The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Split-Screen Cheering Gone Insane, NASCAR David Beats Goliath And Too Much Parity by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday May 18, 2011

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Did You Notice? … Three days after Dover, and all we can talk about is NASCAR’s decision to allow split-screen commercials? Like a network War of the Roses, mere days after FOX one-upped ESPN with their own experiment the “Worldwide Leader In Sports” unveiled a specific side-by-side plan they’d been working on for months.
In reacting to this stuff, fans have been hitting the Twitterverse, Facebookland, and whatever iPhone app they fancy nonstop, pulling a virtual rushing the basketball court as if they’d pulled off some sort of major upset. I think that’s the most interesting thing, if you’re NASCAR to take from this phenomenon, the degree to which they made fans excited by actually listening to them. Think of all the issues people in the stands feel slighted on these days: Ticket prices. The Car of Tomorrow. The Chase. Losing that Kasey Kahne commercial with the Allstate girls. Gaining that NAPA Nasty Commercial with Michael Waltrip’s… you get the picture.

I think that’s why fan reaction to this stuff has bordered on the overblown. When you knock, knock, knock on the door for years, only to get ignored and pooh-poohed by the butler there’s a sense of utter elation once the door opens. Because let’s put this adjustment in perspective, people; side-by-side commercials and racing are nothing new. IndyCar, NASCAR’s badly beaten rival has used them for several years now and where are the ratings? Last time I checked those Nielsens, somewhere between Sumo Wrestling repeats and the 2011 U.S. Bocce championships.

Thanks to the newly announced NASCAR NonStop, you’re less likely to miss things like this in the second half of this year’s Chase races on ESPN. But is it really all it’s cracked up to be?

Don’t get me wrong; I do understand the magnitude of this change for racing fans. For the first time ever, you won’t have to worry about the Talladega “Big One” happening on replay, missing a lead change or seeing a camera shot of Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick when they’re within 100 car lengths of one another. Having worked as an Associate Director in television, I can tell you there’s nothing more frustrating than having to go to break and knowing something important is going to be missed; NASCAR has that problem often, because you can’t just tell sponsors paying millions of dollars you’ll “get to their commercials later.” Kudos to those companies for realizing fans will appreciate them more if they leave racing on screen.

But there’s a dangerous trap to be laid there; remember those IndyCar ratings I mentioned? Fans are not going to turn to a race like Dover’s and keep watching if the racing is little more than a single-file parade. Three hours of boring racing on screen is even worse than two hours, forty-five minutes: the only thing happening there is more people lose money. And trust me, folks, as much as you want to believe a sport “heeded your call” this side-by-side deal has been something networks have been trying to push for years. Only when the TV ratings got to a certain point, when the profit margins started declining were more “creative” ideas waged in an effort to bring fans (and advertising dollars) back to the table. So voila! Suddenly, side-by-side is back on the table because it’s an innovation they hope will lead to more commercials, more advertisers and better Nielsens to make money.

Heck, I’m all for that, and I’m sure you are too; all anyone wants to see is more racing. But at its core, the key to fixing NASCAR’s long-term future lies in competition, fan outreach and developing future stars. The split-screen is nice… but it’s little more than a consolation prize in the grand scheme of things. Let’s not lose sight of that.

Did You Notice? … The following stats:

One driver has one win, two top-10 finishes and is 29th in series points this season. His team is owned by a Colorado businessman, runs as a single-car operation with 64 employees and gets its engines, chassis, and pit crews from other suppliers.

One driver has zero wins, zero top-5 finishes and just one top 10 this season. With only two laps led, he sits tied for 27th in points despite being part of a multi-car operation that has hundreds of employees, three primary sponsors in the $15 million range or above and two teammates that have seriously contended for Cup championships.

Get the answers? It’s Regan Smith and Joey Logano, two drivers on two wildly divergent paths. One is continuing to overachieve, making the most of underfunded equipment after being left for dead after DEI’s funding fizzled in 2008. The second driver was Joe Gibbs Racing’s solution at the time, passing over Smith during Tony Stewart’s rushed departure in favor of promoting what Mark Martin entitled “the next great driver” of his generation a little early. “Sliced Bread” was supposed to be slicing up the competition at this point, a soon-to-be 21-year-old taking the Jeff Gordon route towards a title while Smith; well, the way things were going that guy wasn’t supposed to have a ride.

But in May, 2011 both drivers have career numbers closer than you think. Both have one win, and Logano holds just a slight edge in laps led (91 to 31). Overall, Logano has ten top-5 finishes compared to one for Smith but considering he’s been racing two-plus seasons, that average is hardly Chase or championship caliber. And you wonder, if given the type of equipment and opportunity that Logano had instead of being forced to rebuild if Smith would actually have outperformed his rival. Consider the Furniture Row operation was being rebuilt from the ground up when he went there in ’09, scaling back to part-time before bursting back on the scene.

Who would have guessed three years ago, when Logano was tearing it up in Nationwide while Smith’s claim to fame was a yellow-line miscue that it was the twentysomething DEI driver from upstate New York who’d be the better choice. But considering where things are right now with Logano, if Home Depot had to do it all over again would they really head down the same path?

On the record, they’ll never answer that question but it would be interesting to see what they’d say off it … especially if Logano’s struggles continue well into Sprint Cup’s summer months.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off:

- First Kimi Raikkonen, now Josh Richards; and by the looks of it, Kyle Busch was involved in a bidding war for both. Is that what earning rides has come to now? Sponsorship allows you to hold an auction for your services? Not that either driver doesn’t deserve an opportunity; I just remember when getting a chance was based on merit and merit alone.

- A quote from Jimmie Johnson’s teleconference today on the difficulty passing, not just at Dover but everywhere:

“I could be wrong, but I don’t think that the aero situation has changed the importance of track position. To me, it’s competition-related. It’s the fact that these cars are running the same speed from first to 35th, that gap is smaller than ever. The top 15 cars, the pace the leader runs versus 15th, is tighter than ever. So that, to me, is why track position is more important. It’s not necessarily the aero of the car. With the nose changes that have been made, we’ve been able to get back the balance. We’ve been able to get the numbers back to where they were, if not better than last year’s cars. So, it’s not really that, it’s more that the competition is so tight. We’re all running the same speed. If you get stuck in dirty air, you can’t pass because you’re all running the same speed.”

It’s the second time since Sunday (Mark Martin) I’ve heard that bantered around, that there might be such a thing as too equal in the sport today. Let me explain: if cars are all running the same speed, the tires aren’t falling off and everyone’s running virtually the same equipment (see: CoT, draining engineering creativity) how the heck are you going to pass people these days? That’s the problem with enforcing a generic product: you limit the ability of people to separate themselves.

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Wednesday on the Frontstretch:
What If… Some Fun Possible Scenarios in NASCAR
Mirror Driving: Tire Rubber Slicks, Empty Seats and Picking on Probationers
Beyond the Cockpit: Travis Kvapil on Bad Luck, No Luck, and Making His Own Luck
Sprint Cup Power Rankings: Top 15 After Dover
Top Ten Ways Recycling Your Cell Phone Can Help Sprint

Gambling On A Pair

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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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Carl D.
05/18/2011 08:00 AM

I understand Jimmie Johnson’s complaint that there’s so much parity it’s hard for drivers to complete a pass. I’m not saying he doesn’t have a valid point; he does, but the alternative is what you see in the Nationwide series, where there is no parity between the double-dipping Cup drivers and true Nationwide teams. The series is dominated by only a few drivers, and the true Nationwide teams are only racing for the best-of-the-rest title. So I’m sure Jimmie Johnson would love it if guys like Reagan Smith and Trevor Bayne weren’t so damned competitive.

Bobby O
05/18/2011 08:08 AM

It’s called spec racing!

05/18/2011 08:14 AM

The split screen is nice but it does not address the real issue. Do away with tight camera shots of a single car; camera shots that keep jumping around; limited coverage of the entire field and idiots in the broadcast booth, then we might be making some changes I can live with.

05/18/2011 09:09 AM

I’m not throwing a party yet because of split-screen commercial breaks. I remember when TNT first did them, they ran so many side-by-side breaks it became more of a distraction and defeated the purpose it was intended to provide, because it seemed they ran them every 5 minutes. What guarantee have we gotten that won’t happen this time?

05/18/2011 09:38 AM

split screen means nothing to me. i already watch nearly all the ever dwindling number of nascar races i can stand on DVR. I’ll be back when the “product” aka racing is better.

on a side note i postulate the largest problem with commercials is that there are more commercials produced than there are available talented writers.

Bill B
05/18/2011 10:09 AM

The only thing the split screen does is allow a fan to feel LESS like they are wasting time watching a NASCAR event. The commercial percent has gotten damn near 50%. At least this way I will feel less like I am wasting 2 hours every week to see 2 hours of racing. I doubt that there will be a quantum leap in ratings but, it certainly won’t hurt ratings.

05/18/2011 11:21 AM

I agree, the side by side WAS a big surprise and probably done by Fox to one up ESPN, but as you pointed out, the bigger issue is the “problem with parity” and what it does to the “fun” factor of the race.
We had tickets to Dover – we didn’t go. Partly because I thought it was going to rain, partly because last year in the spring all I wanted to do was find a place to lay down and take a nap – yes, the event cuz I can’t call that follow the leader junk a race WAS that boring.

I don’t plan to renew the tickets for this event next year. If we decide to go, we’ll do it last minute – based on what I’ve seen at the last 4 or 5 races there – getting a ticket won’t be an issue.

NASCAR has become the IROC series — how well did that do in the ratings?

I drive on a major interstate every day — believe me, there is more exciting driving going on than I’ve seen at the tracks lately.

Glen H.
05/18/2011 12:03 PM

Of course you have parity in NA$CAR. When you have three owners (Childress, Hendrick and Rousch) supplying cars, engines and engineering to about half the field and all the cars have the same shape and tires, they’re all going to run the same speed.

What NA$CAR needs to do is get the cost of building a car back down to where the average team can build their own. If they made the cars fit templates that also fit street cars (with some allowances for fender flairs, spoilers, etc.) then you wouldn’t need all the high tech design and wind tunnel stuff because Detriot already did that when they desinged the street version of the car.

05/18/2011 02:59 PM

Well, the split screen by Fox must have had some impact. ESPN has announced they will do the Chase Races in split screen.
Now if they could just make the Chase split.

Bill B
05/18/2011 03:48 PM

I was thinking the same thing about the Dover race. We have been keeping the same tickets for 15 years and paying a year in advance. Just as an experiment I went to the Dover website the day before the race. I could get 5 tickets in the same area (section 129 in the upper rows) without a problem. So, what’s the point of giving them my money a year in advance and then being compelled to use them? It is smarter to wait until the date is closer then you can factor in other issues (weather, health, car problems, money, etc).

irvan fan
05/18/2011 08:29 PM

and everyone’s running virtually the same equipment (see: CoT, draining engineering creativity)…
maybe they need to rename it
National Association of Generic Car Auto Racing

Bobby O
05/18/2011 08:50 PM

Sorry, I forgot to say, spec racing is very cool at certain levels, but it has never been part of nascar, until the last few (COT)years. So if we are stuck with spec racing (at supposedly the TOP level) is it BORING?

It is for me!

05/19/2011 12:54 PM

Lets not go overboard with Logano vs Smith. For one, Smith has been racing 3 1/2 full seasons to Logano’s 2 1/2. Isn’t there a 3 year rule regarding drivers development? The big difference between the 2 and I believe you touched on it is that Logano has never been in poor equipment since coming to Nascar. Now that Gibbs is struggling, he’s finding out what it’s like and having a hard time with it. Smith has been battling bad cars for years, so when he finally gets a good car, he usually ends up with a good run out of it. Even though I disagree with your comparison, I do wonder how well Regan would do with top equipment. Hopefully someone will give him a shot down the road.


Contact Tom Bowles

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