The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Jeremy's Junked Case, All-Star Ignorance And NASCAR Conservatism Kills by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday March 28, 2012

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Did You Notice?… The emphasis placed on winning with the All-Star Race… sort of? On Tuesday, Sprint announced the 2012 version now consists of four segments, 20 laps apiece, followed by the traditional 10-lap Shootout that will give a $1 million payout to the race winner. Here’s the catch: the winners of each segment, one through four, will automatically be shuttled to the front of the field before the final pit stop.

That’s right. Even though the teams won a segment, they won’t be guaranteed track position – that’s based on how each car performs on pit road. So how big an advantage will that even be? Admittedly, not much if you guess four tires when everyone else takes two. Sounds like nothing more than a giant publicity stunt to me.

Will changes to the All-Star Race provide excitement…or will one driver simply run away and hide at the end?

Meanwhile, the big question facing NASCAR’s All-Star Race went unanswered Tuesday: at a track where the aero push is dominant, combined with a hard tire compound, what are they doing to ensure the final ten laps isn’t a battle of track position? The reason there’s so much emphasis on pit stops now is simple; if you don’t get up front within the first few laps of the restart, or at least second place, your chances of winning are over. The cars are so equal, plus the tire compound in recent years so difficult to manage, it’s impossible to move up.

With that said, it leaves the battle to be won on pit road, not on the track, which has its drawbacks. Sure, there’s so much excitement within a 15-second stop to see who’s going to get out in front. I understand the precision required, combined with the strategy that makes or breaks a crew chief each week. But at intermediates, as we’ve seen all too often, you can’t have the battle for the win come down to 15 pit road seconds and a few short laps after the restart. You can’t have a fan see his driver fall from first to fourth and think “his day is done” because it’s impossible to push back through the field after four fresh tires. No amount of pomp and circumstance, changes to lap counts, or monetary bonuses will fix that.

No, only better handling cars and better tire compounds will. That’s why the next All-Star Race announcement should come from Goodyear. Boy, if there’s ever a time to try an aggressive compound, wouldn’t you do it at an event that’s supposed to be an exhibition for the fans?

Did You Notice?… The lack of momentum for the Sprint Cup Series in 2012? Sunday’s race in Fontana wasn’t just the lowest-rated of the season, it was the lowest-rated in the history of FOX coverage at the track. Overall, the network’s ratings are down nine percent this season, on a trajectory that could make them the worst in the 12-year history of television coverage.

Certainly, I know fans have had complaints about the broadcasts this year, but I seriously doubt that’s the reason; if there’s a good college basketball game on, are you really going to turn the television off because of bad announcers? No; at worst, you’re putting it on mute and that still counts in the Nielsens. I think the bigger problem so far is a lack of NASCAR storylines to date. The point leader, Greg Biffle, while a nice surprise, has been around awhile, hasn’t won a race yet and, while having a moment here or there, isn’t the most charismatic figure with the media. There are zero – that’s right, zero – rookie drivers running the full distance, while DanicaMania has ground to a halt in the face of wrecks and mechanical malfunctions (you know, with the car).

One other issue, too that is rearing its ugly head is the new Chase system. It was lauded in its first year, the “wild cards” putting emphasis on winning back into the equation. I think later in the regular season, it makes the months of July and August “must see NASCAR TV” once again, drivers jostling for a late boost a la Brad Keselowski to launch themselves into the playoffs. But this kind of system balances out with boredom early on. Take Jeff Gordon, who I wrote about last week as a driver in the “Danger Zone,” outside the top 20 in Sprint Cup points. But let’s look at it another way. Instead of the old system, where Gordon would have to charge to at least 12th, he needs a win, maybe two, and must climb only five positions in the standings. That lessens the desperation and makes it easy to relax, take a 15th-place finish and go to the next one instead of fighting all day for 10th.

The same goes for drivers like Biffle, who can secure their spots in the Chase by racking up these top-10 performances early on. Maybe in July and August, with his spot secure, Biffle will take some chances for victories, but this point system still preaches conservatism if you’re trying to get in the old-fashioned way. DNF equals disaster in the standings, meaning at a race like Fontana, where rain is in the offing the message sent is “don’t mess up and run 25th” instead of “take chances to finish in first place.”

Could there be a solution? I think the idea of having a “mulligan” might work, where drivers know there’s a safety net in the case of a bad finish. There are also ideas floating to add points for the halfway portion of the race, in 100-lap intervals, etc. I don’t know what the perfect solution is; all I know is single-file processions don’t woo viewers. Who wants to watch an athletic event where everyone “just goes through the motions?”

Martinsville will solve some of that, perhaps the one racetrack on the circuit where “casual contact” won’t keep your car from running up front. It’s the one place drivers still get lost in the heat of competition, no matter the circumstances. We just need to make sure that intensity transfers to racetracks where cars have enough room to run comfortably on their own.

Did You Notice?… The end of the road is here for Jeremy Mayfield? As expected, this week an Appeals Court struck down his motion to restart the trial versus NASCAR. As part of their decision, the court reminded Mayfield he had waived his right to sue, not once but twice, and that restricts him from pushing the case forward.

That leaves limited, if any, options left for Mayfield, who now must face criminal charges of his own stemming from stolen equipment and methamphetamines found in his Catawba County, North Carolina home. It’s been an inglorious end for a driver who has made two Chase appearances during his career; that’s more than Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray, and Brad Keselowski combined.

But lost in the wake of the Jeremy Mayfield sentencing, like the Ryan Braun appeal is the sloppy drug testing methods brought up during his initial case. Just because the man may be a user after all, it doesn’t mean the points aren’t valid. What has NASCAR done to clean up its testing, other than make public a list of banned substances? Are the proper procedures being followed now? What will the level of trust be the next time a big name tests positive?

We don’t hear about any of that in the wake of Mayfield’s case falling apart. That makes it easy for everyone to wash their hands clean, but in reality there were no winners here. NASCAR took its public relations hit, Mayfield saw his career tank (and has a possible addiction on top of it), and lawyers spent thousands upon thousands of dollars to prosecute … what, exactly?

Only losers here.

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

- One of the stranger stats I’ve seen this season: Jamie McMurray with two top-10 finishes – but they’re his only lead lap ones, combined with two DNFs. If only the No. 1 could make it to the end more often, they’d be showing how much better they really are after a miserable 2011. Can Martinsville offer redemption? If you’ll remember, last fall was the low point for the No. 1 team after Jamie McMurray tried to retaliate against Brian Vickers following an incident on the backstretch which destroyed the back end of the No. 1 to the point where the battery ended up on the race track. Not only did McMurray miss, but the front end of the race car was damaged as well.

- Five races in, Kurt Busch sits 24th in points while A.J. Allmendinger sits 26th in his old Penske ride. So far, it’s advantage, Kurt, although based on those stats it’s more like “nobody wins.”

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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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03/28/2012 02:16 AM

The Chase and Top 35 have made “points racing” the norm at EVERY track…even Bristol. Now drivers are extremely conservative and it makes boring tracks like Fontana even more boring.

I’m extremely happy that the ratings and attendance are down IF that means there’s a SLIGHT chance that nascar will actually listen to the fans.

When it comes to nascar the fans have very little say other than to boycott tracks that aren’t exciting. Nascar listens when it loses money.

03/28/2012 08:15 AM

If NASCAR listened to the fans the “top 35” rule would be gone, the chase would have ben scrapped, and “Ol DW” would have been taken out back and shot.
Sundays race was one of the worst ever broadcast. Drivers just going through the motions. reminded me of the NFL Pro-bowl game. Who wants to watch this crap?
I worry that NASCAR might make a change; more often than not their changes only make a bad situation worse.

Great article

03/28/2012 08:44 AM

About ten changes to the Chase format now and the (remaining) fans still hate it. How many empty seats and new lows in TV ratings will it take for NASCAR to dump this turd???

The only race I’ve watched this year was Daytona because there was nothing else on a Monday night, and the most entertaining moment of that race was the track dryer Montoya incident. Well, that and Danica Patwreck being out before the third lap.

I tried putting on the Fontana race, and Fox’s theme song features DW shouting boogity at me before I can mute it. Goodbye.

03/28/2012 09:16 AM

I think the Nationwide race proved one of two things: either the Car of Tomorrow is causing bad racing, or The Chase is forcing drivers to be too conservative. Everyone constantly whines how boring Fontana is, but the race for the win among SIX DRIVERS all race long on Saturday proved that the track can provide awesome racing.

The question is, was it because it was 5 Cup drivers who didn’t care if they wrecked, plus one NWS driver (Stenhouse) desperate to impress? Or is it because the Nationwide car has a better aero package?

I doubt NASCAR will answer either question…

doug from eastern NC
03/28/2012 10:04 AM

Both John’s are spot on.

03/28/2012 11:05 AM

I agree with the Johns and with Gordon82wins – each race used to be a standalone event and fun to watch to boot. Now, its all points racing for seeding for the stupid chase. Fan council and whatever, no one really listens to the fans. As you said, how about a better tire for the races?

03/28/2012 11:24 AM

Want to pass along best wishes to Jeremy Mayfield. He was the among the first drivers I ever met, and to this day among the top to or three nicest of all. Good guy caught up in bad circumstances. Keep yer head up brother! Do your best, get some sleep, get up tomorrow and do it all again… Promise it will get different!
hang in there Jeremy!

03/28/2012 12:01 PM

Jerome nailed it! The John’s too. Most of us can only get to one race a year. Therefore the largest exposure we have to NASCAR is from TV and that means FOX is KILLING OUR SPORT.

Kevin from PA
03/28/2012 12:34 PM

Low ratings means Fox is not making as much money as they would have thought. My fear is that Fox will feel the need to dramatize events even more in the failed hopes of increasing the excitement.

Don’t think this could happen: look at the current media situation where everything is overdramatized in order to get ratings.

03/28/2012 12:49 PM

How’s this for a solution… rather than manipulating the points system every year and further ruining any legitimacy it has, why not take half or three quarters of the money out of the point fund and put it in the race purses: the winning team gets the entire bonus. Might that ramp up the intensity and put an end to parade laps?

03/28/2012 02:10 PM

This all star race has gotten totally out of whack! NASCAR has nearly perfected ways to screw something up.
Why not simply bill it as a 50 lap event one mandatory pit stop for both fuel and tires and toss out the engine rules to the Jr Johnson, DW, engine rule. A flat full out race of our all stars! That’s an all star race NASCAR. We don’t want a hyped controlled event, we already have that once a week! KISS NASCAR KISS!

03/28/2012 03:09 PM

Tom, I disagree that the pitiful Fox coverage is not a reason for the ratings drop. Yes, you can mute the idiotic drones they have as announcers, but if the cameramen continue to only show the lead car circling the track instead of the various battles going on further back; and if the tickertape only shows the top ten cars; how are you to know ANYTHING that’s going on unless you happen to be a fan of the lead car/driver? We’ve been muting Fox and listening to MRN/PRN and then it seems like “why do we even have the TV on?” No wonder non-racing fans say “That’s awful boring watching (a) car go around a track in a circle!” It’s obvious: they’re watching Fox!

03/28/2012 03:25 PM

Personally i think the answer to the second question is answer to the first, make a tire that gives up after half a fuel run so the people that take 4 tires aren’t out of the running after that stop

03/28/2012 04:02 PM

Just like last year, it will become an annnual thing, Dale Jr. will EMBARRASSINGLY have to use the PITY PASS to get into the Sprint All-Star Race.

03/28/2012 04:28 PM

I dont think the TV coverage is the reason for the low ratings. Maybe its because expectations have been raised, or, maybe there is more competition for peoples time now.
Regardless, the good old days aren’t coming back and no amount of tinkering will bring them back.
BTW: Neither Nascar nor Bruton Smith is losing money. Look at the earning statements, which are public record. Yes, earnings are down, but they are still making millions. Perhaps the real answer is that Nascar is just reverting to its actual level, not the brief boom period we saw a few years ago.

03/28/2012 05:09 PM

Don’t compare the basketball announcers (or any other announcers) to the Waltrips and Larry stooges. That’s a diss to real announcers everywhere.

03/28/2012 05:17 PM

Combine a plethora of aero-push tracks with inept camera coverage with tight shots rather than pan back and show the racing and you’ve got BORING.

03/28/2012 07:23 PM

It’s not (just) the coverage. It’s the (lack of) racing. I never watch Vegas or Fontana races unless I’m really, really bored. Sadly, what once was the most exciting track in NASCAR has now become just as boring. At least we still have Martinsville – for now. Oh yeah .. the chase sucks. Period.

03/28/2012 07:53 PM

I say dump the All-Star race altogether. The rules get more convoluted every year.

Also, I’m not buying Speed to watch it. Give the teams an extra week off or, even better, tighten up the schedule so that the season ends in early November.

03/29/2012 02:11 AM

The problem with NA$CAR, Brian France notwithstanding, is that NA$CAR was never intended to be a spec series. I think they had it right in the early nineties when the racing was exciting and the drivers were actually “real” people. Now we are left with constant meddling and rule changes by NA$CAR and the drivers are nothing more than prima donnas and spokesmodels. Earnhardt and Big Bill are most certainly spinning in their graves. Too bad for the diehard fans to be treated like second class citizens because of NA$CAR greed and stupidity.

Bill Richards
03/29/2012 02:06 PM

The TV coverage is just downright insulting to anybody at or above average intelligence. The announceing team acts like a bunch of clowns and makes NASCAR look like a joke. Who exactly is FOX trying to attract to watch this garbage? What is the point of that stupid gopher? To someone who has never watched a NASCAR race before to tune in and see this abortion of a sports telecast must make nascar fans look like the dumbest people in the world. Who likes this crap? Is there anyone that is not retarded that can actually say they enjoy DW slobbering all over his mic over Danica or the cartoon gopher? Watch a F1 race sometime and see how a professional broadcast team handles calling a race. That is what is wrong with NASCAR.

04/03/2012 11:59 AM

God, I hate the CHASE. How about you? Come on everybody raise your hand if you think the CHASE sucks. Well there you are. Looks like a landslide. The CHASE sucks and the vote wasn’t even close. Well, now what are you going to do NASCAR?


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
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