The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... A Secret Million-Dollar Bonus, The Power Of Adrenaline And Quick Hits by Thomas Bowles -- Thursday July 21, 2011

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Did You Notice? … The wonderful decision by Sprint to bring back some type of million-dollar bonus competition for winning? The $3 million Sprint Summer Showdown, announced Sunday at Loudon is a great way to keep the excitement high throughout all of NASCAR’s 30 or so teams capable of competing for victories. Long story short, the winners of the next five events – Indy, Pocono, Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol will have a chance to earn $1 million if they win again at Atlanta Motor Speedway Labor Day Weekend. $1 million will also go to a lucky fan paired with the driver, along with an additional million to that driver’s charity of choice.

While not exactly a replica of the old Winston Million program, which dished out a $1 million bonus for taking three of the sport’s four “crown jewel” races the title sponsor should be applauded for taking this extra marketing step. Especially now, as the Chase race is heating up there’s no an extra element of drama and a reason for “safe” postseason players like Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and others to lay their neck out on the line if they’re only about a third or fourth-place car. The other side of that story benefits, too; for guys like Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte, and Jamie McMurray, it’s a reasonable goal to keep their teams focused, a way to ensure their seasons don’t become a total waste.

My biggest concern with the whole announcement is when it happened. Here we are, the Thursday on an off week where not much in sports is dominating the news cycle; that is, of course unless you count the drone-like hourly news updates on an NFL Labor Dispute millions just want to be over. It’s a prime opportunity for NASCAR to take center stage, regenerating buzz; so why did they announce the program on a Sunday, just prior to one of their lower-rated races of the year when the headlines would be overrun with the words “Women’s World Cup Final?” Seriously; I would bet the house a vast majority of fans still don’t understand, days later, what this program is as their focus moved elsewhere.

In this ADD world, it’s all about picking your spots, and the one time out of a few this year when NASCAR had positive PR they failed to find it. That’s a shame, really it is; for fans still smarting over the wounds of Kentucky, plus a race at Loudon where passing was at a premium there was a prime opportunity to help them heal.

Jeff Gordon was the last winner of NASCAR’s Winston Million; can he be the first to win the 2011 Sprint Showdown?

One other interesting trend to watch is the ratings now, and how it’ll change Sprint’s mindset over the long-term. What if the August and September buildup to the Chase, with this showdown included clearly overshadows the postseason ratings themselves? For all the tweaks we’ve had over the past year or so, very little has affected the philosophy of the ten-race Chase itself; it’s that practice fans dislike in increasing numbers. If the Nielsens average a 3.5 rating, say, for the next six weeks and then dip to an ugly 2.5 in the postseason will it finally be the reality check Sprint needs to push for a postseason change?

We’ll see. But no matter what happens, this contest is nothing but a positive for the sport and for fans desperate to ensure drivers are fighting to win each race – no matter the venue or where they stand in the points.

Did You Notice? … The way to energize a team appears to be eliminating job security? As rumors persist about his possible demise at Joe Gibbs Racing, Joey Logano is making Home Depot’s decision difficult – three top-6 finishes in the last four weeks have him surging, up to 18th in points and one win from becoming a shocking Chase contender. Further up the ladder sits David Ragan, UPS once drooling over the opportunity to move elsewhere but forced to give pause after Ragan’s surprise, impressive victory at Daytona. Even Ryan Newman, rumored to need additional sponsorship for 2012 has had a late surge, his victory at New Hampshire all but securing a postseason bid.

Let’s compare that to drivers on the flip side of things. Jamie McMurray, comfortable with a multi-year extension at Ganassi sits 29th in points, armed with just two top-10 finishes and exactly zero momentum headed to Indy – where he’s the defending champ. Jeff Burton, a man no one would accuse of laying down nonetheless has exactly zero top-10 finishes all season, the worst of his career since signing a multi-year extension with Caterpillar and RCR this Spring. David Reutimann, while second at Kentucky has done little else lately, but he doesn’t need to; both contract and sponsor run through 2012. Heck even Dale Earnhardt, Jr., on the verge of signing a multi-year extension with Hendrick Motorsports has seen the gas tank run out on a season’s worth of momentum this summer.

David Ragan’s fight for his future took a turn for the better with July’s victory at Daytona.

So in this age of parity, is there something to be said for not necessarily a driver but a team getting too comfortable in your own surroundings? An athlete’s mental mindset makes up such a large part of his performance; as we’ve seen with Earnhardt through the years, no confidence means no consistency, a permanent roadblock in the drive to a Sprint Cup title. But job security means there’s also no impetus to change a broken cycle; all those drivers mentioned, in fact have kept their core people intact, staying the course while the rest of the field simply drives away.

And consider the stress of these drivers sitting on the hot seat. There’s not exactly a long list of jobs out there, unless you want to consider start-and-parking; NASCAR, for all its bravado about stopping the bleeding is still knee-deep inside a period of contraction. There’s a big difference between making millions, the private jet and the lavish lifestyle compared to sitting on that other end of the garage, earning $3K a week to start-and-park or simply sitting at home, no opportunities left to compete. Adrenaline can be a crazy motivator…

Did You Notice? … The tinkering in the NASCAR TV booths during the course of this current contract? From 2001-06, we had just three main play-by-play men across the course of two networks: Mike Joy (FOX), Allen Bestwick (NBC, 2001-04) and Bill Weber (2004-06). Now, over the course of just four-and-a-half seasons we have over twice that number. While FOX has stuck with Joy, TNT’s been through Weber, Ralph Sheheen and now Adam Alexander; ABC/ESPN has had Jerry Punch, Marty Reid, and now is turning to Bestwick.

Why so much transition at the top? Some of it was unpreventable, as was the case with Weber’s publicly embarrassing demise. But executives also take a closer look when there’s a crunch on their financial bottom line. ABC/ESPN and TNT’s ratings are both significantly less compared to FOX; if there’s any way they can bump up support, getting fans attached to a particular announcer or portion of their broadcast that’s a way to keep the audience intact. Fans for years have been flooding my inbox, vocally supportive of Bestwick and perhaps that grassroots effort finally paid off.

Did You Notice? … Some quick hits before heading off for the week:

- July has been the month of the crew chief carousel: Greg Biffle, Juan Pablo Montoya and now A.J. Allmendinger. Of the three, the move I question the most is Allmendinger and Shiplett; how do you get break up a duo that’s showed incremental progress each year? Yes, Erwin was a great catch for whoever hired him, and it made sense to simply shift him around within the Ford camp. But to break up things at the No. 43? Now, with four top-15 finishes in the last five races? It hardly seems an opportune time for me.

- It’s nice that Richard Petty Motorsports has a new CEO. First assignment: finding enough sponsorship to keep them afloat in 2012.

- Tony Stewart may have a point, but picking on Andy Lally? An MMA guy that can pick you apart in any type of physical confrontation? I’d have kept my mouth shut.

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07/22/2011 01:33 AM

Not much happening in sports this week? The NFL lockout, much to NA$CAR’s dismay, has likely ended. I know where my TV will be tuned on Sundays and it won’t be on the faux playoffs in NA$CAR.

Carl D.
07/22/2011 07:28 AM

“Tony Stewart may have a point, but picking on Andy Lally? An MMA guy that can pick you apart in any type of physical confrontation? I’d have kept my mouth shut.”

Yeah, but yopu’re not Tony Stewart. Did those assault charges from Australia ever get resolved?

07/22/2011 07:13 PM

It’s amazing to me that it took Sprint this long to figure out a way to engage the fans – the chase has been a bust from that perspective – even if Brian France still thinks it’s a great idea, but he’s clueless anyway. It may be a case of too little too late even with Allen Bestwick back in the booth, unless ESPN actually chooses to concentrate on the actual race on an individual basis instead of concentrating on it being all chase all the time, it won’t matter.

But it’s a start.

07/26/2011 03:32 PM

Don’t think for a second that Chase drivers are going to risk their chances of making the Chase by going all out to win one of these races just for the million bucks during this “Showdown”. There is far more money to be had at the end of the season than a measly million. And yes, compared to what you can make by being the champion, a million is measly.


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... A Return To Richmond, Post-Spingate And Quick Hits
Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Did You Notice? ... Drivers Still Make A Difference... But Silly Cautions Don't
Did You Notice? ... NASCAR's Free Agent Lynchpin, Uncomfortable Reality And Gambling
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