Thomas Bowles · Wednesday September 22, 2010
Did You Notice? … The disastrous drop in TV ratings at Loudon? I literally gasped out loud when I read the somber verdict from Nielsen and Co.: a 28 percent drop from 3.2 to 2.3, paired with a loss in viewership of 1.36 million people. In a world where we’ve endured a rainstorm of precipitous decline, those numbers were a vicious tornado of destruction, one that shattered any remaining fake glass windows of invincibility down in Daytona Beach. Over the past decade, that’s the largest drop in year-to-year viewership of any race that wasn’t affected by weather and postponed.
It’s a bittersweet moment, the realization off the heels of a sparkling Chase debut that the racing doesn’t matter if fans decide to tune out the playoffs altogether. Sadly, I had planned to initially start out this column by making a pact over the next nine weeks to you that I’d stop criticizing the Chase, not because I like it (I don’t) but because there’s no use whining about something that can’t be changed until the offseason. Based on Sunday’s product, I do believe that this year’s playoffs, while unwanted, will probably wind up being one of the most entertaining we’ve had during its seven-year run.
And if the on-track action’s going to be awesome, even if you don’t believe in the title format, the race is worth watching if only to be rewarded after a boring, uninspiring end to the regular season. It’s my job to cover the action from week to week, not become a two-month, continuous public advocate for change when there’s some quality competition that just went on three days earlier. I’ve made my feeling known about the Chase, as has the majority of the fan base. They can’t cancel the thing in the middle of September, I reckon, so let’s cross our fingers, hope for the best and see what happens.
Of course, in my life I’m forever bound to the sport, not only by passion but also a career choice – a major difference that came to light this week. Turns out too many are already deeming this marriage over, sending a subpoena with their remotes that after six years of a playoff format they don’t believe in, the divorce is moving forward and they’ll see NASCAR in the Court of I Don’t Care. Sunday was a watershed moment where 1.3 million dedicated fans – just think about that number for a second – bonded together to prove that point.
The sport has claimed in recent years to be open-minded in listening to teams and fans, between the NASCAR Fan Council and private town hall meetings to gauge how best to fix the sport. Well, there’s no more important time for the leaders to come together and fully understand the message the fan base just sent. For those blaming this mass exodus to be based on a transition from network to cable, consider this nugget: New Hampshire’s fall 2003 race, the last one before the Chase where Matt Kenseth was pulling away in the title race averaged a 3.0. Aired on TNT – a cable channel just like ESPN – that’s 23 percent higher than the rating NASCAR registered seven years into their “genius idea” Sunday afternoon.
Others may blame the economy. Well, I’ll tell you what a lot of unemployed people like to do when they’re sitting at home: watch television. Even if I believe every single word you say about how it’s affecting ticket sales, those numbers shouldn’t translate to a 28 percent drop on TV. And while the declines for other races were fairly significant, not one came close to the type of shift we saw between the end of the regular season and the start of the Chase. Never mind that every other sport in America, once they enter the postseason sees a significant spike in their viewership instead of fans running for the hills.
To me, the answer is alarmingly, frighteningly clear: fans hate the Chase to the point they’re just not going to bother being a part of it. Finally, they’re voting with their wallets, their voices, and their remotes – to the point where if that doesn’t cause the Chase to go bye-bye, doggone it, for the first time ever I fear the whole NASCAR ship might sink.
Here’s the best-case scenario going forward for NASCAR PR: 1) The Chase continues to provide us with high-quality racing at every track, creating buzz from now all the way until the final race at Homestead where someone other than Jimmie Johnson wins the title. 2) In December, the sport announces that despite a successful ending this season, the Chase system was futile and they’re either reverting to the old format or creating a new system that will develop a higher sense of urgency for all 36 races. 3) They announce an accelerated program to get the new Nationwide car into the Cup Series in order to produce brand differentiation between the manufacturers. So it’ll cost the top teams money – what do you have to lose at this point? There’s nothing but rich owners left.
Even with those three key developments, I still don’t know if that’s going to be enough without some radical change at the top. Could famous racing sons Tony George and Brian France be ousted less than two years apart? I still don’t think it’s likely, but considering this country is already revved up to be in an anti-incumbent mood, the chances are significantly rising.
One other thing to keep in mind before we leave this topic: ESPN’s continuous Chase self-promotion. They had drivers on Sportscenter this week, took the time to put out a Kyle Busch reality show and made a dedicated effort across the board to market the product – more than we’ve seen since 2007. The fact that hasn’t worked in their favor speaks volumes about the state of the sport going forward, and also brings greater focus to a faltering eight-year television deal for all three networks heading into the offseason.
Lots to keep an eye on here, folks. What NASCAR does in the next six months could affect their very ability to survive.
Did You Notice? … A sense of urgency coming from Kyle Busch in the Truck Series? Between his reality show and on-track incidents, he’s doing all the right things to keep himself on the radar screen and attract sponsorship for an organization that will shut down in 2011 without proper funding.
You can also argue that Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are performing the same service in different ways. Notice how often Gordon’s said he’s not retiring, that he’d like to drive four or five years over the past few months? Well, with DuPont possibly scaling back, that allows the team to sell his brand to a company that’s not willing to make a three, four, or five-year commitment without some sort of verbal assurance from Jeff.
And check out Stewart, the perfect example of humbleness and maturity moments after running out of gas on Sunday night. Some of that is definitely due to the once-moody driver growing up; but don’t discount what an angry, frustrating tirade would do to marketers already desperate to replace the races Old Spice is leaving behind in 2011. Considering Stewart’s 39, sponsors aren’t going to bite on a photographer punch, but on a guy who’s going after wins and developing into a NASCAR role model for younger drivers. That’s the only way for cagey veterans to make a living in a world where the almighty dollar rules the day.
Getting back to Kyle’s sense of urgency for a bit, his Truck Series escapades – while debatable – are the type of stuff we used to see in the sport’s top three divisions every single week. While marketing gurus, officials, and fans all come together in ways to define the sport, that to me is the key to bringing people back, capturing that sense of urgency and getting drivers to feel that from the moment they step in their car to the second they take the checkered flag. Then, and only then, will the product automatically improve in a sport where mental strategy can play a major role in how the quality of racing unfolds.
Did You Notice? … Speaking of searching for more manufacturer brand identity up above, wasn’t this year the one where Toyota was to come out and dominate the Sprint Cup landscape? After all, it took just three for Todd Bodine to win the Truck Series title in a Tundra, the same time it took for Kyle Busch to make the Nationwide Series his own personal playground with a Joe Gibbs Racing Camry.
Compared to those series, Toyota’s entering its fourth year in Cup, running behind its championship model they’ve set as a benchmark in the minors. But while Busch and Denny Hamlin are viable title contenders, they remain the only highlights in a season that’s once again been dominated by Chevrolet.
For proof, let’s take a look at some Bowtie stats in Cup:
Wins: 14 of a possible 27 (52%)
Laps Led: 4,100 (51.4% of a possible 7,976)
Top-5 Finishes: 72 of 135 (53.3%)
Top-10 Finishes: 136 of 270 (50.4%)
Chase: 6 of 12 drivers (50%)
Not surprisingly, leading the series in all those categories the actual manufacturers’ title has turned into a bit of a joke. They have a 32-point lead on Toyota with nine races remaining, virtually assuring them of an eighth straight Sprint Cup crown.
So what’s made the difference? Why has Toyota been unable to break through? It turns out in the lower series, where their money and research could still influence the quality of competition, charging in with extra resources has made a difference. But what Toyota quickly discovered in their move up to Cup is that the well-oiled, multi-car machinery of Hendrick, Roush, Gibbs, and Penske was light years ahead in both engineering and personnel.
The manufacturer tried their best to poach as many people as they could, with money and philosophy attracting a handful of gems the past few years: Brian Vickers, crew chief Pat Tryson, and GM Jay Frye among them. But in an example to show how much the Big Four are entrenched at the top (the fourth has rotated between Penske and Childress in recent years), the manufacturer could not gain any traction until they turned to Gibbs in a partnership that’s done wonders to save face. Keep in mind the team builds their own motors, apart from TRD in a mode all its own, a power that in a sense is greater than the manufacturer itself. If not for JGR, they would own just one win (David Reutimann) and have zero cars competing in the Chase.
I wonder if that’s why people don’t pay a lot of attention to manufacturers anymore. In a sense, the owners have become so powerful in their own right, the cars so non-definitive that getting a Hendrick chassis or Roush engine is more powerful than a Toyota motor. Boy, what the drivers from the first Daytona race in 1959 would say if they could see the sport now…
Did You Notice? … Instead of quick hits this week, we’re going to note some weird coincidences at the May race in Dover, as pivotal a race in the regular season as it was for the Chase. Consider on that day…
- Matt Kenseth finished third, finishing off a sizzling start where he had seven top-10 finishes, nearly won the race at Martinsville and landed third (yes, third) in the points. He’s had exactly one top-10 finish since.
- Denny Hamlin finished fourth, an important confidence builder that served as his first top-20 finish at the place since Spring, 2007. Hamlin has never finished in the top 5 in the Fall event.
- Tony Stewart ran ninth, his first top-10 finish in seven races after a slump that knocked him outside the top 12 in points. He would not finish outside the top 15 again in a non-restrictor plate race until Bristol in late August.
- Martin Truex, Jr. slipped after winning the pole, running 12th to sit on the Chase bubble heading to Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend. By the time he finished better than that again, it was 11th in Chicagoland and his chance to make the playoffs had long ago slipped away.
- Mark Martin ran 15th, just the third time in the last six years he’d finished outside the top-10 at the Monster Mile. It was the first real “Houston, we have a problem” moment for the No. 5 team, one that would continue even with a fourth-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600. Other than that performance, he’s had just one other top-10 finish since.
- Jimmie Johnson, in 16th, led 225 laps but displayed the type of uncharacteristic, mistake-prone race that we saw from him at times during the regular season. A pit road penalty derailed an otherwise winning car; will it happen again?
- Casey Mears ran 22nd, the first race Brian Vickers would miss after tests revealed a pulmonary embolism. Vickers would later have heart surgery, and his team would self-destruct into mediocrity as no substitute driver could bring his qualities of leadership.
- Robby Gordon ran 31st, the final race he’d be sponsored by the BAM Racing’s Warner Music Group in a faulty deal that wound up in litigation. He’s basically been operating with house money since, piling up debt we may never see paid off as the team slithers towards closing up shop.
- And finally, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ran 30th, complaining of a vibration when the team didn’t have any and jarring with Lance McGrew in a controversy most believed might get him fired. Some thought that with the team heading to Charlotte that May, Rick Hendrick would make a crew chief change that could serve to help propel this team into the Chase. He didn’t.
And look where we are now.
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