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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? No ’09 Rivalries, Fun with TV Ratings & Statistical Surprises in Sprint Cup

Did You Notice? The only thing Lowe’s Motor Speedway President Marcus Smith would commit to last week – alluding to changes for this year’s All-Star Race – is that the distance would stay exactly the same (100 laps). To me, that’s already a bad “change” to make, no matter how you break that distance down… you’re putting the cars out on the track way too long for an event that’s advertised as “action-packed” from the minute they drop the green flag.

I think the best version of the All-Star Race was back in the mid-1990s, when you had three segments overall: a 30-lap run to start, a second 30-lap segment where they inverted the field, and a third, 10-lap dash for all the marbles. 70 laps is plenty… especially with the dreaded aero push that makes side-by-side action up front at the 1.5-milers difficult if not impossible more than a few laps into a run with the CoT. Not only that, but an inversion in the second segment would keep the cars close together and force the drivers to let loose with the type of aggression everyone at the track or on TV would like to see.

If you remember, last year’s version of the All-Star Race was split into four – count ‘em, four – segments. Um, no one remembers who won anything more than the last segment… so why split it up any more than you have to?

As it is, I’ve been in favor of a suggestion in the last few years to move the race around from year to year, basing it at tracks local to the Charlotte vicinity: Bristol, Darlington, Martinsville as it is. I wonder if they bungle up the rules again, maybe this will be the year that movement finally gains enough steam to take hold.

Did You Notice? A few little stat anomalies I picked up in the off week:

  • Only three drivers have finished on the lead lap in all four races this season? They’re Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and… Kasey Kahne? That’s right; Kahne’s average finish is just 14.8 with only one top-10 finish, but his cars have been just good enough to stay within this exclusive group.
  • Mark Martin has an average starting position of 7.2 – good enough for fourth-best amongst all drivers – but only Scott Speed and Paul Menard have made all four races and have a worse average finish than Martin’s 31.8.
  • Among those drivers yet to lead a lap this season: David Ragan (so much for 2008 momentum), Denny Hamlin (so much for the UPS-FedEx battle up front) and Brian Vickers (even with three straight top-10 finishes and nearly nipping Kurt Busch for the win at Atlanta). I should add Jamie McMurray to this list, as well… but is it really all that surprising anymore that he’s on it?
  • In the past three races, the No. 71 TRG Motorsports Chevrolet of David Gilliland has scored more points than Martin, Speed, Aric Almirola, Ryan Newman and Reed Sorenson. Not bad for a startup team that missed the Daytona 500, huh?
  • Newman has yet to finish on the lead lap all season. Ouch! Guess the improvements over at the No. 14 camp didn’t carry over to the No. 39…

Did You Notice? Former JGR development driver Marc Davis is attempting to make his Nationwide Series debut in his self-owned No. 36 Toyota. That’s right; at 18, this teenager is the owner of record for a team he’s trying to build up with his father from scratch. It’s incredible to have that much responsibility at such a young age, and impressive that Davis is mature enough to manage it all. Trying to do things the old-school way, the duo will attempt 16 Nationwide Series events this year and up to four on the Cup side, with an eye towards expanding that schedule even further in 2010.

I wonder how Joey Logano would have fared if he were put in an ownership situation with an underdog team at 18? Just wondering… and for more on Davis, check out my story on him later this week on SI.com.

Did You Notice? For those wondering if the ratings the first four weeks of the season are just an anomaly… let’s expand out and compare them to 2005, the second year of the Chase and what appears to be the “crest” of the NASCAR boom, based on overall ratings increases year-to-year:

Daytona
2009 Rating: 9.2 / 19
2005: 10.9 / 23
Difference: -16%

California
2009 Rating: 6.0 / 10
2005: 7.9 / 16
Difference: -24%

Las Vegas
2009 Rating: 6.5 / 12
2005: 6.4 / 14
Difference: +1.5%

Atlanta
2009 Rating: 5.5 / 12
2005: 5.5 / 13
Difference: 0%

Overall
2009 Rating: 6.8 / 12
2005: 7.7 / 17
Difference: -11.7%

In the end, you find that this downturn – while not advisable – is far from irrecoverable if NASCAR makes some changes to right the ship. What I find interesting is the two most-criticized races this season (Daytona and California) had the biggest decline in ratings from four years ago. There’s no bigger advocate to strip a date from California than that -24%, all the more important seeing as it’s the sport’s second race of the season and trying valiantly to keep momentum chugging forward from Daytona. Meanwhile, the one place where viewership increased over four years ago is Las Vegas… a track which has notably improved its quality of racing the last few seasons.

To me, these ratings continually center around one concept: the quality of racing. That’s the thing fans still like to see, and when they get what they want, they’ll still tune in no matter how much they’re bad-mouthing the sport in other areas on Monday morning at the office.

Did You Notice? Amongst all the storylines developing throughout the 2009 Cup season to date, there hasn’t really been any sort of major rivalry brewing? I guess Dale Earnhardt Jr. versus Vickers was the closest one we had, as to who was at fault in causing the nine-car Daytona wreck that wiped out several top contenders. But for the most part, things have been rather tame ‘round these parts this season… which means it’s the perfect time to go to Bristol.

Remember what happened at Thunder Valley last August? Edwards bumped Kyle Busch out of the way to win, causing Busch to retaliate by trying to spin both drivers out after the checkered flag. It was a rare display of passionate emotion on the racetrack, followed up by both drivers saying what they honestly felt in post-race interviews. It’s that type of old-school atmosphere Bristol brings back into the fold, where somehow even in this politically correct modern era, drivers forget what they’re supposed to say and let their true personalities on the inside take hold. And that – to me – is one of the biggest reasons the half-mile bullring has attained near mythical status in the sport over the past decade.

I just wish more sponsors were paying attention to that.

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