The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Pending NASCAR Divorces, Pre-Inspection Silliness And Chasing TV Viewership by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday November 17, 2010

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Did You Notice? … Besides the Chase, there’s plenty of other associations coming to an end this weekend. Before we take a look at that championship, here’s a look at the other important storylines and likely divorces headed your way:

The final race for Kurt Busch and Miller Lite. Five years into a Roger Penske partnership, Busch and one of the sport’s biggest sponsors part ways while capping a underachieving run that yeah, kind of leaves that bitter beer taste in your mouth. Considering the giant hoops both parties went through to find each other – Busch opted out of his Roush contract a year early, narrowly avoiding a lawsuit and endured months of negative press – this marriage started off rocky and never did quite reach the heights of the mid-1990s, when Rusty Wallace won 10 races per season and challenged Dale Earnhardt for the title in 1993-94.

Instead, Busch has eight wins total during his tenure along with 37 top-5 finishes in 179 starts. Now, he’ll switch to Shell/Pennzoil while the beer glory (and hopefully not the gut) transfers over to Brad Keselowski, he of two top-10 finishes total in Penske Cup equipment. With Budweiser aligning itself with a possible Cup champion in Kevin Harvick next year, might you think the expectations for the now-reigning Nationwide Series champion would ratchet up a bit? Getting flipped by Carl Edwards isn’t the only publicity that new sponsor is going to expect.

Elliott Sadler’s recent pole run at Texas was one of a very scant few bright spots in his tenure with Richard Petty Motorsports.

Elliott Sadler’s last race with RPM (or whatever it is now). Newer NASCAR fans might not remember Sadler’s move to the No. 19 was a bit of a coup when it occurred in 2006, the last nail in the coffin of his former Robert Yates Racing team that would cease to exist as we knew it two years later. A three-time Cup winner, Sadler was expected to catapult a team which struggled with Jeremy Mayfield back into the Chase-making powerhouse it was in 2004 and ’05; instead, he dropped into a ditch the likes of which even the likable Virginian could never dig out. He has more years in the car (five) than top-5 finishes (four), bottoming out with just a lone top-10 result this season while never seriously contending despite everything but the kitchen sink being thrown at the program.

The defining moment came in June 2008, just days after he signed an extension to stay with the team; that weekend in Dover, he started an ugly crash that took out a quarter of the field, angering Tony Stewart and shocking sponsor Best Buy executives in town to see the race. Just eight months later, owner George Gillett was trying to break the contract and force him out, causing Sadler’s smile to be replaced by a bunch of lawyer phone calls, an arranged marriage, then a near-miraculous Daytona 500 victory in February ’09 before a yellow flag for rain came one lap after he lost the lead. That was the proverbial stake in the heart, the start to a confidence-destroying slump that’s been equivalent to playing out the string for two seasons. At least in Sadler’s new home at Kevin Harvick, Inc., he can come to work every day assured his crew actually wants him in the car.

The last race for Richard Petty as a car owner. Speaking of RPM, this one’s not set in stone, but Petty’s future in the sport is open to question. Right now, the bank account’s a moving target of red ink in a world where there isn’t a whole lot of green to pass around. We’re not talking a $5 donation per crewman to keep the King afloat; how about $50,000 apiece, and even then, 1,000 donations might not be enough to repay debts that in some circles have been estimated at up to $90 million left behind by Mr. George Gillett and company.

At 73, you have to wonder if Petty’s better off as a consultant of sorts, a castoff in a world where country club businessmen in suits hold all the keys to the castle he built. Will it be a giant loss if The King doesn’t return in 2011? Of course. Was it going to happen sometime in the next couple of years anyway? Yes… even the greats reach retirement age someday. And will NASCAR look at this dismantling of a four-car program as a major wakeup call? I hope so.

The “RPM in limbo” also makes me hesitant to write about the finale of one Marcos Ambrose at JTG-Daugherty Racing. Chances are, despite the hard feelings over the Tasmanian’s announcement he just wasn’t feeling the No. 47 anymore, know that desperate people do desperate things – especially when there’s a contract once written which puts Ambrose in the seat for 2011. A.J. Allmendinger has a future in open-wheel if this RPM deal falls apart, but I don’t think Ambrose wants to head towards a second option – Australia – this late in the game, which thickens the plot for what the future of his soon-to-be-former team and signed 2011 driver Bobby Labonte may hold. With Petty looking to put a deal together with Toyota, this one could get really juicy once the holidays come ‘round in mid-December.

Jeff Gordon’s final race with DuPont as the major sponsor for almost all the races. Sure, it’s not like the paint and chemical company is disappearing completely; we’ll see them on the No. 24 car over a dozen times in 2011. But their departure signals a greater transition, the loss of yet another full-time, longtime sponsor who can’t pay the rate Hendrick and the other top NASCAR owners now require in order to compete. Looking back at February 1998, only eight primary sponsors remain from that era now who put their logos on almost all the races: Budweiser, Caterpillar, Cheerios, DuPont, Lowe’s, Mobil 1, Miller Lite, and Pennzoil.

Of those listed, DuPont, Mobil 1, and Budweiser will scale back next season, with Cheerios and Caterpillar not rumored to be far behind once their deals come up for renewal post-2011. My friends, that’s not just a minor problem … it’s a major one. Although I will give DuPont this much: the way in which their driver’s been treated down the stretch of the Chase, between the pit crew swap and being asked to be Jimmie Johnson’s personal on-track assistant at Talladega, they could be figuring out a way to bail at the right time.

Sam Hornish, Jr.’s final race in NASCAR. Sure, Hornish has said and done all the right things while suffering through another mediocre season at Penske Racing. But with no sponsorship in place for 2011, the surge of momentum heading to open-wheel and Verizon boosting the funding within Penske’s IndyCar program, why would he not give “that other series” a serious look? There’s also Panther Racing, holding an open seat while GM has announced a return to Indianapolis for 2012 … how much more prodding does the poor man need to check his ego, admit his mistake and move on? The numbers through three seasons in stock cars are borderline embarrassing with championship talent; two top 5s, eight top 10s and just 55 laps led in 107 starts. Sure, Hornish can test the free agent waters and hope some middle-tier team will be in need of his services, maybe over in the Nationwide Series. But if it’s not happening in what’s equivalent to top-tier equipment in the sport, will it ever?

Verizon’s final race with a NASCAR team. Justin Allgaier’s once stepping-stone ride is now drying up for good, the talented Nationwide sophomore headed to Turner Motorsports while his multi-million dollar backer gets “locked out” at the Cup Series door through the exclusivity of title sponsor Sprint. Sure, the phone network had found creative ways to get the word out that they were backing Brad Keselowski’s No. 12 on the Cup side – the company sponsored in-car camera shots on FOX, among other initiatives – but the refusal for Sprint to allow their logos on the car certainly carried some weight in their decision to squeak out NASCAR’s back door. The new “AAA” Pony cars may be nice, but it’s a major league sponsor we’re talking about here with major league marketing expectations they could never realize… except they can do the same over on Penske’s cars in the IndyCar Series. Can you say momentum swing?

Did You Notice? … How the three Chase contenders were inspected nearly two weeks before their cars came to Homestead? What, are they just going to rubber stamp them in pre-race inspection down in Miami? How in the world, unless you impound the cars, are you going to run that type of inspection and then trust your results weeks before the car actually comes through the gate at the racetrack? Even if you put some sort of label on the car to track it, these teams made it to the last race on top for a reason: their creativity and ingenuity in the shop while putting together chassis that consistently straddle the line. You don’t think they might make modifications between Phoenix and Homestead, possessing the intellectual capability to skirt around and “modify” chassis in the next week if they so choose?

Kevin Harvick already knows a thing or two about the strange pitfalls of NASCAR inspection, with teammate Clint Bowyer penalized 150 points after a template violation following New Hampshire. Would NASCAR dare to make the same type of call again after pre-inspecting the cars weeks earlier?

It makes for a cute PR story, sure, but I highly doubt the other two competitors are breathing easy knowing their rivals have been “inspected” so soon. And it’s all a moot point, anyway; if the championship car was deemed illegal in post-race, could you imagine the outcry from the fan base and the garage in such a scenario? If you think the ratings and negativity are bad now …

Did You Notice? … Speaking of ratings, the Phoenix ones were pretty important in that their drop of 24 percent was consistent with other Chase races across the board. Sure, we’re in the throes of one of the most exciting points races in history (and I’m fully on board with it; I may dislike the Chase, but you race with the system you have in place, right?) For fans disgusted with the current playoff format, though, they’re making their voices heard with remotes that clearly indicate no type of “nail-biting finish” will keep them watching when Kevin Harvick, in their minds, is the “regular season” champion that would have already clinched Sunday at Phoenix.

Right now, the top three rated Chase events nine races in are the following:
1) Charlotte – 3.2
2) Talladega – 3.1
3) Texas – 2.9

To me, the explanation on each one of these is easy. Charlotte was the lone race on ABC, on a Saturday night where you didn’t have to compete with the NFL. Turns out moving these races to cable may have hurt more than anyone thought. As for ‘Dega, it’s a race with guaranteed passing, a nail-biting finish and all sorts of drama surrounding the “Big One” going in. The drivers hate it, some hardcore race fans hate it, but that’s the type of race which is a “must see” for even casual fans. AND in past years, it’s made the difference and clarified who, exactly, will come out the big winner in the points race. Finally, the show at Texas, to me, was boosted by the fact the end of the event had so much drama and excitement, those coming off the peak of the NFL schedule and into the 4:15 games might have snuck a peek and wound up sticking around for what, to me, was one of the top-5 races of the year.

Notice I didn’t mention the Chase in all this mess. People don’t tune in to see points dropdowns; they tune in to see side-by-side competition and individual storylines related to each race play out. I think all of us reporting — from television to us writers to radio to whoever — would do well to remember that as the hype of “Championship Weekend” turns up.

Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we go:

  • Think Mike Ford regrets talking trash before Texas? I certainly think Denny Hamlin does.
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s comments towards Lance McGrew this week sounded to me like a man who knows a divorce is imminent. But I think we all know keeping them together at this point just won’t happen.
  • I didn’t mention Scott Speed in my relationship-ending drama up top. But it sure doesn’t sound like Red Bull wants him to stay. Does the man have a Plan B?
  • In the midst of all the championship hoopla, let’s not forget Ford has won six of the last eight races at Homestead; it is called the Ford 400, after all. I see Matt Kenseth needing to end a winless streak, Carl Edwards coming off a win and Greg Biffle already earning two of his own in 2010. Rest assured, it’s no guarantee any of the three title contenders will win the race, let alone finish in the top 5.

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Wednesday on the Frontstretch:
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Beyond the Cockpit: NASCAR’s ‘First’ Female Doing More With Less
Hamlin, Johnson, Harvick – Pros And Cons For The Title Contenders
Mirror Driving: An End For Earnhardt, Celebration Station And Fuel Mileage Follies
Sprint Cup Power Rankings: Top 15 After Phoenix-2
Top Ten Ways Denny Hamlin Can Ensure He Wins The Championship
Carey and Coffey: You Can’t Have Two Things, Carl! What’s Up With That?
The Frontstretch Foto Funnies! Phoenix, November 2010

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Jacob
11/17/2010 08:03 AM
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Thom,

Finally, a good article exploring the talking points from multiple angles. Thank you.

  • Brad Keselowski is the perfect choice for Miller, after all, he drives like he’s drunk most of the time…
  • Yes, everything, except money has been thrown at the RPM entries over the last 5 years.
  • I’ve been saying it ad nauseum since the crisis began, but the Petty name doesn’t draw sponsors anymore. For me, it would be more sad to keep fielding back markers, than to fade into the sunset.
    The burning question, and one no long-term Petty fans want to answer it, is this: Is it better to have a #43 Toyota, or a retired Richard Petty?
  • Years before coming to na$car to drive for Penske, DEI tried to recruit Hornish. Back then, he said that the na$car season was too long for his tastes. He should have kept that attitude, and stayed in IndyCar, or possibly gone sports car racing, but the stocks are too much for him.
  • On the na$car and its inspection process, the comparisons between na$car and the WWE are becoming unfair. The WWE has 1000 times the credibility of na$car’s management. At least the WWE admits that the fix is in.
  • Hmmmmm…see I was wrong. In Kurt’s column last week, I predicted that the excitement at Texas would translate into only a 15-18% drop in the ratings for Phoenix. 24% drop-off? So much for the “a season’s worth of drama” and the “see, it’s not broken after all” arguments.
  • While keeping the 88 team intact would be a mistake, I would like to see what would happen if Lance were to be given a new driver. After all, we’ve been down the new crew chief road 3 or 4 times in Jr.‘s laughable career.
  • Scott Speed’s plan B should be cosmetology school, he certainly doesn’t have what it takes to drive cars fast or consistently so, at any rate.
Bill B
11/17/2010 08:19 AM
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Yes it may be time for Petty to retire. It is definitely time for Hornish to do something else (if he’s smart go back to Indy). And Scott Speed is getting what he deserves so good riddance. If you remember his attitude when he first came to NASCAR you will understand that sentiment. I believe he was quoted as saying something to the effect that “no one (already in NASCAR) can teach him anything”. Insinuating that he was such an accomplished driver and had so much talent that he didn’t need no stinkin help.

Randy,
The ratings only matter because television is what pays the bills (or lines NASCAR’s pockets depending on how you look at it). When internet contracts start paying similar amounts as tv then it will matter and they will get added into the “ratings”.
I still think there are a lot of people that dvr the race and skip commercials. They don’t get added in either nor should they because they aren’t subjected to the commercials. The ability to sell ads and generate revenue is the the only reason anything is on television. Believe it or not, they don’t broadcast entertainment for our benefit but for their own profit.

PCarp
11/17/2010 08:54 AM
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Thanks for noting that the 29 team has won the “complete season” championship. Great Job RCR!

Craig
11/17/2010 09:23 AM
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I hope Petty can find the funding to send Gillette packing, and start rebuilding that team. Make the name Petty Enterprises again. Sadly, the is the Gillette family’s mess and its taking good racing people with them.

Don Mei
11/17/2010 10:42 AM
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Jacob,

I’m usually in agreement with most of your comments on here; especially most of those that relate to you-know-who. (the five year old in the group) I do obejct to your comments about Scott Speed. Im not a fan of Speed’s by any stretch of the imagination but when people who have absolutely NO idea what it takes to drive a race car or motorcycle on a race track start making disparaging comments about a competitors ability it pisses me off. Wish I could take you a few laps around The Glen. I suggest you go read Teddy Roosevelts speech “the Man in The Arena’ before you make any more gratuitous comments about a drivers ability.

Don Mei
11/17/2010 10:47 AM
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The Quote I was referring to;

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

VolcanoNacho
11/17/2010 11:53 AM
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Kyle sounds like he has a lot of free time on his hands. Orange you glad I didnt say Banana.

Carl D.
11/17/2010 11:59 AM
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Jacob…

I usually agree with you as well, but I take exception to the comment about Keselowski. He has been a much cleaner driver this year, and given opportunities for some payback, declined to do so. Yes, he’s an aggressive driver. But I think he’s matured beyond being reckless.

Don Mei
11/17/2010 12:38 PM
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And you are our designated idiot. Have a nice day!

Gary
11/17/2010 01:49 PM
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excuse me but what’s a “Chase”?? I call it Nascar and Rick Hendrick presenting plain vanilla Jimmie Johnson kicking everyone’s butt — BORING!!!!!!

Johnboy60
11/17/2010 01:55 PM
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Maybe, just maybe, during the “off season” Randy and his alter-egos will find another sport that “they” are experts in, and leave us poor laymen alone!!
Good day my friends……..

GinaV24
11/17/2010 02:29 PM
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Tom, thanks for the good article. Even though Randy Goldman seems obsessed with stating that ratings don’t count, as you noted, a lot of race fans have indeed “voted with their remote”. Since there is currently on on-line streaming of the race feed, how else are fans following the race if not on TV? Personally I use trackpass (so I can find out what is going on with MY favorite since that’s what’s important to me. I liked this quote of yours in particular “Notice I didn’t mention the Chase in all this mess. People don’t tune in to see points dropdowns; they tune in to see side-by-side competition and individual storylines related to each race play out. I think all of us reporting — from television to us writers to radio to whoever — would do well to remember that as the hype of “Championship Weekend” turns up.” thank you very much. It is what has been lacking for several years in the race coverage on TV, no matter which broadcast team has it, follow the race.

Also for me personally, thank you for mentioning here how poorly Jeff Gordon has been treated by HMS. BEFORE there was Johnson, Jeff Gordon made HMS a force to be reckoned with. It’s a shame that apparently Rick has forgotten that and is willing to use Jeff as a support team to the 48. Plus Jeff won his 4 championships over a FULL 36 races, not this 10 race junk. The only 3X back to back champion in NASCAR is Cale Yarborough, no matter what NASCAR wants to sell me.

Carl D.
11/17/2010 02:31 PM
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I don’t know about the biggest “divorce”, but the biggest “trial separation” is the #48 team and their pit crew. Can they ever work out their issues and work together again? Will we see Chad and the pit crew on Dr. Phil? Stay tuned.

GinaV24
11/17/2010 02:36 PM
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sorry for the double-post — I wanted to correct my statement: It should have read:
Since there is currently NO on-line streaming of the race feed, how else are fans following the race if not on TV?

Jacob
11/17/2010 02:53 PM
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Don Mei: Thank you for agreeing with me (usually). In the matter of Scott Speed, we will have to agree to disagree. And not to snipe you, but haven’t I seen you post some disparaging remarks about Danica?
On the quote of Teddy Roosevelt, that is very eloquent, and worth remembering. Consider me admonished. By the way, I live very close to the Glen…

Carl D: I was actually trying to be funny about Brad. I guess it missed the mark. I actually believe Brad is a hard charging future champ, and probably the closest thing na$car has to an old school racer. Well I mean besides Mark Martin.

RandyG: I would point out that you are the resident troll, but it’s been said already. Instead, I will just point out how much it must piss you off to realize that even though I stopped watching the races, I still make more relevant, informed, and factual statements than you can manage.

Carl D.
11/17/2010 03:09 PM
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Jacob… No problem. We do disagree from time to time, but always with civility, like grown men (and women) do. I appreciate that.

Marshall G
11/17/2010 03:40 PM
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Re: the 88 team. What I would like to see for the final race is a last-minute swap…Jeff G. drives the 88, Junior drives the 24, and let’s see who finishes better.

I think we know the answer already.

Jacob
11/17/2010 03:42 PM
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Carl,

That’s the cool thing about 95% of the posters on this site. We can disagree about a topic, and still respect each other as human beings with no lasting animosity.
I just wanted to clarify my intent, because I definitely respect you (and Don’s) thoughts and opinions.

Don Mei
11/17/2010 03:57 PM
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Jacob,

I have never said anything disparaging about Danica or any other driver. Quite frankly unless I could handle an indycar or a nationwide car as well as she does, I would keep my mouth shut. Ive spent too many years on racetracks to be that foolish.

Don Mei
11/17/2010 04:01 PM
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Jacob,

If I run the October vintage event at the Glen next October, you should come by. Sometimes we do worker rides at the end of the day. Just for the record, the vintage cars use the long course.

Tim S.
11/17/2010 04:15 PM
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The statement about sponsors from 12 years ago is irrelevant. Drivers have a finite amount of time that they can compete. A corporate entity could theoretically have been on a NASCAR stock car since day one. Lots of those entities that still exist could have continued sponsoring entries in the Cup series if they hadn’t been priced out or forced out by exclusivity agreements.

VolcanoNacho
11/17/2010 04:17 PM
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@GinaV24,
I personally travel a lot and usually end up listening to the race on the radio. Sirius Satellite Radio does some pretty amazing things with Nascar (i.e. in-car audio of many drivers). I dont know the numbers, but I suspect a great deal of fans are getting their nascar fix that way.

The major flaw is that I dont get to see how hot Danica looks that day through the radio. Thats why al gore invented google, however.

Mïk
11/17/2010 05:18 PM
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@GinaV24 -Do you watch the race to count the butts in the seats? Do you see who wins or loses based on TV Ratings? Why should that matter to the average race fan?

As so eloquently said here, “People don’t tune in to see points dropdowns; they tune in to see side-by-side competition and individual storylines related to each race play out.” Anyone who doesn’t watch the race because the coverage sucks (40% ads, with added ‘screen fills’), or can’t stand the stupidity coming from the booth, follow the series the way I did growing up in the Pac Northwest; reading the media the day after…

You didn’t watch the attendence figures then, why now?

Mïk
11/17/2010 05:23 PM
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…and, Tom, just to be relevant to the article, Good points for this year. There’s a lot of fodder in this article, but isn’t it the same as last year? Some change position; some leave the sport; some get booted out; some arrive with much fanfare; and some sneak in the back door.

NASCAR may change, but the racing always remains the same.

Marybeth
11/17/2010 06:26 PM
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Dan Farkas in All Left Turns quotes Jr. saying, “I’ve got a lot of career left, and I’ll get back to where I want to be.”
“I didn’t know if I had what it took to go through the disappointment I had over the last several months, I was afraid I would crumble mentally with such high hopes and such marginal results. We’ve been able to stay positive. That’s a good feeling.”
This was easily the best article on Jr. in over a year.
I have said before & I say again, I do not believe that Jr. will be competitive as long as he is at HMS, no matter who the cc is. Have you ever heard of the 25/88 running competitively for a championship…?

)verra88ted
11/17/2010 09:17 PM
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MaryBeth have you ever heard of a Jr. fan who couldn’t think up yet another lame delusional excuse for Na$crap’s most Popular Loser. After Miami Jr. nation will have all winter to ponder their delusions, expect no change in 2011, meaning no wins.

Steve
11/18/2010 09:14 AM
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“People don’t tune in to see points dropdowns; they tune in to see side-by-side competition and individual storylines related to each race play out.”

Amen brother!!! Couldn’t have said it better myself. Getting the Chase and the points shoved down our throats week after week are causing people NOT to watch the races. When will Brian France get this. Its the closest title battle in year and nobody is watching. Shouldn’t that tell him something?

I read an article in ESPN that stated Edwards win on Sunday takes a back seat to the Chase. That statement basically sums up what is seriously wrong with the sport these days.

Dennis
11/18/2010 10:16 AM
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Something I haven’t noticed discussed regarding declining viewership is the ever changing paintschemes on the cars. It makes it difficult to tell at a glance who is racing whom on the track. For me, it creates less interest. I wonder if it’s affecting others the same way.

 

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