The Frontstretch: Did You Notice?... A Driver's Confidence Crisis, Monster Meltdown And Indy's Question Mark by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday May 30, 2012

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Did You Notice?… There’s no place that signifies NASCAR’s turn from crashes to consistent green-flag racing than the Monster Mile? I studied the last ten years at Dover and found a fascinating transformation. A track that once chewed up cars and spit them out has instead become the hallmark of the “debris caution” era:

Cars Involved
Debris / Other Yellows
Percent Overall Cautions

This trend is right in line with the last few races, which have shown an increasingly smaller number of wrecks. In Dover’s case, though, the culprit can be traced to another element we don’t often mention when it comes to “conservative” green-flag competition: the tires. A change in the compound over the past few seasons has made it nearly impossible to run side-by-side or to have cars on the edge of control handling-wise and it also limits the falloff over the course of a run. That parity in speed makes it next to impossible to pass, creating the type of “hold your position” racing fans hate.

What does that take away from a track like Dover? Unpredictability. For years, fans have been able to look at this race and know that, at any moment, a car could be chewed up through faulty Goodyears or a bad entrance into Turn 3. Now, the wrecks have been minimized and the racing has been forced into a type of single-file parade you’d expect at a larger intermediate track. No wonder why the speedway has seen a sharp decline in attendance the last few years.

Note: How crazy has this change in cautions been in 2012? At this time last year, we had five out of 12 events with double-digit yellow flags. This season, we’ve seen just one, this year’s rain-delayed Daytona 500 (which barely makes the cut at 10). But here’s the most fascinating statistic; excluding restrictor-plate races, the number of yellows we do have called for “competition, debris, rain, or fluid on the track” is an astounding 51% (26 of 51). If you take out the short tracks of Bristol and Martinsville, that number jumps to 67% (26 of 39). Compare that to this year’s Indianapolis 500, a race that had eight cautions for 39 laps – and zero for “debris” or “oil on the track.”

Did You Notice?… IndyCar’s long-term momentum from the 500 could be halted sooner than you think? Some might point to the 2012 ratings, down 5 percent from last year to a 4.1 in the Nielsens (for comparison’s sake, the Daytona 500 pulled a 7.7). But I’m not exactly surprised at the shrinking viewership despite Sunday’s fantastic finish. The 500 itself was not marketed well this year, with limited coverage and commercials outside the little-engine-that-could NBC Sports Network. Without Danica Patrick, there were a limited number of “big names” in the field (like it or not) and a smaller number of American favorites for the country to rally behind. Plus, with only 33 cars qualifying, the once-exciting Bump Day turned into a mere formality.

Dario Franchitti is a driver who could bring tons of fans to IndyCar…but are the races as engaging as Franchitti’s personality?

No, the real boost, in theory, should come from after Indy, when a number of casual fans were turned on by the most lead changes in 500 history and Takuma Sato’s last-lap desperation moment that fell short. Dario Franchitti, for all his familiarity in open-wheel circles, has the type of personality that could transcend, ala Helio Castroneves and his Dancing With The Stars performance. But what will fans find if they click on the TV and turn to Belle Isle this Sunday?

Road course racing. Single-file strategy… and lots of it, with cars bottlenecked and having to plan out their passes. Three-wide racing? You’re lucky to get two-wide on this narrow course, 180 degrees different than the type of competition fans were subjected to. It’s not bad, just different – not exactly the type of “hook you” event fans just introduced to the sport would be expecting. The next opportunity IndyCar will have to showcase its oval package is at Texas, June 9th, and then they won’t be at a similar type of 1.5-mile-or-larger speedway until Fontana for the season finale on September 15th. In all, less than 40 percent of the season will be run on ovals, a focus on road and street courses that showcases diversity but also limits the type of exciting competition we just saw.

Certainly, safety remains a concern in the wake of Dan Wheldon’s tragic crash in Las Vegas. But there’s something to build on with this package, and plenty of big tracks to choose from once built for IndyCars in the late 1990s. (Michigan? Homestead? Even an eventual return to Vegas?) The bottom line is even though the road racing has been solid, the key to growing this series on television is going to be on the oval tracks. Sure, the attendance might suffer in the short-term – some of the street courses draw large in-person crowds – but show any fan that Indy race on Sunday, give them a discount to their local track and they’ll be intrigued enough to consider showing up.

Did You Notice?… The way Kasey Kahne held his composure, even in the worst of times? I say that not only to praise him but also compare to another NASCAR driver in the midst of his Dr. Phil crisis, AJ Allmendinger. Like Kahne, the ‘Dinger has flashed speed through much of this 2012 season, running second at Martinsville and scoring four top-5 starts in 12 races – including a pole at Kansas. But all too often, a series of hard-luck circumstances have taken over; engine problems in that same Kansas race, a series of wrecks (Daytona, Phoenix, Darlington) and even a broken left front hub, at Charlotte which left him frustrated and an ever-prototypical “unavailable for comment.”

Now ‘Dinger is the type of guy who wears his emotions on his sleeve, an asset when you’re cashing in on top 5s every week (or headed to the bar on a Friday night – this guy is one of the most outgoing, fun-loving NASCAR drivers on the circuit). But when you put him in a slump, one of the worst of his career, in which his back is increasingly against the wall in top-tier equipment? I present the following “official” quote:

“Something happened with the left front hub; I’m not sure exactly what happened there. We were never good from the start; we just weren’t good, very fast this weekend. It’s disappointing to have something else break every weekend. We weren’t very good anyway.”

Ugh. Can I have a little cheese with that hidden whine (for the record, one of our staffers observed ‘Dinger, post-hub failure and can pin the personality that forced out those words). I say that because this man is despondent headed to one of his best tracks, Dover, a place the No. 22 Dodge should have confidence: their team won last Fall here with Kurt Busch. ‘Dinger, in his last four starts there has qualified no worse than eighth, collected two top-10 finishes and led 152 laps. It should be a place where confidence, perhaps an upset win should be an expected result.

But here’s where Kahne and Allmendinger differ. The former, during his time of need, had the support of about a half-dozen crewmembers picking him up. They’re close friends, from crew chief Kenny Francis to mechanics in the shop that have stood by him for nearly a decade, confidantes outside the corporate atmosphere of HMS. Then, you had a hands-on car owner in Rick Hendrick challenging him, combined with support from at least two teammates that truly want to be engaged in Kahne’s success: Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

Where is that web of support at Penske for ‘Dinger? Do you see his 75-year-old owner, an open-wheel guy, coming in every Tuesday, putting his arm around AJ and going, “It’ll be OK?” No, because in the end, what was a dream for the driver was a last-minute option for the owner. No one, from the shop sweeper to sponsor Shell/Pennzoil, had planned a long-term investment here; it was up to the driver to prove his worth, all by himself.

Now, the man’s stuck on an island, watching the dream crumble and there’s no one internally to turn to. So the frustration builds, an ugly cycle, and before you know it? Public comments start alienating a crew of strangers who have just been through the ringer with Kurt Busch. It’s an ugly snowball, rolling down the mountain, and I worry without a confidence-building run this weekend (remember, June 2011 is where Keselowski took off) there’s no one to stop the pink slip from getting written this November.

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

Is Jeff Gordon’s Road to Redemption underway after a seventh-place finish at Charlotte?

- Our Brett Poirier had an amazing comparison I’d like you all to see regarding Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon. I’ll summarize: Kahne’s little run towards the top started with an innocent seventh-place run in Fort Worth in mid-April. What position did Jeff Gordon finish in at Charlotte? Seventh. What I’ll add to that is Hendrick’s unlimited resources, which can now be focused on Gordon during the summer months with two drivers solidly in the Chase and a third (Kahne) well on his way. With a top-20 points position all you need, including wins, don’t be surprised if Gordon isn’t out of the running for the postseason quite yet. After all, we all thought (me included) Kahne was dead in the water…

- What’s up with Stewart-Haas Racing? No need to go inside the numbers; bottom line is it’s nothing the Chase can’t fix. Remember, this slump they’re in was nothing compared to last sluggish summer before ripping off five wins in ten races. The major goal here is to make sure Ryan Newman doesn’t miss it; as long as they pick up a second win for the No. 39 (Loudon, anyone?) the “meaningless” regular season for those already holding a Chase bid makes their struggles a moot point.

- NASCAR’s economic problem is scheduled to reach epidemic proportions once again at Dover, which it usually does; for whatever reason, it’s a market even major teams have trouble acquiring sponsorship for. At least seven, perhaps up to nine teams won’t go the distance on the Cup side while the number of Nationwide cars without enough funding could reach 14. 14! That’s one-third of the field; even if you’re in the “I don’t care” camp when it comes to start-and-parking, that’s hard to ignore from a competitive standpoint.

- Overnight numbers for Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 were up 2 percent, from a 4.0 to a 4.1. A total of 5.06 million households were listed as viewing the race, more than expected after heavy criticism over the competition. But here’s one theory I have; after an exciting Indy 500, wouldn’t you want to keep watching racing to see if the 600 would be just as good? Just like with the bad numbers at Indy, sometimes it takes awhile for the audience to catch up to the excitement – or lack thereof.

- 140,000 in Charlotte? We haven’t brought up attendance that much this year, but I have to differ with NASCAR’s assessment. Much of the Turn 2/backstretch seating was empty this weekend, with a giant American flag covering about 50% of possible spaces. Are they counting that on the list?

Look, these issues are well-documented and it’s clear stock car racing isn’t the only sport having problems (many baseball teams have reported a decline in attendance this year). But all we ask for is honesty; if 80,000 seats were sold, then why not report that as the number? It’s still more than almost any NFL team gets for a single game. I just don’t see why this type of gross exaggeration, to the point the numbers are laughable if you look at them has to continue.

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05/30/2012 07:35 AM

Two points, both about road racing. First, the race at Belle Isle will be processional, no question. Real road racing takes place on circuits like Laguna Seca or Road America., not pseudo Monaco courses. Second, however processional it may be, it’s a he’ll of a lot more interesting than most of t he NASCAR races on 1.5 ovals where the objective seems to be to hold your position, don’t take any chances and focus on that idiotic exercise called the chase.

05/30/2012 11:09 AM

There are so many good, classic road courses in North America that Indycar is ignoring, because they can’t use their street race “Festival” formula that might see 100,000 people over the course of a weekend. Most of the time it sucks for racing, but it’s great for an “event.”

Long Beach and St. Pete need to stay, as does the Toronto Indy, but other than that most of them are awful.

I also really like Edmonton, but it’s an airport course, not street, so it’s different.

Just think how cool it would be to see them run some of the great old road courses from their past… Laguna Seca, Road Atlanta, Road America, VIR, Mosport, Montreal, maybe Hermanos Rodriguez…

And remember the Burke Lakefront in Cleveland? It was an airport course similar to Edmonton and the racing was always great. Would love to see them go back there.

Not to mention getting rid of awful and dangerous Super Speedways in favour of flat ovals they belong on: Iowa (already there), Loudon, Richmond, Phoenix, Pocono…

05/30/2012 11:18 AM

We don’t need no stinkin” CHASE!

05/30/2012 11:23 AM

It would be so great to see the Indy cars at Mosport again. After all, how do you think the Andretti Straight got its name. It would scare the drivers all to he??.

05/30/2012 11:35 AM

As with Indy cars, NASCAR needs more road course races. Times have changed. In the late 60’s and early 70’s people emulated drag cars on the streets because they could relate to them. Today, people are into the “G” machine deal and that would apply directly to road course racing in NASCAR

05/30/2012 12:05 PM

I don’t want to see wrecks. I want hard racing FOR THE WIN.

The current points system and chase is killing what little excitement is left in nascar.

Add to that the Goodyear concrete Eagles and the COT, which only Cheating Chad can modify, and we’re not left with much.

05/30/2012 12:34 PM

I think we’re seeing another side of the Kurt Busch at Penske story. If an all time good guy like Dinger is having trouble there….

05/30/2012 02:25 PM

The problem with the tires not giving up has to do, in part, with the the shorter fuel runs. The cars can only go 75-80 miles, instead of close to 100 on fuel, which means whatever problems would show up at the end of a 90-100 mile run don’t exist because they can no longer go that far on a tank of fuel. If NASCAR increases the distance the cars can go on a tank of fuel, I think you’ll see better racing because the drivers will have to conserve their tires. That, along with the conservative racing tha points system has brought along, is why you’re seing so many extremely long green flag runs, which are leading to long-standing race records broken, and in some cases, shattered.

Also, the writer of this article mention that there were 140,000 at Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600, which represented another drop in attendance for that event. But let’s not forget that the estimated attendance for the Indianapolis 500 was only 220,000. Not long ago, the Brickyard 400 drew more than that. The 220,000 at Indy represented a lower number of spectators than there are seats at Indy, and that’s the first time I can ever remember an attendance figure that low for the Indianapolis 500 since double decker seating was introduced at Indy in the late 1940s. So it’s not just NASCAR that’s struggling for attendance. When the Indianapolis 500 can’t even sell out, there’s a bgger problem than anyone suspects.

05/30/2012 03:34 PM

I like road racing but have to agree that if you want to capture AWOL NASCAR fans that enjoyed Indy, all of the ABC/ESPN races have to be ovals. They used to go to Milwaukee right after Indy. Great track!

If they do a road course instead, it has to be a real one and not a street course. Those rarely have good racing.

Indycar is headed in the right direction but their TV situation is dragging them down. We’re not in an economy where people can choose the deluxe cable package with all the channels. They need to get the races on NBC or at the very least CNBC. Unlike the Frances, I have confidence that they know the problems and will do something.

05/30/2012 05:25 PM

Indy cars @Pocono, that would be fantastic, Pocono is a perfect track for Indy cars, It drives like a road course, its big and lots of places to pass, especially the front straight.

05/30/2012 06:14 PM

I was shocked to read “motocrossed” say Pocono would be great for Indy cars! YES it was, many many times. I hope it returns. Also, it was built for them at first!

bud sudz
05/30/2012 11:00 PM

140,000 at Charlotte-no way

Blue Seats in Turn 4—half full at best
Diamond Tower —-half covered and still not full + they tarped the under cover top rows two years ago
Backstretch Concrete—Oh wait, that’s where the big screen is
Ford Tower-Never Full
Grandstands in Turn 1 and 2—-Oh wait, they took those out 2 years ago.
Charlotte has 1/2 the fans for the 600 that is had 4 or 5 years ago.
Traffic in Harrisburg (2 miles from the track) on raceway—non-existant

05/31/2012 12:14 PM

i have been looking at Google maps images of racetracks and have noticed a shocking and sad decline in the actual seats at racetracks. like bud sudz said, 1&2 at charlotte; gone. backstretch and part of fronstretch grandstands; gone. Michigans’ in 3&4. gone. i plan making a full report and posting it somewhere soon, but this is an unfortunate thing that’s happening in NASCAR.

05/31/2012 12:15 PM

i have been looking at Google maps images of racetracks and have noticed a shocking and sad decline in the actual seats at racetracks. like bud sudz said, 1&2 at charlotte; gone. backstretch and part of fronstretch grandstands at atlanta; gone. Michigans’ in 3&4. gone. i plan making a full report and posting it somewhere soon, but this is an unfortunate thing that’s happening in NASCAR.

06/01/2012 09:51 AM

I wonder if the lack of an increase in viewership for the 500 had to do with the racing being rather boring the past few years and fans expecting the same.


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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
Did You Notice? ... Toyota Trouble, Limping Into Action And Testing The Waters
Did You Notice? ... Keep On Asking, And You Will Receive A Qualifying Sigh Of Relief

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