, and Roush chose to stick with the game plan. The result? 2009’s Daytona 500 winner ended Richmond on the outside looking in.

No doubt Hendrick has studied that history, leaving the next month a crucial time for Martin and his team. And that’s not even mentioning what happens for 2011, ’12, and beyond…

Did You Notice? … Some quick hits before we go…

- Honestly, the command to start engines by Kevin James and Adam Sandler was the worst one I’ve ever seen. It makes the vuvuzelas at the World Cup seem bearable; is that the reason Sandler hasn’t made a good movie since 1998? I know it’s a polarizing topic, but count me on the side of “please don’t do that again.”

- Not to be a marketing stooge, but for my take on Sunday’s debris caution (and Mike Helton’s Race Hub comments) check out my weekly mailbag I do for SI tomorrow. Short answer: there should be no instance, ever, where national television doesn’t show the debris that causes the caution. That should be mandatory; and in the final 25 laps, unless it’s a giant spoiler in the middle of the racing groove or oil sprayed every which way on the track, you don’t pull out the yellow flag. Only wrecks – like the Scott Riggs one at Phoenix – should cause the late-race restarts we’ve been seeing virtually every week. NASCAR needs to stop acting like an overprotective father when it comes to safety … yes, Tom Logano isn’t the only one.

- Here’s an interesting factoid: Of the top 12 in Sprint Cup points, only Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Mark Martin have won at Infineon. Among those winless include four-time reigning champ Jimmie Johnson, who has yet to score a victory on a road course, period. It just goes to show you when it comes to winning a title these days, you only need to turn left, not right. More and more, based on the current point system I would love to see a road course in the Chase to shake everything up, making it a true test of driver ability on every type of racetrack.

- A few statistical quirks 15 races into the season: Carl Edwards has as many laps led as Paul Menard (two); Kurt Busch has two wins, six top 5s, and nine top 10s while neither one of his teammates – Sam Hornish, Jr. and Brad Keselowski – have finished higher than 11th; Scott Riggs has finished more races (one in one start) than Joe Nemechek (zero-for-14 … and counting).

- Casey Mears’ removal at Red Bull Racing was still up in the air at press time. My first thought: can you blame them? No top-20 finishes + wrecking your teammate = recipe for a quick fix, soon. When the permanent driver (Scott Speed) calls you out … chances are as a temp, you’ll get the ax.

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06/16/2010 06:22 AM

I never liked the idea of using road course ringers to begin with so I am happy to see that the race teams are finding out that “ringers” are not worth the effort.

06/16/2010 07:17 AM

“In both cases, there was a major rivalry occurring mere days before the race”

Tom – Who buys tickets to a race the day before? or the day of?

06/16/2010 07:43 AM

“Gentleman, Start your engines” was past horrible. Please, don’t let that pair of fools anywhere near a race track ever again. And as far as putting a road course in the Chase; never. That has to be the worst type of racing there is; even more boring that Michigan, if that is possible. As far as Mark Martin, I thought they had switched the decals on the 5 and 88. Now I find out they switched personnel. Wow, what a difference; JR has a car he likes two weeks in a row and Mark has the crap car.Might Mr H be putting some pressure on Mark as to the 2011 season situation?

Carl D.
06/16/2010 07:58 AM

I’m with DansMom on this one… I don’t think the Harvick-Logano tift made much of an impact on attendance at Michigan. The capital improvements were probably more of a factor, but considering that the race was 400 miles of nap-inducing boredom, I’m reminded of the old adage about lipstick and pigs.

06/16/2010 08:01 AM

I have never had a problem with road course ringers! When I first started watching NASCAR in the early 60’s, my favorite driver was Fred Lorenzen in the #28 Ford preparedby Holman-Moody. When NASCAR went to Riverside Raceway for the first 500 miler of the year in January of 1963 (which was actually the second time they raced a 500-mile race there. The first time was in 1958!), Ralph Moody decided to pul Lorenzen out of the #28 and stick Dan Gurney in the car. Lorenzen ended up driving the #21 Wood Brother’s Ford. If you know your history, you know what hapened! Gurney won the race. In fact, he won again in 1964, 65, 66, and 1968, but those wins were behind the wheel of a Wood Brother’s second entry. So you see, road racing ringers have been around for quite a while!

(I apologize to DansMom for this posting! I know she know’s nothing about NASCAr as a whole, but also thinks that NASCAR didn’t exist before 2001. And she also hates the true history of the sort! But then again, maybe she’ll learn something about the past, and might, just might, appriciate the sport more! Then she can write with some authority.)

Kevin from PA
06/16/2010 08:41 AM

Guess I am in the minority but I always love watching the road ringers. Sort of mixed things up for 2 weeks of the year. And it always made the race interesting to see if they could win (normally most of them would lose not due to skill but due to being paired with a poor pit team)

And truth be told – most of the ringers had 100x the personality of the normal Cup drivers. Something to be said about a hungry driver trying to make a mark versus a multi-millionaire in the third year of his 5 year contract.

Guess this is just yet another tradition gone forever….

06/16/2010 08:59 AM

I have never bought a race ticket in advance. We go to Dover twice a year and buy them the day of the race. Sometimes we buy them from someone selling them on the side of the road but lately we can just walk right up to the ticket window and get one of the best seats in the house.

Jesse L. Medford
06/16/2010 09:29 AM

Great Read.

I don’t agree with MIS attendance going up due to rivalries though. I think the attendance went up because 2009 was so terrible for Michiganders.

I really enjoy watching the road course ringers, and I find myself rooting for them. I love watching the two road course races and think that Sonoma should be in the second half of the chase.

I didn’t like the command to start the engines. It was funny, but inappropriate. Those guys did better jobs in previous commands. I like exciting commands over boring ones, but Kevin James’ high pitch was rediculous.

06/16/2010 09:34 AM

Annie… you are definitely in the minority. Most Nascar fans buy the same seats year after year, months in advance.

06/16/2010 10:10 AM

More people are able to buy tickets the day of the race because alot of fans are not renewing their tickets to watch this outstanding product (sarcasm) so there are tickets available on raceday.

06/16/2010 12:40 PM

I can guarentee you that if you were to poll the people at the race you would find that most of them purchased tickets weeks, if not months in advance.

I will agree that the loss of attendance makes it easy for the casual fan to walk up the day of the race and get a ticket. That might be good for Nascar though. They are able to attract new fans. It sucked when I first started going to races having to fight for tickets months in advance.

06/16/2010 03:45 PM

I think Mark’s problems run very deep. Or is it very high? You don’t go from running top 5 and top 10 week in and week out to bringing 15th to 20th place cars to the track every week because the driver is a year older. My guess is that Rick Hendrick wants Mark out and Kasey in sooner and not later. More sponsor dollars in Kahne, I suppose. From a business perspective it makes sense. That’s how the rich get richer. Or is Alan Gustafson on drugs? I didn’t think so.
I wouldn’t blame it on Goodyear or the spoiler either. The change from the wing to the spoiler didn’t make enough difference to matter, and the new tires Goodyear has been bringing have received mostly good reviews from what I have heard and read.

I wish I lived closer to Vegas. I would have found a way to bet big $$ that Mears was not going to make it at Red Bull. If it isn’t clear now that Mears isn’t cut out for Cup series racing, then let the next sucker hire him and pay the price.

I thought the command to start was ridiculous. Slightly over the top..

I like what MIS did to the their facility. I can only hope Auto Club Speedway is smart enough to make similar improvements in the grandstands. They definitely have enough space to spread the fans out and give them a little elbow room, which is at a premium now. That would help bring some of us back. We’re not sardines.

high hp
06/16/2010 04:41 PM

I agree with gopapa Mark d hi

I agree with Gopapa, Mark didnt forget how to drive, his cars are absolute crap. Hendrick has given the store to Junior at Mark’s expense. Now they dont care because they want Kasey in the car. Very classy!!!!
06/16/2010 05:42 PM

When teams are guaranteed to qualify, they don’t need to hire a ringer for a race. Plenty of the teams that aren’t top-35 have hired road racers for the weekend, and the only team inside that did was firing their interim driver anyway.

06/16/2010 07:40 PM

I read somewhere that since Tony Jr. was making Jr.‘s car with 2007 DEI specs last year, Mark’s car was made with the 24 & 48. This year the 5 & 88 are made in the same garage. I have noticed that all of Jr.‘s new cars this years have been unrace & untested. I also read somewhere that since windtunnel testing is so expensive that none of the HMS cars are tested in the windtunnel now. A slow cash flow.

06/16/2010 07:42 PM

I think the Red Bull would find that they could learn a lot with Kenny Schrader in the 83 as the fill in driver.

06/16/2010 08:48 PM

So I guess your saying that last year Hendrick gave the store to Martin at Jr’s expense. Unless your unaware your comment works both ways. Give Jr Gustafson and it will be a complete reversal of fortune. No offense intended for Martin I think he is as good as any out there.

06/17/2010 12:12 AM

Yes now that Hendrick has Mark and Jr in the same building and the crews working together Jr is doing better. How long did it take everyone to figure out Rick didn’t hire Jr to win races, he just wants to make it off the most popular driver. He don’t care if Jr ever wins a race, Jr is footing the bills for Rick with all his share of Jr’s endorsements. Jr needs to get out of there and be his own boss. You can see how well his Nationwide cars run and he don’t need Rick. Rick should be ashamed of himself for taking advantage of Jr like he has! He even snookered Jr into giving him a share of Jr Motorsports,,,,,as if he needed it. Yeah he does, for the control! Just wish Jr would leave there and be his own man!!!! Go JR. Jr nation is still behind you strong as ever.

06/17/2010 03:07 PM

“I don’t agree with MIS attendance going up due to rivalries though. I think the attendance went up because 2009 was so terrible for Michiganders” AMEN TO THAT BROTHER As for the command—-it beats the Hell out of some lame baggage boy saying it without any feeling at all.


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... A Return To Richmond, Post-Spingate And Quick Hits
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

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