A few random notes after a rare weekend off for the Cup Series…
I really think NASCAR needs to take a long, hard look at their schedule. I hope everyone who took this weekend off enjoyed it, because the next time the Cup schedule does something like that is July 20th. After that, the series continues without a break right on until the end of the season – the weekend before Thanksgiving.
With that in mind, why – with three weekends off in a season that drags on from February to November – do two of those off-weeks occur in the first two months of the season? I agree with the need for a sport born in the buckle of the Bible Belt to take the Easter weekend off – and yes, I realize that Easter is a floating holiday that occurred very early this year – but for the life of me, I don’t understand why NASCAR sees the need to idle the Cup series just so the Bus…(oops!) Nationwide Series road-course race in Mexico gets a bit more attention. Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, David Reutimann, David Ragan and Clint Bowyer were the only Cup Series regulars that chose to race in Mexico; the big name drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne didn’t make the trip to help the track sell tickets just because they were off.
As I see it, NASCAR should continue to have the Easter weekend as its spring break and should continue to take one summer weekend off. But that third weekend off needs to be moved to late fall to give the teams in the Chase a chance to regroup at the halfway point of the championship run, and to give fans at home a weekend to relax with their families and friends. Ideally, I’d like to see the number of races on the schedule pared back to 30 points events, with the season ending by Halloween and more off-weekends sprinkled through the rest of the season.
Danica Patrick’s win in the IRL’s Japanese race has been picked up as a major news story in a lot of mainstream media outlets that don’t typically cover auto racing. Let’s face it; she’s a good-looking woman, and that doesn’t hurt any. But once again, it brings up questions as to the lack of diversity in NASCAR’s top three touring series. Yeah, OK; Cup racing is very diverse. You’ve got younger white guys, older white guys and Juan Pablo Montoya. A few women have tried to make inroads into the Truck Series, but with limited success. (With that track record, you have to imagine that NASCAR would dearly love to get Ms. Patrick to run a Cup road-course event or two if they could).
Meanwhile, over in Formula 1, a young black driver named Lewis Hamilton is piling on the wins and even contended for a title last year. But the most diverse set of competitors can be found in the NHRA Drag Racing Series, where blacks, women and Hispanics have won both races and championships. The NHRA has an advantage in that regard in that drag racing is a sport you can get involved in with the family car. And as little as the NHRA wants you to dwell on it, even in areas where there are no longer any drag strips, there is a close cousin to drag racing being waged in the streets.
I have no doubt that NASCAR officials are sincere in wanting to attract a more diverse crop of drivers. My feelings on the matter are the same as they’ve always been; the door is open to anyone, but there’s no free ride whatever your race, gender or religion.
In contrasting the open wheel series and stock car racing, I do see another telling difference. Like NASCAR, there are various feeder series, most often called “Formula” something that lead up to the big leagues. But unlike NASCAR’s feeder series, the Nationwide series in particular, drivers who have reached the top level of their respective forms of racing don’t enter the feeder series races on Saturdays. My guess is if NASCAR implemented a rule that forbade drivers in the top 25 in the Cup standings from running Nationwide races, within a few years you’d see a more diverse group of drivers in the AAA league. Could the Nationwide Series survive without the big-name Cup drivers? If it can’t, that calls into serious question the health of the Nationwide division.
Speaking of which, here’s some good news for the fans who want to see some “stock” put back into stock car racing. Rumors are rampant that the next generation Nationwide cars will be a lot closer to “stock” than anything we’ve seen on the track in a while. Ford, Chevy, and Chrysler aren’t willing to tell you yet that they’re planning on entering Mustangs, Camaros and Challengers, but they are.
FOX has been doing pretty well with their ratings in the Cup Series this season. If the numbers aren’t up dramatically, at least they are no longer falling. Then, there was a little glitch in the trend when ratings for the Phoenix race were flat. Hmmm. That was the race that didn’t end until close to midnight Eastern Time. Anyone else sensing a correlation here? Sunday races need to be over by 4 p.m. ET and night races need to end by 10 p.m. ET, weather permitting.
I saw a poll on another major NASCAR website this week wherein 89% of those responding said they wanted to see NASCAR implement a structured drug testing program for the drivers. It doesn’t happen often, but in this instance, I’m not on the side of the Vox Populi.
There are two main reasons. First off, I’ve been following the sport long enough to remember how NASCAR implemented their current drug-testing program – which was just to humiliate and eliminate Tim Richmond. Yeah, eventually they had to admit the drugs that turned up in his test were over-the-counter cold remedies, but the damage was done and to this day, there are still people who think Tim tested positive for coke or pot. For the record, he did not. Secondly, I don’t think there’s many NASCAR officials left in the regime of Brian who can manage a good fart without soiling their shorts. They don’t need something else to screw up.
Stock car racing has a very different fanbase than most stick-and-ball sports. Yeah, we’re the guys Senator Obama is talking about when he discusses those bitter individuals clinging to their guns and religion. While the stick-and-ball sports’ punishment for drug infractions is suspension, any driver caught doing drugs is going to be drummed out of the sport. The fans won’t put up with it. The sponsors aren’t going to tolerate it. Team owners aren’t going to give them a second chance. In that way, at least, this sport is self-policing.
I can understand the other side of the argument. If everyday working people have to pass a drug test to be able to work at a convenience store, then a driver who’s being paid millions and competing in close quarters at high speeds with other drivers who could be injured if someone’s racing impaired should also have to be tested. But in a close community like the NASCAR garage area, very little gets missed, even if fans don’t always hear about it.
It’s rare that the dollars behind the sport are discussed publicly, so I found a recent article in the Sports Business Journal extremely interesting. Three years ago, the Office Depot signed on to sponsor Edwards and the No. 99 team for an annual amount somewhere between $14-15 million a year. The company has done a decent job leveraging their marketing campaign with their investment, and Edwards has done them proud, winning some races while making the Chase in ’07.
But that contract is set to expire at the end of 2008. Negotiations are underway between the Office Depot and Roush Racing to extend the deal; but this time around, Roush is asking for somewhere between $22-24 million annually. Part of that increase represents the increased worth of dealing with Edwards, who has gone from an likable upstart to a legitimate contender; but a lot of it also reflects how much higher the costs of running a competitive team have risen over the last three years. It would appear that NASCAR’s initiatives to control the costs of racing – the new car, limiting testing and the rest – have failed to date. In the current troubled economy, there’s going to be a limited pool of corporations willing or able to ante up $24 million a year.
Drivers To Watch At Talladega
Matt took a week off from this part of the feature this week, en route to a little vacation time; however, click here for Frontstretch writer Mike Lovecchio’s handy stats on how the top-15 drivers in points have performed at Talladega.