The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... What We Can Learn From Montreal, Sorting Out NASCAR PR, And Where's Father Time? by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday September 1, 2010

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Did You Notice? … How well-received the Montreal finish was for fans, competitors, and the packed house of 70,000 in Canada? So much has been written about the race itself, but for those disillusioned with the state of NASCAR this season, it’s important to understand why things went so well:

Mechanical attrition played a factor. For all the talk about the last-lap pass between Boris Said and Max Papis, this race would have been dominated by Marcos Ambrose if not for electrical problems that ruined his day. Then, Carl Edwards held the point, holding firm up front after the final round of green-flag stops before a broken track bar ruined his chances with just six laps to go.

It’s funny how a little luck turns a race from a runaway into a nail-biting finish. But what’s important to note here is how race cars actually broke down over the course of the 200-mile event. Racing used to be a test of both man and machine; now, it’s simply just men. In Cup races nowadays, the list of DNFs stems almost exclusively from wrecks and start and parkers; rarely is there the engine failure or suspension problem that happens to the leader, holding suspense in case one man runs out to a 10-second lead. Dominance like Denny Hamlin’s at Michigan or even Juan Pablo Montoya’s at Watkins Glen is never derailed by a faulty part – just a late-race caution for a hot dog wrapper that makes the pit crews, not the drivers, take center stage. Speaking of which …

There was just the right mix of driver and pit strategy down the stretch. As a man who’s traversed pit road hundreds of times the last four plus years, I have nothing but respect for the beauty entrenched within a 15-second stop. The men behind the wall are athletes of the highest caliber, often making a difference in an era where track position means more than tires, gas, or driving talent.

The tight confines and aggressive corners of Montreal’s road course put on a gem of a stock car race this past Sunday.

But with as much focus as the crews have gotten in recent years, the truth is no one tunes into a stock car race to see a tire changer determine the outcome. Quick show of hands: how many of you have gotten up and yelled at the TV screen during a green-flag stop? I’d venture to say that number is less than 20 percent, far lower than in a last-lap duel where your driver is running side-by-side, door-to-door fighting for a Sprint Cup win. Too often nowadays, the guys that roll the Goodyear tires make too much of an impact in a sport built on who has the fastest car at 200 miles an hour … not when it slows to a stop. It was refreshing to see passing, not pit crew precision, settle it out on the beautiful twists and turns of Montreal.

There was one notable exception, of course, as Robby Gordon’s fuel mileage strategy played enough of a role to add drama to the front of the field. Will he or won’t he run out of gas? That was the question; and how about the owner, making the call over the crew chief that eventually had him coasting to a stop instead of taking home the checkered flag? That’s the type of stuff fans appreciate. A guy taking a two-tire stop, then getting the clean air out front and pulling away from the field after running fifth all day? Great call by the team, but the fans are busy turning that television off.

Drivers were out there to win races … not championships. As the laps wound down towards the final green-white-checkered stint, let’s check out the top-5 participants fighting for the win. Robby Gordon… one-shot Cup driver, desperate for money to keep his team afloat without a primary sponsor. How desperate? He used Kevin Conway and a sexual enhancement pill partnership to lengthen the rest of his No. 7’s season. Boris Said? Winless in NASCAR’s top three series since 1998, searching for a Nationwide victory that could prolong his part-time career after suffering a near-fatal blow in pairing with a No. 26 Ford in Cup that ran like junk. Max Papis? Recently removed from his Sprint Cup ride, desperate to prove he belongs in stock cars after scoring just one career top 10 in a year-and-a-half driving the Germain Racing No. 13 part-time. Jacques Villeneuve? Displaced Canadian looking to reenter the public eye two years after an ugly bid to join NASCAR ended with him benched after a single DNQ in Daytona’s Gatorade Duels.

Only point leader Brad Keselowski (who wound up fourth) had a logistical reason to take it easy, bring the car home in one piece and not pull an aggressive challenge up front. And that’s the way it should be in this sport; there’s one or two guys in serious title contention late in the season, while the rest of the drivers find themselves fighting for what they’re supposed to enter the race for – to win.

Road courses equal no aero push. How many times did you hear the announcers mention aerodynamics over the course of that race? The answer is none … unless you’re referring to Joey Logano’s GameStop Toyota that looked like it had been hit by a meteor. Time and again, those cars made on-track contact and still were able to battle for position up front as if they haven’t skipped a beat. Could you imagine if the same bunch of ragtag sheet metal racers were running at Chicagoland? Just one nick to the right front corner, and they’d be on pit road about six times under caution with duct tape trying to fix the damage. The key to “Have at it, boys” is the cars being capable of both running side-by-side and sustaining the damage you earn by getting aggressive. Putting the ball back in the driver’s court on road courses, combined with the inability for aerodynamics to come into play does just that.

The underdog won. Said’s rags-to-riches Victory Lane story has been well-documented the last few days. But how about the team he was driving for? RAB Racing was start-and-parking just a couple of months ago, without enough funding to complete the distance and smothered under the competition of Roush, JR Motorsports, and the multi-car giants. But on this day, the No. 09 team had the ability to level the playing field on a road course, driver talent and not horsepower putting Said in the position to battle with more powerful opponents like Penske’s Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Inc.’s Papis, or even Braun’s Villeneuve (the top Nationwide-only program in the series).

Put Said in Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 36 on the Cup side, let’s say, and I guarantee you that victory doesn’t happen. The gap between the single-car vs. multi-car programs is just that much more pronounced … so much so you can virtually predict the order of finish by organization at the back of the field each week. Mixing it up a bit is key to promoting long-term fan interest.

Can we use this race to find the answers to a better NASCAR long-term? Absolutely. I just hope the new marketing heads pay attention before the trumpets of the Chase drown out the diamond in the rough that race really was. And speaking of marketing…

Did You Notice? … The new “integrated marketing communications program” by NASCAR? A lot of people are confused by what’s happening, so let me break it down in English.

There will be a new head of PR in 2011. Ramsey Poston, who’s served in some sort of managing director capacity for six years, will step down as NASCAR’s head of that department at the end of the year. Another familiar face, Jim Hunter, won’t replace him; the cancer survivor is now moving into a new role as Vice President of Special Projects.

What’s interesting is the initial buzz that NASCAR will likely hire from the outside for that position. Their tendency to do that is not unusual; Poston was not an internal promotion but came courtesy of Powell Tate, a communications and PR firm based in Washington, D.C. But whenever you hire from outside the organization, it showcases a strong desire to shift direction. It’s not outright admitting a mistake, but it’s obvious the organization feels it can do better in several areas.

NASCAR’s continual inability to fill seats is apparently starting to resonate within the sport’s management structure.

The sport feels a bigger need to sell itself. What “Integrated Marketing Communications” means to me is a merger between the Public Relations part of the business and their marketing arm. Remember, public relations people, in theory, are the ones who are supposed to shape the message of the sport. They answer to criticism, handle media inquiries, and are the first line of defense when it comes to damage control.

But with NASCAR’s profits slipping, an increased marketing arm tells me the sport feels a desperate need to get its message out there. After two decades of growth, selling themselves is now a top priority in the face of dwindling media coverage that could trumpet a turnaround in the sport. If the media’s not going to put a positive spin on it … why not have an increased marketing presence join with PR in trying to do it for you?

There’s still a lot of questions left to be answered as to how this new structure is going to work out. But it’s clearly a sign common for any business facing a possible loss in profit margins … you need to shift more resources towards marketing to help stem the tide of negative perception.

Did You Notice? … Let’s move to quick hits before we take off:

- I fully expect the Atlanta Labor Day Weekend crowd and attendance to be up. I felt last year’s race was outstanding, and a cutdown from two dates to one should pay off in a market where you need to make things special for fans to come out and play.

- I fully expect Jamie McMurray to score a top-5 finish this weekend and put the pressure on Bowyer. But don’t be fooled; remember the last time the RCR veteran won himself a Cup race? Richmond, May 2008. He’s making the Chase.

- There were no less than seven driver changes outside the top 35 heading into this weekend’s Cup race. What, are people offering higher start-and-park salaries or something? In the old days, that would be big news; but it’s hard to make a story of the underdogs if they’re all just going to run 100 laps.

- 54-year-old former champ Bill Elliott still trudges along, preparing for another qualifying attempt with the Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford at Atlanta seven years after “retiring” from NASCAR competition after Homestead in November, 2003. 52-year-old Terry Labonte will make yet another return to the Cup Series at Richmond, some four years after he told us he’d run his last race. Yet there are no full-time rookies (save Kevin Conway) on the docket for 2010 or 2011 in the Cup Series. Doesn’t it seem like the natural progression of drivers in NASCAR has completely stalled? I respect and appreciate these guys as much as anyone else, but Father Time comes for everyone – like it or not.

- If the Bleacher Report truly does have the scoop on Jeff Gordon not being sponsored by Wal-Mart, all of us in the national media should be scolded. And that’s not to demean the Report by any means; their ability to scoop a big story showcases their growth, as well as the changing landscape of media today. But for people that travel each week who got outscooped on a major story, developing for months with the sport’s biggest team? That’s bad.

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Kevin from PA
09/01/2010 09:34 AM
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I will forever believe there is a direct correlation between the decreasing rookie talent and the Cup invasion of the Busch / Nationwide series.

Compare the Cup rookies and Busch driving lineup of the late 90’s to the current status. Yes back then there were some drivers that were driving in both series. But at least a young and upcoming guy could still get a decent ride. Now all of the good rides have been stolen by the Cup guys and the upcoming youngsters are not getting a chance to show off their goods.

So once again NASCAR and yes the Owners are reaping what they have sowed. Good luck in 10 years when a lot of the current drivers start to retire (anyone seeing Jeff Gordon racing after 50? Jimmie racing after 45?). NASCAR and the Owners will have to bring up a lot of new drivers who won’t be ready for primetime in both the racing and fan recognition.

Steve
09/01/2010 01:39 PM
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I agree too that there is a direct correlation between a lack of rookie talent and the Cup invasion of the NW series.

Does anyone also notice that the more exciting racing is on road courses and short tracks. Both have tight turns that require heavy braking, and door to door racing. On the flip side cookie cutter and larger tracks spread the field and produce boring follow the leader parades all day. Just another good reason to bring back more short tracks in the Cup series.

Since that will never happen, I would love to see the Trucks or NW go back to all short tracks like they used to when the series started. It would do Nascar alot of good if at least one of their 3 top series did that.

Kevin in SoCal
09/01/2010 02:30 PM
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Go tell Matt Mclaughlin that road courses are exciting. He’ll laugh at you after he gets done yawning.

I for one love the road courses and would like to see one more in the already crowded schedule.

Dave
09/01/2010 03:30 PM
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This was a great article and I agree with you on all your points. I definitely think Montreal, along with Iowa should be considered to host Cup races in the future. It is disappointing there aren’t more young drivers progressing into the premier series. I do have hope that Allgaier and Dillon will have a huge impact in the sport down the road.

RamblinWreck
09/01/2010 04:25 PM
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Is not reporting the “Wal-Mart not to Jeff Gordon” story worse than reporting Harvick to leave RCR or Kahne to the #09 of Phoenix?

Randall
09/01/2010 11:13 PM
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I don’t worry about the lack of rookies recently. Look at Rookie-of-the-Years since 1999:
Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, JPM, Regan Smith, & Joey Logano.

They’re race Winners all, with the exception of Smith. You also have still active former ROY’s Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon. Also, look who came on during that time and did not win ROY:

Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, et al.

There’s been some incredible talent come around in the last 10-12 years or so, and those guys are certainly not ready to give up their seats. Rookie talent has always waxed and waned.

For every Richard Petty and David Pearson, there was Tom Cox and Woodie Wilson, For Every Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace, there was Ronnie Thomas and Ken Bouchard.

When there was an economic slowdown in the 70’s there was a rookie talent lull for a few years. We may be entering the same type of period now for a few years until the guys there now decide to give up their seats.

 

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