The Frontstretch: The Cracks Behind The Facade Of A Fantastic Finish by Thomas Bowles -- Monday November 5, 2012

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The Cracks Behind The Facade Of A Fantastic Finish

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday November 5, 2012

 

Taking the final 50 laps, only into account it’s hard to view Sunday’s Sprint Cup show at Texas as anything other than a positive for NASCAR. Down the stretch, during a series of final restarts the two men fighting for the championship were side-by-side, exchanging sheet metal and clearly the two fastest cars. You had Kyle Busch, one of the sport’s most aggressive and controversial drivers lurking third and ready to poke his nose in at any time. The action stepped up considerably, making the final 45 minutes a rare moment of 2012 NASCAR “can’t miss” racing television.

Side-by-side racing at Texas, a mainstay by the end of the race was a little more than an optical illusion for its first 400 miles.

What’s the problem? For all its “highlight reel” moments, condensed into a fireworks show on Sportscenter we took well over three hours to get there. As with far too many races this season, NASCAR’s intermediate ovals, typically 500-mile affairs have been contested correctly in just the final 100. Only then does the sense of urgency pick up, drivers working to collect as many positions possible instead of just staying in line, playing it safe and making laps. Heck, I counted at least three times, during the middle portion of the race where Chase drivers and crew chiefs, when interviewed, said, “We’re just out here making laps.” Oh really, then? Sounds great. You just told the studio audience to make some popcorn, run some errands and come back in two hours when you’re really trying to race someone.

That was just one of the underlying themes I wrote down, continuing to eat at NASCAR’s popularity during the 400 miles before Texas got worth watching. Once again, the dominance of select drivers up front, combined with the importance of track position (the nice way to say you can’t pass anyone) made too much of this event drivers running in place. It doesn’t help that by the first 100 miles, the traffic they need to contend with is reduced by nearly 20 percent; seven of the day’s 43 drivers chose to run around slowly, then pull in the garage afflicted by the dreaded disease of “start and park.” Mechanical perfection, showcased by one legitimate engine failure (David Gilliland) is a reminder this grueling distance is no longer a test of man and machine.

As the race continued, NASCAR’s concern over predictability, parity resulting in stale competition up front became evident in their long line of debris cautions. Five of the night’s nine yellows were thrown for pieces of metal the public never saw, including the most questionable one thrown with 58 laps remaining. At the time the caution came out, ESPN’s play-by-play Allen Bestwick was even confused, claiming there was a call on the NASCAR Channel for debris but that he had no idea where it was. Seconds later, as if read to him off a script that description was corrected to “a piece of metal on the backstretch.” It was a moment that should have followed with a camera shot, letting the public inspect the decision the same way NFL replays show you a penalty. Instead, as has been the norm the topics got refocused towards pit stops, Chase notes and sponsor elements – anything to divert fans’ eyes from a decision that could have changed the outcome of a race.

Let’s think on that one for a second. All of a sudden, a yellow with 58 to go when most teams are on the tail end of their fuel window? What better way to turn up the wick on what appeared to be a ho-hum, 1-2 finish by Johnson and Keselowski then to throw the fuel mileage card into play? That’ll keep people around with baited breath, right? Any good conspiracy theorist could jump on the bandwagon; any major sport run with transparency would do anything possible to shoot those theories down on the vine.

NASCAR did not. And their broadcast partner, ESPN continues to do the series no favors by forgetting fans tune in for far more than just the drivers up front. Too often, over the course of 500 miles drivers just “appeared” inside the top 10 as if it was some sort of magical event. When Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Matt Kenseth jumped inside the top 5, both solid stories in their own right the network reacted as if they had just been teleported in from space. “Oh my gosh, Dale Jarrett? Did you see that!” “Yes, Andy Petree… I can’t believe it. There’s other cars on the racetrack than just those fighting for the championship!”

In ESPN’s defense, NASCAR’s rules over the last several years have made it far more difficult to cover cars running at the back. It’s out of sight, out of mind now where lapped cars are no longer running at the front because of the necessity of double-file, lead-lap restarts. At least, back then the network would “bump” into these guys, holding up a second-place car on camera and be forced to mention their names. Instead, those one lap down or more now fall into one of two categories. A) They’re a contender, and will naturally work their way on-screen because the Lucky Dog and wave-around rules give laps back down the stretch faster than NHL owners say the word “lockout.” B) They’re mediocre, without the speed to get back in it which means they’re starting at the back, every time, never on camera and inconsequential in a storyline system focused on the big names and one holier-than-thou title.

That battle, when marketed right can occasionally lead to a well-watched season finale (See: Edwards vs. Stewart, 2011). But more often than not, at this point the damage inflicted by its presence through disastrous ratings in the nine events run to get to that point hardly make the Chase a worthwhile affair. Some say, with the last two years what we’re seeing from these mano-e-mano championship competitions is enough to put the “end the playoffs!” talk to rest. But many of us in the media know better. Even after Texas’ sizzling finish, one where I was on the edge of my seat I was a half-hour removed from reading emails like this one:

“I’m retiring from watching NASCAR.”

Too many people are saying those words these days, and it would be a shame if the next two races, even if becoming another “battle to the last lap” title chase give NASCAR an excuse to ignore the many problems created leading up to them.

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Tony
11/05/2012 11:44 AM
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Every week you have to complain about something. Why?? It wasn’t terrible in the middle and the end was awesome. What exactly are you expecting?

spot1
11/05/2012 12:35 PM
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Tony, in answer to your question, did you watch the World of Outlaws World Finals at Charlotte on Saturday night? If you didn’t, too bad, because that was a lot of good racing. And the TV coverage was not only up front either as they showed racing in the pack too.

Joe
11/05/2012 01:28 PM
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Spot on Tom. Real nascar fans understand what CONTINUES to be wrong with nascar and their broadcast partners

Michael in SoCal
11/05/2012 03:35 PM
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Second cookie cutter race in a row where the wife & I were otherwise occupied during the middle portion of the race – during Kansas we watched a replay of Saturday Night Live on our DVR, for Texas we spent some time napping then we spent some more time in the jacuzzi. We came in for the last 60 laps or so. Didn’t miss much of anything while we were away either race.

jerseygirl
11/05/2012 03:52 PM
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I decided after Kansas I wasn’t wasting much more time on the rest of the NASCAR season. I’ve been watching football, doing chores and working outside rather than spending 4 hrs being bored waiting for the end of the race.

I use trackpass, the radio broadcast & twitter and can follow what is happening without having to listen to ESPN drivel on.

Not interested in the slightest as to who wins another 10 race trophy – although personally I’d rather it wasn’t the 48.

Doug in Washington (State)
11/05/2012 04:06 PM
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Being I don’t have cable I can’t watch the broadcasts for the last half or so of the season, so I don’t have to listen to the drivel or the annoying repetitive commercials. Use RaceBuddy as much as possible, but the midrace was sleep inducing. I instead went out and changed the dash lights in my car. Came back to watch the end. The 300 miles of lap-logging is certainly one of the reasons I tune out. I’d rather watch the start and park guys race for their haulers than watch Jimmie lead the strung-out, seconds-per-interval parade.

paltex
11/05/2012 06:42 PM
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riteon about sprint car racing. evidently some people think nascar is the only form of racing(wrong). there is more racing in a 10 lap heat race (sprints) than thre is in 500 miles of nascar. did’nt i see a lot of empty seats??

matt
11/05/2012 11:46 PM
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Espns race coverage sucks ass ,they don’t care about NASCAR or it’s fans .why is it that idiot marty reed is even on NASCAR he does more damage to the sport every time he opens his dumb mouth it’s always hype of nothing the busch brothers should be fired suspended let’s vote he says why cause their passionate about winning not happy with second place that’s the kind of driver I’d want driving my car, oh bk jumped the gun replay it 10 times what about 5 time champ 20 time cheater beating him to the line at the last restart, if I remember correctly a ford driver got sent to the rear of the field for the same thing at a daytona race espn sucks you have to pay extra to get that channel no wonder ratings decline in a bad economy who wants to pay more to listen to espns idiots continue to make NASCAR look bad. It’s not nascars broadcasters former drivers crew chiefs and owners their fine it’s the other idiots like marty reed if they continue to make drivers look bad start late for football NASCAR needs to drop espn cause espn is making ratings plummet

john
11/06/2012 08:53 AM
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The idiots who broadcast NASCAR (especially Fox) could learn a thing or two from the V8 Supercar broadcasts. Jamie Whincup jumps out to the lead on the start, a few laps later he’s built up a bit of a gap—and then the broadcast proceeds to NEVER LOOK AT HIM AGAIN as they go back through the field, even back into the 20s, to show all the great, close, side-by-side racing going on throughout the field. THERE’S 40 CARS ON THE TRACK, NOT JUST JIMMIE JOHNSON.

And yeah, the World of Outlaws Finals were FANTASTIC again, I’m so glad SPEED covers the whole night. The Big Block Modified Feature was OUTSTANDING racing.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

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