NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Hendrick Layoffs, Ratings Reality & Jeff Gordon’s Age?

Did You Notice? That in the midst of a championship performance, the sport’s most powerful team – Hendrick Motorsports – is laying off a dozen employees?

Just think about that for a second. This is a team with hundreds of millions of dollars in sponsorship coming from brands like Lowe’s, Pepsi-Cola, DuPont, Kellogg’s, the National Guard and many more. They currently possess three of the most marketable wheelmen on the circuit: soon-to-be three-time champ Jimmie Johnson, the winningest active legend in Jeff Gordon and the sport’s Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Three of their cars made the Chase this year, and as a team they’ve collected over $20 million in winnings.

So, you’re telling me a team with that sort of financial capital couldn’t hold on to 12 employees due to future budgeting concerns? What does that tell you about the current costs associated with the sport today in order to stay on top? Think of all the millions in technology teams like Hendrick have at their disposal. Is the cost of competing with the top dogs on the circuit making it impossible to cut back on that because it jeopardizes their future success? How many seven-post thing-a-ma-jigs do you need?

And here’s what worries me the most. If someone within the “Big Four” has to cut back on employees despite having more sponsorship than most teams would dream of, what does that mean for everybody else?

With “Black Monday” just five days away, it’s a very scary thought.

Did You Notice? That in the midst of the ABC to ESPN2 controversy which has dominated the headlines over the past couple of days, no one’s actually brought up some hard numbers. Well in the midst of the outcry, the ratings finally did come in, and the results aren’t good for those arguing to keep the race on ABC. See below:

Sunday TV Ratings
Phoenix Cup Race on ABC – 3:00 ET to 7:30 ET: 3.4
America’s Funniest Home Videos – 7:30 to 8:00 ET: 4.3

Look, everybody and anybody who loves NASCAR is upset about this thing. No one wanted it to happen. But the cold, hard truth of the numbers explains the reasoning of television executives in a nutshell. Faced with a dilemma, they went to the program guaranteed to deliver a better audience while throwing the sporting event to another network – where they felt the majority people watching could simply change the channel, I might add. Did it suck? Of course it did. Are there plenty of people disillusioned, who either didn’t have ESPN2 or are ready to throw their TiVos out the window? I know of quite a few. But you can’t blame the network for attempting to attract the highest amount of viewership at all times. If anything, you can blame NASCAR for the late start times and declining TV ratings that precipitated such an unfortunate decision to occur in the first place.

TURNBULL: TALKING NASCAR TV AFTER PHOENIX

Here’s a note you should also be aware of: three years ago, NBC’s coverage of this very same race drew a 5.0 rating and a 10 share. That’s higher than what we saw for America’s Funniest Home Videos, and similar numbers in the fifth year of the Chase could have put TV executives in a very different position. But when there’s a decline in viewership, you suffer from a decline in power, and all the Brian France screaming in the world isn’t going to change the precarious perception that NASCAR’s losing steam. It was a reality check that wasn’t easy – but unavoidable nonetheless.

Did You Notice? The calm, collected poise of AJ Allmendinger in the face of both Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth coming after the sophomore sensation? After Kenseth intentionally wrecked the No. 10 car on the last lap – something he has yet to be penalized for – ‘Dinger would have been totally justified to come out of that whole deal hopping mad. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Stewart was ready and waiting for the driver of the McDonald’s Dodge the second he got out of his mangled racecar. Giving the ‘Dinger what amounted to be a tongue-lashing for the ages, the man they call Smoke pretty much had it pouring out of his ears for a good two or three minutes.

But instead of caving in, Allmendinger remained contrite, apologetic, and classy in admitting he made a mistake in the crash he caused earlier in the day. That’s the type of behavior that will earn you a ride in this series somewhere, and when Stewart and Kenseth calm down this weekend, perhaps they’ll be the ones issuing some public apologies themselves.

Did You Notice? Gordon in the pre-race show on Sunday? When ABC was interviewing him, I’ve never seen the guy look so old. Heck, he was talking about having breathing problems in his car! As a guy who was just a wide-eyed kid when 21-year-old Gordon took the wheel the day of Richard Petty’s last race, it’s amazing to me how quickly things change in 16 years.

But at 37, Gordon’s not such a young pup anymore when it comes to the new NASCAR. Of the top 25 in the current points standings, only Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton and Stewart are older – and in Stewart’s case, it’s only by a matter of a couple of months. Someone asked me recently why Hendrick has kept the slow-to-develop Landon Cassill lying around. My answer? With Gordon, I’m sure he understands that you get to the point where you never know what the future might bring. No matter what Gordon says in public, 2009 will mark his 17th full season on the Cup tour… and sometimes, you’ve got to wonder if he’s willing to go past 20.

Did You Notice? That during a year where passing is at a premium, qualifying has become more important than ever? So far this season, drivers who started inside the top 10 have won a whopping 28 of 35 races. That’s a far cry from 2007 – a hybrid year for the CoT and the old car – in which drivers starting inside the top 10 won just 19 events in 36 starts.

So, not only are a handful of drivers winning races with this new car, those who have a bad qualifying lap find it difficult if not impossible to recover from – because back in traffic, you don’t have a chance to run in clean air and gain the track position you need to get these cars handling right.

Mark this down as reason 6,543,245 why the current CoT isn’t working.

Did You Notice? The number of fans who were watching the race outside in the Arizona desert instead of buying a seat in the stands on Sunday? If that doesn’t tell you how bad the economy is these days, I don’t know what will.

Did You Notice? The growing animosity between drivers racing for the win and lapped cars they have to race around? All of it comes from an increasing inability to pass with the CoT. Since these cars are so hard to handle, you can lose valuable time so quickly by being unable to race side-by-side with a car that’s five, maybe even six tenths of a second slower than you.

But just because there’s such a difference in speed doesn’t mean lapped cars should just pull over. What happened to the principles of good, hard ol’ fashioned racing? The drivers dicing it up for the win need to understand the battle for 25th is just as important to those battling for their future survival. Nowhere in the racing handbook does the word “surrender” apply.

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