The Frontstretch: Short-Term Pain, Long-Term Gain Heading Into NASCAR's Playoffs by Thomas Bowles -- Monday September 19, 2011

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Short-Term Pain, Long-Term Gain Heading Into NASCAR's Playoffs

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday September 19, 2011


Apparently, when hyping up this year’s Chicago-based Chase debut, NASCAR forgot to send an invite to Mother Nature. She had her hissy fit Sunday, rain popping the hot-air playoff balloon by postponing the scheduled Sprint Cup race until Monday at 11 AM Central – a time when there’s still a 30% chance of more green stuff on the radar. It was a murky end to a week of pomp and circumstance, designed to pump up Sprint Cup’s new playoff system by placing it smack in the country’s No. 3 media market.

Tony Stewart’s car gets wheeled to the garage after Mother Nature’s wrath caused Chicagoland’s race to be postponed to Monday. The race will be run at 12:00 ET, 11:00 AM CT and televised live on ESPN.

For the suits in Daytona, though, there is no such word as “disappointment” when it comes to the Windy City. “Infatuated” sounds about right; in fact, they green-lighted Chicagoland’s place heading the 2012 Chase schedule before this week even began. Huh? It’s a bold statement, to say the least, especially since there’s little to any evidence the move has boosted overall fan interest in the area. Saturday’s Nationwide Series crowd, our only true gauge, was at 36,000 this year; that was up 8,000 from June’s standalone event but down significantly from the 57,500 that showed up for July’s Nationwide/Cup weekend in 2010. Chase week, with various events everywhere from ESPN’s NASCAR Now on Navy Pier, to Media Day/Fan-Driver Q & A at LaSalle Power Company, to the opening of the first NASCAR Car Wash in Romeoville, played to varying crowds. But a flash mob of tens of thousands, screaming LeBron-to-Miami style as any of the top 12 drivers passed through? That was nowhere to be found. Instead, just like when NASCAR’s come to New York, Los Angeles, or the major cities across America there’s a large cross-section of people who never knew stock car racing was there.

It’s a discouraging sign for this market, considering NASCAR had a “picture perfect” situation heading into this week. The Bears, the city’s major NFL draw, had a road game this Sunday, while baseball’s crosstown rivals, the Cubs and White Sox, are long out of their respective pennant races. Heck, even Northwestern University was away, leaving nothing to overshadow the sport’s September entrance. And yet, here we are on a Monday morning and there’s no additional press coverage push, no extra Sportscenter stories and marginal national coverage of what’s setting up to be the most wide open playoff Chase in its eight-year history.

Some of that is as simple as playing pretend with location. Anyone who’s been to Chicagoland knows the Speedway name itself is deceptive; the track is a 49.2-mile, one-hour drive from the Windy City center. (In comparison, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, until this year the Chase’s debut racetrack lies 72.3 miles away from Boston… the No. 7 media market in the country. Go figure). ESPN also didn’t help matters much, shifting around their NASCAR Now program to times only DV-Rs could watch while letting the stick-and-ball sports they better understand hog the limelight.

David Reutimann’s Chicagoland victory last year, earned with the second-place finisher nowhere in sight continued a trend of single-file, spread-out racing at the 1.5-mile oval.

NASCAR still feels it’s a building process, that over time its mere presence here will be enough to gradually turn the Midwestern urban crowd its way. But in going gaga over postseason promotion, they’ve forgotten the No. 1 rule to build excitement: providing fans a guaranteed, quality product to cause buzz, a competitive balance which has been Chicagoland’s longtime Achilles heel. Last year’s event had just ten lead changes, tied for the fewest in Sprint Cup, and no race has featured more than 20 since its 2001 debut on the schedule. Heck, even the much-maligned California Speedway threw up 18 for their similar, 400-mile tilt this March.

“It hasn’t evolved,” claimed Tony Stewart of this oval at Friday’s pre-race presser. “It is still the same place. That is the bad part about it is, it is still a cookie cutter track, that shape is still the same. It is the same for everybody and we all just deal with it and try to figure out how to be fastest around it.”

“You can’t build round race tracks and expect guys to pass and race when guys don’t have to get out of the gas enough. When you are running almost the same speed through the corners as you are down the straightaways, it is hard to have that difference to make passes.”

Cue Saturday’s Nationwide Series showdown. The race had just eight lead changes, a dominating performance up front by Brad Keselowski, and a train of consistent, single-file competition with little passing during a final, 130-lap green-flag stint to the finish. It was hardly the type of knuckle-raising competition that gets fans flocking to their television sets, a reason I’ve contended for years NASCAR needs to start its postseason at a place like Martinsville. Want a bigger media market? OK, well then how about Daytona Beach? Virtually anyplace would suffice over hyping a Sunday afternoon nap.

But in any ugly situation, there’s a silver lining, and that’s true even with this postponement. Noon on Monday gives NASCAR a brief opening in this busy Fall sports world; there’s no NFL, no college football, no other major events to directly contend with. On the off chance there’s a miracle, some sort of competitive finish here the highlights won’t be buried 50 minutes into Sportscenter or on the back pages of the Chicago Tribune. Ratings, while suffering a significant decline, would likely fare better than an awkward, eight-hour rain delay that would have seen the race start at slightly after 10 PM ET.

And if there’s ever a time drivers might spar at this oval, well, Monday would be it. The Chase field is a scary version of Real Housewives at the moment, nearly everyone ticked off at somebody else. You’ve got Jimmie Johnson vs Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch vs Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon vs Richard Childress Racing (post-Paul Menard spin) and let’s not forget, old scores to be settled with Brad Keselowski vs Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards to boot. Every blind squirrel finds an acorn occasionally, and Chicagoland has had its share of crises: see Matt Kenseth, spun out of the lead by Jeff Gordon in 2006 and Harvick’s 2001 spin-and-then-win as examples.

Certainly, the sport also possesses a great deal of momentum heading in, with Richmond ratings up over 15 percent and a Chase lineup filled with potential. This field of 12, with the sport’s Most Popular Driver included, has perhaps the greatest amount of parity we’ve seen in any playoff; except for Junior, Ryan Newman, and perhaps a rebuilding Hamlin it’s hard to count anyone out. Over the long-term, fans who tune out for this ten-race stint in protest will wind up disappointed: they’ll be missing more action during this section of the schedule than we’ve seen over the past seven years.

To get there, though, we still have to push through the overhyped, likely underdelivering, Chapter 1 at Chicagoland Monday. It’s NASCAR’s unnecessary risk, with limited upside considering the importance of “first impressions.” The sport has gone out of its way this year, in the process of rebuilding its image to tell the media it’s trying hard to attract more fans. Well, how many casual readers finish the first chapter of a book, hate it and then keep reading?

Seems kind of silly this sport set itself up to find out.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
Five Points To Ponder: NASCAR’s Take-A-Breath Moment
Truckin’ Thursdays: Top Five All-Time Truck Series Drivers
Going By the Numbers: A Week Without Racing Can Bring Relief But Kill Momentum


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09/19/2011 07:51 AM

Too bad they did not keep it in New Hampshire. It was sunny and cool.

It was nice having the first race of the chase for the cup in the same State they have the first race for the White House.

NHMS maybe 72 miles from Boston’s TV market but the Boston stations cover a big part of New England.

09/19/2011 10:09 AM

Good Article. Just one thing, though, it’s Northwestern University not University of Northwestern.

09/19/2011 11:24 AM

NASCAR just does NOT get it. It isn’t the media market they need to attract or impress, it’s the fans.

I listened to Brad prattle on for a few minutes yesterday and he said, of course, they aren’t cookie cutter tracks, they all race differently (as if he’d know one from the other anyway). Again going back to the fan perspective, exciting racing is about passing and being able to catch a car for the lead. If that doesn’t happen, it’s a boring race – even if NASCAR does it’s darndest to force an exciting finish.

Bill S.
09/19/2011 11:42 AM

New Hamshire is the worst track in NASCAR. I wish it NEVER had a race, much less 2 per season, much less any in the Chase. Horrible track with horrible racing and horrible tragedy attached.

And seriously, Tom, Northwestern University has one of the most distinguised journalism schools in the world. How could even a pseudo-journalist not know the name of the school?

Managing Editor
09/19/2011 11:44 AM

Bill S… simple, because I went to Syracuse instead :). Us East Coasters thought it could be written two ways… that the University of Northwestern was acceptable.

The error has been fixed.

09/19/2011 04:44 PM

NH worst track on the circuit? FAIL. New Hampshire provides better races then a majority of the snoozes NASCAR puts on anymore. Maybe I am bias because I am a northeaster but that Chicago race today was ugly. The finish was a fuel mileage race and guys were just letting others go in order to save gas. I get that races will finish like this now and then and I do enjoy the occasional one. But this happens way to much on these races. Chicago needs to redo there design. Take off a .5 mile of the track and make it a one mile and add a tighter radius in the turns or even one turn. Why not do a hairpin like turn? or make the track truely unique and create a right hand turn in the backstretch or something. Why can’t every track be truely unique?

The cookie cutter tracks are ruining NASCAR more and more each year and they sadly seem to not be caring as shown by whats been happening in the last 10 years. Richmond ratings were up for more then just being last race in the “regular season”.

Matt L
09/19/2011 08:55 PM

My dad is currently in Chicago for business. He was surprised none of the Chicago workers had any interest in NASCAR. They were either unaware or did not care the teams were in Joliet. Was it worth all those years of frustrating loyal fans? Changes aimed for new markets where the majority of people could care less about NASCAR.

Bad Wolf
09/19/2011 09:28 PM

Heck, I care so little about Nascar anymore that I did not know it was rained out until I came here to read Matt’s “Thinkin Out Loud” to casually see who won and what happened.

09/20/2011 11:34 AM

New Hampshire may not be the most exciting track, but the fans there seem to support it a LOT better than Chicagoland. Despite having two dates and in not the greatest location, it still manages to get over 90% attendance. It draws from all over the Northeast and eastern Canada, unlike Chicagoland which struggles to draw from anywhere.


Contact Tom Bowles

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