The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... Inconsistency Rules -- The Message And The Track -- Plus Who's Got That Cookie-Cutter Edge? by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday October 10, 2012

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Did You Notice?… The “new” style of plate racing, pack or tandem isn’t catching on with fans at Talladega? Television ratings, out Tuesday, suffered a 5 percent year-to-year decline, down to 3.7 Nielsen number in a Chase that’s seen the lowest viewership in the history of the nine-year playoff format. Overall, a total of 5.113 million people tuned into the Talladega Demolition Derby (err, Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500) from their living rooms. That’s the lowest number this century for the racetrack, spring or fall, when the race has been run on its scheduled date.

At-track attendance for NASCAR’s largest superspeedway was even worse – and possibly more alarming. 88,000 fans showed up Sunday, 16 percent less than last fall and a whopping 43 percent decline from the at-track audience five years ago. That’s right; back in the Fall of 2007, during the midst of Jeff Gordon vs Jimmie Johnson for the championship, the house was packed with 155,000 screaming fans.

With scenes like this one commonplace, can NASCAR rekindle the magic at Talladega?

Those numbers alone just cannot be explained by the economy, hotel gouging or SEC home games (which NASCAR used to whoop, by the way – how convenient is it to use your own, normal competition as an excuse? What, in five years are we going to say NASCAR can’t run a race head-to-head against the local horseshoe tournament across the street? At some point, you have to just acknowledge the sport is losing ground.) So how do you fix the thinning crowd? I don’t have the solution in my pocket. But Step One is simply acknowledging the problem. Notice that no one at NASCAR, in the past 48 hours, has come out and said Sunday’s race and its finish showcase a need for major changes. If anything, they’ve applauded the status quo while turning their attention to Texas testing for 2013, the rest of the Chase and other big-ticket items.

What do you say to that other than the words, “What a shame”? And how low will attendance get at Talladega before something gets done? At this rate, paying ticketholders will dip to about 50K within the next three years, putting the race on par with, say, a sold out baseball game instead of the highest-attended sporting event in the state of Alabama. And this audience is for what’s supposed to be one of the sport’s marquee races, no less.

Perhaps the only hope is if Earnhardt keeps his plate racing criticism going, staying public to the point where pressure gets put on the bigwigs to finally find a solution for this 25-year-old plate. But if Sunday didn’t do it…

Did You Notice?… Four of the remaining six tracks on the schedule are held at 1.5-mile racetracks? With the championship battle down to three (with perhaps Kasey Kahne as an outlier) it’s a good time to see how these drivers have fared at NASCAR’s “cookie-cutter” intermediate ovals this season:

Note: Fontana and Michigan (2-mile ovals) were not included in the analysis.

Brad Keselowski: 32nd at Vegas, 36th at Texas, 11th at Kansas, 5th at Charlotte, 1st at Kentucky, 3rd at Atlanta, 1st at Chicagoland
Average Finish: 12.7 (2 Wins, 4 Top 5s, 4 Top 10s)
Laps Led: 148.

Jimmie Johnson: 2nd at Vegas, 2nd at Texas, 3rd at Kansas, 11th at Charlotte, 6th at Kentucky, 34th at Atlanta, 2nd at Chicagoland.
Average Finish: 8.6 (0 Wins, 4 Top 5s, 5 Top 10s).
Laps Led: 386.

Denny Hamlin: 20th at Vegas, 12th at Texas, 1st at Kansas, 2nd at Charlotte, 3rd at Kentucky, 1st at Atlanta, 16th at Chicagoland.
Average Finish: 7.9 (2 Wins, 4 Top 5s, 4 Top 10s).
Laps Led: 209.

What’s interesting is you can make an argument here for all three. Keselowski may have the worst average finish overall, but notice during the last four intermediate tracks there’s been no one better (2.5). Every time you expect the No. 2 Dodge to showcase a weakness, like at Dover, they’ve blown away expectations, so I think you need to throw those earlier performances, including a surprising 11th at Kansas, out the window. For Keselowski, though, there’s the most pressure, as with Johnson and Hamlin owning Martinsville (and having been through the season-ending nerves of Homestead), he’s likely to lose ground outside of the 1.5-mile ovals. These four tracks ahead are where he needs to pad the lead as much as possible to leave his team a wide margin for error.

As for Johnson, the No. 48 Chevy has clearly been the most consistent across all the 1.5-milers. If not for a late-race wreck with Sam Hornish, derailing a top-5 performance at Atlanta, his average finish would be untouchable. But within those 386 laps led is a troubling trend developing in the No. 48 camp – an inability to lead the last one. In the past two seasons, Johnson has registered a total of just five victories, equaling what Brad Keselowski has accomplished in this season alone. Winning isn’t everything, but when it comes to the Chase, it’s pretty much the only thing that guarantees you a little extra edge down the stretch. Top-3 finishes are nice, but as Carl Edwards found out last season, second is the first loser when your closest competitor winds up winning 50% of all postseason events held on the schedule. What makes things worse for Johnson is he’s coming from behind; 14 points is actually a pretty daunting deficit without the 3-to-5 point guarantee a victory brings to close the gap. Can he do it with a bunch of second-place finishes? I guess. But I’d recommend winning at Kansas, where he’s the defending champ, at the very least.

Can Denny Hamlin return to his inning ways at Charlotte and close the points gap?

That brings us to Hamlin, with the best average finish amongst the top Chase contenders on these types of tracks. So what’s the problem? A bigger deficit than Johnson (23 points) and one place in particular where the No. 11 team has stumbled. Check out Hamlin’s last three races at Texas: 15th, 20th, and 12th. Another performance like that is enough to wipe out any gains that two, even three victories would give him down the stretch. It’s easy to see Hamlin getting that hot, but to get over the hump and into the role of title favorite he must evade the 16th-place, Chicagoland type mistake that seems to haunt him during every postseason run. He’s the man I expect to draw first blood, though; look for the No. 11 to waltz to Victory Lane at Charlotte on Saturday night.

Did You Notice?… The weird irony in how NASCAR is treating Kurt Busch? Officials chose not to suspend him again for Sunday’s actions, in which he drove away from a crash scene with safety workers leaning inside the car while dragging their equipment away along with him. Officials’ anger on the radio could be heard loud and clear, feeling like their peers had been disrespected when their job was to ensure Busch and the car were OK.

So let me get this straight; you follow up with no suspension, even though Busch is on probation through the end of 2012. But when a member of the media, someone who isn’t even employed by you or your tracks gets disrespected, Busch immediately gets the equivalent of a one-week prison sentence? Wow. You’ve got to wonder what kind of message that’s sending to NASCAR’s people. How would you feel when your employer is getting busy protecting someone outside the company?

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

- Yes, Talladega didn’t end the way it should have for Jamie McMurray. But with 38 laps led, his highest total in nearly two years, it’s a key step in the right direction for a program in need of 2013 funding. Earnhardt Ganassi is consistent in that despite Bass Pro Shops leaving, they’ve got sponsors already signed and willing to fill the gaps on the No. 1 car. Yet I seem to remember, a few years ago, their confidence in selling backers for a No. 8 car and Aric Almirola – an effort that was quickly parked after seven subpar 2009 events.

- It’s clearly a do-or-die weekend for Kasey Kahne in the title race (this spring’s Charlotte winner). He’s not a short tracker (Martinsville), has ho-hum results at Texas & Kansas this year and crashed in Phoenix. Expect the No. 5 team to treat it like a be-all, end-all event with him 36 points behind Keselowski heading in.

- Don’t you miss the homegrown, underdog teams that would choose to debut at Charlotte in one-race deals, hoping the right finish or a lucky break could get a backer to sign on the dotted line for 2013? We don’t have any of those “extra,” special entries anymore, the type old promoter “Humpy” Wheeler would put out in the press weeks in advance. Charlotte is the hometown track, yet for many it’s become just another race on the schedule.

When are we going to find a way to make some of NASCAR’s more prestigious races “special” again?

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Tony
10/10/2012 05:33 AM
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It’s certainly amusing that the drivers always criticize Talladega, but is it the track that’s making boneheaded moves? Is it Talladega superspeedway trying to block a car with tons of momentum? Hell no it’s the drivers themselves. tony “I can do no wrong, but everybody else is an idiot” stewart trying to block waltrip ended up destroying 25 cars. It’s the drivers doing stupid crap like this, and the drivers going 4 or 5 wide and the drivers bump drafting in the turns. Police yourselves up drivers, you’re supposed to be the best in the world.

Carl D.
10/10/2012 09:16 AM
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McMurray has run well at the plate tracks even when EGR teams are running like a broke-leg tortoise everywhere else. I’ll give EGR credit for improving when McMurray and Montoya start running competitively at the non-restrictor plate tracks. Both drivers are better than their recent performance indicates. They’re not running up front because of the turdmobiles they have to drive.

Jack
10/10/2012 10:06 AM
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Since NASCAR’s new car at Talladega, attendance has gone from 160,000 in 2004 to an estimated 88,000 on Sunday

Jacklegged Nascar Expert
10/10/2012 11:20 AM
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My local am radio station has replaced nascar with Braves Baseball. The nearby fm station broadcasts Panthers Football now instead of nascar. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone under 50 wearing anything nascar. With one leg in the body farm and they pretend nascar is a sport with their painted boxes and decals for lights.

john
10/10/2012 11:58 AM
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Ratings are probably down because most real race fans don’t bother watching this abortion that passes for a motorsports event, leaving the “casual” rednecks who want to see giant wrecks… But as we’ve seen over the past 5 years, interest from “casual” fans is waning because the racing is boring.

Lydia
10/10/2012 01:06 PM
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I guess it’s easy..and factual to put the blame on Stewart for Sunday’s big one…we all saw the move he made..a second or two late…and the carnage was mind boggling. That said, was anyone truly thinking with a GWC, last lap, last turn, Talladega…it was really going to end cleanly? Really? Yes it was Stewart..but in all honesty it was a mistake he very rarely makes. Yep..he hates blocking..but in all fairness he did state he was tired of being blocked and was going to start doing it himself. Bad mistake..but we saw a few almost big ones during the race…all due to dumb mistakes..misjudgments or just the frenzy of Talladega itself. We all can say it was Stewart..this time…but many many drivers have made bad moves at Talladega and Daytona in the past..and it will happen again and again and again! It’s the nature of the beasts. And yes I realize the drivers are in control of their cars and are professionals..but you know “stuff” happens..no one is perfect…and we’re all human…and every other cliche you can think of! It happened! Get over it!!

Lydia
10/10/2012 01:19 PM
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Oh…and re Kurt..I’m glad NASCAR cut the guy some slack. He’s ready to start with a new team..hopefully a somewhat clean slate..and
God bless his soul..in his own
way he’s trying. Maybe
NASCAR cut him some slack
because in a few instances
past..they shouldnt have
penalized him as much. Sorry
Mr. Bowles…but the press can
be brutal..and a few members
seem to like to poke at an
open wound when it comes to
driver interviews. I know I
know…drivers are
professionals, big $$$, big teams, sponsors…but again..for some it harder then others to smile and turn the other cheek when being badgered by the reporters. I’m not saying Kurt has always been justified..but I will admit there were a few times I wanted to smack the reporters myself! So hopefully Kurt will be able to slide into his new ride, get used to his new team..and just go about his business. We shall see!

Russ
10/10/2012 01:43 PM
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It’s just no longer relevant to young people. End of story,

Brian France Sucks
10/10/2012 02:07 PM
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Want better ratings, and better racing? Rebuild .5-.75 mile tracks on the grounds of the 1.5+ tracks and get better racing. Vary them. no cookie cutting. Maybe one IRP-clone, and another progressively-banked Wilkesbora style track, with a Winchester or Salem-style high ban ker thrown in. Putting Iowa Speedway on the schedule, while giving Rockingham back a race, would begin the upward trend.

The bottom line: Big tracks are boring, and take big dollars to compete. Ever wonder why races such as Bristol and Martinsville are the few in the docket where the little guys can compete?

old nascar
10/10/2012 03:09 PM
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I don’t like the plate races like it is.
dont like the pack type racing.
So far NASCAR has been lucky the no driver has been killed or seriously injured with this type of racing.

Jim
10/10/2012 03:12 PM
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People not watching, people not attending the SHOW, really? It starts at the top. Goofy Brian for years now acts like a pampas a__ when asked by reporters about all the things he changed and the fans have repeatedly voiced displeasure about. Now slowly he’s changing back some things but it’s to little to late. It’s still an over regulated spec series now and everyone has had it with him. The best thing that could happen is a complete reorganization with King Brian resigning. It must become a race again with stock car the main theme. Cookie cuter cars have to go. The plates have to go and Brian has to go.

Richard
10/10/2012 03:15 PM
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As a 69 YO Nascar fan the problem is pretty simple to me. It’s the COT!!. Nobody drives a car with a sidways cant on public roads. Nothing to relate to!!!.

Kevin
10/10/2012 03:23 PM
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Did you notice? NASCAR has built a significantly different car for 2013. One with a reliance on mechanical grip, and less aerodynamic. (read: more like the car preceding the COT).
I don’t know about you, but to me, that is an admission that what exists today isn’t working & NASCAR is working towards a solution.

Steve
10/10/2012 03:27 PM
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I’m really amazed at how everyone just takes Sunday’s wreck in stride like its no big deal. 25+ drivers could have been hurt or killed in that pileup, one car got airborn and upside down and its just ho hum another plate race. Its a joke that Nascar is playing with people lives like this just to sell a few more tickets. Then they talk about what a family sport it is. Yeah right!

Blaming Stewart is fine, but remember, Harvick body slammed McMurray which caused him to almost take out the field (nobody seems to want to talk about that boneheaded move). Also, Biffle made a hell of a save or else he would have taken out half the field. The margin for error is very slight and even less so on the last lap. I’m willing to cut guys a break for blocking. I think they pay enough of the consequences by taking the worst of the wreck when they make a mistake.

Lydia
10/10/2012 04:01 PM
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You totally are right Steve..seems alot of fans and most of the media think drivers are superhuman..I’m not sure if it’s because of the risks, $$$, or fame…a mistake is ridiculed.. it seems those not driving feel “they” could do much better! Ha!

GinaV24
10/10/2012 04:35 PM
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Heard Dale Jr has already backed off his comments. Someone probably told him – knock it off or else.

That last lap mess was predictable – I certainly expected it to happen, I was surprised they got through 3 and 4 the for the white flag – NASCAR deciding that GWC finishes at RP tracks or really anyplace for that matter sets up the field for wrecks. They know it, the drivers know it and so do the fans.

These days you don’t really need to watch an entire race, the last 10 laps are all that matter since parity has turned the cup series into the IROC series – anyone remember how that ended? With empty seats and no one watching.

Upstate24fan
10/10/2012 04:37 PM
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I don’t think plate racing is the problem per se. They have been doing this type of racing 25 years, and pack racing was drawing huge crowds and ratings in the early 2000s. They won’t stop racing at those tracks, and I’m sure if there was a better alternative to restrictor plates it would have been found by now.

I think the main problem for NASCAR is that the “fad” of NASCAR is over. And that has exposed NASCAR’s terrible decisions that alienated the traditional fanbase (eliminating the Southern 500, the Chase, COT/common templates, too many 1.5 tracks, etc.) Combine that with the economy and you have the current situation.

NASCAR needs to start righting some of these wrongs to get fans back. I’m optimistic looking forward to the new car next year. So far I’m hearing good things about making them more raceable.

janice
10/10/2012 07:45 PM
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did you notice jr quickly recanted his complaint about plate racing after he “realized” on tuesday that in 2013 there will be a new car….guess he got reminded of that in the hendrick team meeting.

JD in NC
10/10/2012 11:10 PM
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Richard, you are absolutely wrong when you say “Nobody drives a car with a sidways cant on public roads.” My neighbor down the road has a 15 year old Dodge pickup that goes down the road like that! Of course its a total POS and I suspect its been wrecked real hard sometime in its life!

Mike In NH
10/11/2012 11:18 AM
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Well, Jr has a concussion, as it turns out, guess that a headache would explain his surliness (especially considering he’s been a much happier person of late).

Question now is, will the ratings and crowds drop in half now that Mr Most Popular won’t be at the race Saturday? Guess we get to see how much of an impact he really has on the sport. Should be interesting.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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