The Frontstretch: DYN? ... NASCAR's TV Nightmare, Sponsor "Sense Of Urgency," & Do-ver-die? by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday September 22, 2010

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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.

Though nearly 100,000 were reportedly in the stands for an exciting race at Loudon, thirteen times that many fans were absent from their TV sets this past Sunday.

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.

The 2010 Tony Stewart handled his shortcomings on Sunday far differently from Smoke when he first burst onto the Cup scene.

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.

Brian Vickers has been one of a handful of bright spots in a long list of Toyota personnel that have failed to live up to expectations across the board.

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.

Wednesday on the Frontstretch:
Beyond the Cockpit: One-on-One With Denny Hamlin, Primed for Title Push
Too Much Too Soon? First Chase Devolves Into Free-For-All
Mirror Driving: Jumping To Conclusions A Risky Move For Chase, Dale Jr.
Sprint Cup Power Rankings: Top 15 After New Hampshire
Top 10 Start-And-Park Explanations
Frontstretch Foto Funnies! Loudon, September 2010
Carey And Coffey: Do NASCAR’s Weekend Drug Tests Make Sense?

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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Robert E McIntire
09/22/2010 06:56 AM

If people wanted to watch IROC racing,IROC wouldn’t have gone away !

Bill B
09/22/2010 07:23 AM

Everyone knows the chase is sinking the ship but the one person that can fix it thinks it’s more important not to admit he made a mistake.

09/22/2010 07:42 AM

Brain Farce is a mistake!!

09/22/2010 08:16 AM

Didn’t watch or record the race. I am a fan from the late 60’s watching snippets of coverage on The Wide World of Sports- I am 49 years old. I long ago stopped watching nationwide races due to how they screwed up that series. I have stopped attending Sprint Cup races several years ago-because the racing was too boring. Where Sprint Cup races were “must see TV” for me-I would plan my weekend around the races-I started taping them to watch at a later time and so I can fast forward through the ridiculous amounts of commercials. Then I found myself recording the races and, as often as not, not even bothering to watch them. Now I am just done. I was out of town at a funereal this weekend-didn’t bother to record the race, didn’t check on the race via the internet, nothing. Brian France, through his stupidity, and dumb decisions has ruined the sport. NASCAR, France family-I am done. No more NASCAR for me.

09/22/2010 09:01 AM

I dont watch nascar anymore because of one word…commercials….who the hell wants to watch a program where it seems like more time is spent on commercials than the actual program!!!!!If they would just go to split screen and show both,I would bet my house that viewership would go up….

Kevin from PA
09/22/2010 09:31 AM

I made this point once but it is worth pointing out: NFL ratings have not dropped and in some cases are up. So any excuse given involving external factors has to be thrown out the window.

Personally I think drop in NASCAR ratings is due to a a double hit. NASCAR picked up a lot of “me too” viewers in the late 90s and early 00s. Brian made a lot of changes to appease and keep these cool and trendy viewers. However the next big thing came along so they came; they saw; they left. At the same time, the changes turned off the old fans. So they left as well.

So here we are wondering what the heck happened.

Sherri T
09/22/2010 09:53 AM

I think that the Chase is part of the reason for the loss of viewers, but if you compare the TV coverage now with some coverage even 8-10 years ago, you’ll start noticing that the newer directors seem to come from a crop of ADD sufferers. I would like to see fewer commercials, but I would also like to see more racing. Watching one car in frame doesn’t constitute watching racing. Watching only 2 cars in frame doesn’t constitute racing! If you can see actual racing going on – which means seeing cars IN CONTEXT against other cars! I would like to see more wide angle action that actually stays on the action until you can see your favorite driver’s position and how the action is proceeding around him. You know, kind of like actually being AT the race? What a concept!

Don Mei
09/22/2010 09:55 AM

Nice try Goldman; do you spin for politicians at your day job? The ship is sinking and the captain and officers are on the bridge oblivious to the icebergs.

09/22/2010 10:09 AM

I hear Randy Goldman sucks at Fantasy football.

09/22/2010 10:13 AM

BORING!! The commentators are trying to make it sound like its really a close race when it really is just follow the leader until about the last twenty laps. Hardly ever watch anymore and have not gone to a race in two yrs.

09/22/2010 10:27 AM

Did anybody notice that once again a small team (whitney) was fined a large amount of money and had a large amount of driver and team points taken away. Funny how it’s the small teams that get hit with these penalties. And yes, the chase was a big mistake from the beginning. nas$car is not a stick and ball sport and in it’s idiotic actions set itself on the road to self distruction. ‘nuff said!!

09/22/2010 10:33 AM

For the first time since I was a boy when I “ saw it on the radio “ with Petty and others I decided to tune out the race last Sunday. There will be no Chase watching in my house.If there was a Ford Focus and some Nissan Sentra racing for 500 miles without cloned drivers I would tune in. Nascar needs to die before it can get better or be reset back to 1969.

09/22/2010 10:37 AM

Tom, you hit all the points that fans have been making over and over, but no one listens. Personally I think the fan council thing is a joke — I just saw the Fall newsletter from them and according to their survey — all the fans love the chase, think the sport is going in the right direction and all is right in Baby France’s world. Funny thing – that’s not how I’ve responded when asked about those things in the survey.

Based on the ratings, I’m guessing that I’m not alone. I’m not going to sit around wasting a beautiful weekend day to watch the product that is currently being put out there as a NASCAR race – sounds like I’m not alone.

09/22/2010 10:50 AM

Can’t Emperor Brian be suspended for “actions detriMENTAL to the sport?”

09/22/2010 11:14 AM

Minnesota Twins clinched their division with 11 games to go. Major League Baseball has to do something about that.

July 2, 1963
San Francisco Giants vs Milwaukee Brewers
Juan Marichal vs Warren Spahn
Giants won 1-0 in sixteen innings on a homer from Willie Mays.
Both starting pitchers finished the game.
Marichal threw 227 pitches.
There’s lots more to watch than the over-hyped and under-loved chase.

09/22/2010 11:38 AM

I come right here to get my Nascar news. I don’t watch it on television, listen on the radio, or read I watch football on the weekend and may take a peek at the race during halftime if there isn’t another game on at the same time. The nascar telecasts are pathetic, full of commercials, and the commentators are awful. I haven’t been able to give up the sport completely, which is why I do come here to get the race recap and commentary but the day is fast approaching when I won’t care. I’m one of the long-time fans who pines for the old championship format, the old-style cars, and team ingenuity. When the sponsors starting running the sport, the fans starting running in the opposite direction. Enjoy your money today, France family, because it won’t be around for long.

09/22/2010 12:00 PM

How do they count TV audience? I switched between baseball, football and Nascar and enjoyed all 3.
Chevy is 1st because Nascars cash cow drives a Chevy. Unfortunately, the other 5 Hendrick Chevy drivers are better.

09/22/2010 12:17 PM

Race fans don’t have to stop enjoying racing. There is a local track nearby that would love to have you in the stands and at a reasonable price. Being a race fan isn’t limited to being a NASCAR fan. Try it, you might like it.

09/22/2010 12:17 PM

Is it any wonder that IBPN’s coverage had a 28% drop in viewership? Among all the other things NA$CAR’s gotten wrong, IBPN’s coverage is disjointed, confusing and obviously geared towards the ADD set. The coverage is hard to watch, there is no flow or continuity with the way the coverage jumps around. Perhaps NA$$$$CAR needs to not be so greedy and instead of auctioning off TV rights to the highest bidder and just pick one for a more reasonable sum of money we wouldn’t have 3 1/2 hour long commercial fests with race updates. Getting sick of it.

09/22/2010 12:30 PM

For most of it’s history , the car manufacturers were every bit as important as the drivers names . Ford vs Chevy vs Mopar was what brought fans to the races . NASCAR made a determined effort starting in the ninetys to focus on pretty boy drivers and push the make of car into the background . And that lead us to the COT and the Nationwide COT with different grills .
Of course in the old days most of the cars and engines in the field were built by a handful of people . Holman Moody built the majority of Fords and the engines in them . Most Mopars were Petty derived , either Petty cars or ex Petty cars . There were also some very talented car builders like Bud Moore , Banjo Mathews , Cotton Owens , etc.
Toyota took a while to gain a foothold in NASCAR . But they build extremely strong race engines ( not quite as good as Gibbs , but very good ) and they have a very good chassis and aero program . Only a couple of Hendrick teams run very well , so it’s a lot more individual teams needing to catch up than it is Toyota needing to catch up .

09/22/2010 12:36 PM

@DonnieAjax: Now that’s funny right there!

09/22/2010 12:39 PM

Some new fans might think short track is a smaller line of coke.

Kevin in SoCal
09/22/2010 01:21 PM

Tom said: “If not for JGR, they would own just one win (David Reutimann) and have zero cars competing in the Chase.

I hope you’re talking about this year, and not overall, because Reutimann has two wins, and Brian Vickers has a win for Toyota in cars other than from JGR.

Randy Goldman said: “Do I have to have a Neilsen box?

In a word, yes. If you dont have a Neilsen box, then whatever you’re watching is NOT being counted for ratings purposes. A few random thousand people have ratings boxes in their home, and whatever they are watching is recorded as a ratings point. Then they extrapolate that data over the rest of the country. For example, of 50 out of 3000 people are watching a certain show, then 5,000,000 out of 300,000,000 people in the United States are probably watching the same show.

09/22/2010 01:48 PM

racing is terrible at the “cookie cutter tracks” and equally as bad at Loudon, Chicago, etc…the only entertaining races are at Daytona, Talladega, Matinsville and Bristol…AND I WORK IN SPORTS MARKETING!

09/22/2010 01:53 PM

I, too, used to tape the races. even if I was watching the race, I taped it for all time. My family knew that if there was a race on, I wasn’t going anywhere! Much of my week would then be spent re-taping the past weekend’s races to edit out the commercials. Every week my 4 1/2 hours of racing becam 2 hours and 20 minutes of racing. AND THAT WAS WHEN I DIDN’T THINK THE COMMERCIAL COVERAGE WAS TOO MUCH!!! Since, the TV consolidation deals, increased commercial interruption, and Brian France’s complete ineptitude, I rarely ever turn the race on anymore. I leave the leaderboard at NA$ running on my computer so that I can check it once in a while, but I find other things to occupy my time.(NO!!! I will not pay for NA$CAR’s racecast services, I just leave their free leaderboard running) NA$CAR is a dinosaur, Brian France is the asteroid, and the fans have sought shelter from the impending disaster. On the bright side, I have many races from the past 25 years to watch when I get nostalgic for real men racing fast cars.

Richard Newton
09/22/2010 02:17 PM

The commercials are bad enough but we have all the paid product mentions during the broadcast. Sunoco gasoline and Goodyear tires. In the NFL they just call it a football. In MLB baseball it’s simply a glove. NASCAR isn’t real TV – it’s an infomercial.

09/22/2010 02:28 PM

One word explains it all GREED

Gasp Watcher
09/22/2010 04:21 PM

Did Brian France gasp?

09/22/2010 05:29 PM

Richard , the constant on air commercials for the fuel company was started by Mike Joy a number of years ago . He , and the other announcers apparently get paid by the fuel company to mention the name as often as possible during the broadcasts . In fact , it’s been suggested that they get paid per mention . I often wonder if the camera crew and director are getting paid as well . We sure seem to have a fuel company’s sign or logo convienently in the background of race shots and interviews . As has been said many times about this issue , there is very little integrity in the broadcast booth . Although i’ve noticed that the current booth , Andy and Dale at least hardly ever mention products by name . Not all of them are greedy i guess .

09/22/2010 05:40 PM

I think the fad of NASCAR is gone with many casual sports fans. It’s hard for a NASCAR race to compete head on with big 1pm NFL games. I think the sport drew a lot of causal fans after the death of Dale Sr., and they have gone. This exposes the alienation of traditional fans. NASCAR needs to get back even more to basics. Junk the Chase, and give Southern fans a peace offering (Nationwide or Truck at Rockingham or 2nd Cup date at Darlington).

09/22/2010 06:02 PM

NA$ is reporting that Bowyer has had 150 points docked and his crew chief suspended for 6 weeks for failing post race inspection at Loudon.

09/22/2010 06:51 PM

Last year when MM & JJ had illegal cars in the chase, neither of them were fined 150 points or cc’s taken away…?
Funny how after Mark decided not to step aside out of his seat for KK, he is suddenly finishing laps down…?
When Nascar has had enough of low ratings they will buy out Jr.’s contract and put him with an owner that wants him to win.
“…jarring with Lance McGrew in a controversy most believed might get him fired.” That is a good idea! Jr. should try it and keep it up until he gets fired. I have thought that he should wreck JJ or JG every week until Rick fires him. Then he can go to an owner who wants him winning for a change. :)

09/22/2010 08:58 PM

Na$crap wants to institute “elimination rounds” in the 2011 chase. Apparently they started in early, Clint Bowyer is OUT!

09/23/2010 01:00 PM

So if Nascar went to an elimination, would that mean Jimmie Johnson would be out this week?

Nascar would probably just penalize everyone ahead of him to ensure that he stays in it.


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
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Did You Notice? ... Toyota Trouble, Limping Into Action And Testing The Waters
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