Thomas Bowles · Wednesday March 28, 2012
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.
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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