Four weeks into the 2009 NASCAR season, nothing is etched in stone. It’s too early on to know who will be champion, and even too early to predict the 12 drivers who will make the Chase quite yet. But the first four Cup events of this season have offered a diverse set of track layouts: a plate track, a low-banked, mid-sized oval, a moderately banked mid-size oval, and a high-banked mid-size oval. These sorts of tracks will make up the meat and potatoes of the Cup schedule — though for the next couple weeks and fans will get their just desserts with some short track racing instead.
Already, we’re seeing some trends develop only a month deep into the seemingly endless Tragical Mystery Tour that is this year’s Cup schedule. And the following information is offered due to one irrefutable fact — there was no Cup race last Sunday, and there’s damn little to write about right now as a deadline looms.
Is the Bloom Off the Rose? Of the four Cup races this season, two were sellouts, Daytona and Las Vegas. The other two, Fontana and Atlanta, featured huge swaths of open seats. In particular, the crowd at Fontana’s Saturday Truck/Nationwide race would have had to be doubled in size to be considered merely pathetic. Selling out any race in this tough economy is a notable achievement and should be applauded. But when tickets are available for a Bristol Cup race, once considered the toughest seats to get in any sport, that’s beyond worrisome. Heck, maybe it’s time Bristol even rescinded their no smoking policy, huh?
In this economy, NASCAR is not the only major sport struggling with ticket sales. The stick and ball sports have the same issue, even with playoff games. But I’m noting something else interesting here. FOX’s TV ratings for the first four Cup races of the season are down somewhere between 13-15%. FOX’s talking heads have launched a PR blitz to say all is well — not even Mitch Ryder’s ex Jenny (now touring with the Boss) could spin it, spin it, spin it, like a spinning top better than FOX execs have, even if they are mainly male and not Devils in a Blue Dress. But if the sport is as healthy as we are being told, it would seem that with many fans no longer able to afford to travel to the races, there should be a corresponding rise in TV ratings. I mean, even if fans have had to cancel their (obscenely) expensive premium cable subscriptions, all four of this year’s races to date have been on broadcast TV, not cable.
So, what’s gone wrong? The late start time of this season’s first three races didn’t sit well with many fans, particularly in the East, but oddly enough, even with fans out West. Many will blame the “all noise – no substance” FOX has bought to NASCAR broadcasting that leaves many longtime, loyal fans longing for the glory days of ESPN coverage in the 1980s. Yeah, the coverage is pretty bad, and gimmicks like the Hollywood Hotel and that damned rodent don’t make it any more palatable. As much as I’d like to see the riding mower decapitate Digger (and Friends), I can’t blame a stupid rodent for all the decline in TV ratings. While I’ve never heard from any of them, I am sure that there are Digger fans out there — just as there are some number of deaf imbeciles out there that are buying Britney Spears’ CDs.
My guess is that most of the blame for both declining attendance and falling TV ratings falls on what NASCAR likes to call “The Product,” the actual racing going on out there on the track. To be polite — when have I never been well mannered — the racing not only sucks, it licks the sweat off a maggot-eaten dead wombat’s scrotum. Last year was the first full year of NASCAR’s Car of Sorrow on the circuit and the hope was that, with a year of learning under their belts, the teams would have a better handle on the new cars and we’d see better racing. Like grandpa used to say, “Can’t see it from my house.” The “action” remains largely processional, with drivers keeping a well-mannered distance from one another hoping they’re the last ones to suffer tire issues. What we have here is the perfect storm — new cars ill-suited for current race venues and Goodyear unable to produce a tire that’s worth a damn to reconcile the cars and tracks. The new car that was intended to eliminate the aero push condition that gives a leading car a decided advantage over a pursuing car has indeed only exacerbated the problem.
Oddly enough, while teams struggle to find sponsors, the commercial influence of existing sponsors has yielded a generation of well-behaved, bland, thoughtfully spoken but boring as hell puppets at the wheels of these ungainly cars. Fans want to pull for a driver who at least seems like someone they might run into at the corner tavern, not somebody who reminds them of the captain of their high school debating team who was voted most likely to end up selling insurance for the rest of his life. Had Brian Vickers gone over to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and punched him right in the yap after the Daytona 500, I don’t think ratings would be an issue right now. But had he done so, Vickers’s sponsor would have quit the team, NASCAR would have suspended him for the rest of the season, and ol’ DW would have burst into tears, run off and hidden in a corner until some FOX corporate lackey was sent to shovel out his browned shorts. Real drivers, driving real cars, at real racetracks, real hard, real fast — that’s what we need right now, real quick.
Hendrick Motorsports — The Best of Times and the Worst of Times Jeff Gordon, arguably the team leader of the Hendrick organization, has gotten off to a hot start in the first four races of the season. Gordon has two second-place finishes in those first four races and, as such, finds himself leading the point standings for the first time since after Martinsville in the fall of 2007. The bad news for Gordon fans — Gordon still hasn’t won a race in about a gazillion years (OK, since Martinsville, also in the fall of 2007). But the good news for Gordon fans is the way he’s running, it surely won’t be long until Gordon wins again.
Meanwhile, three-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s season is off to a somewhat dismal start, with an average finish of 18th and no top-five results. You might recall that Johnson got off to only an incrementally better finish in 2008 en route to his third straight Cup title. Expect the No. 48 bunch to be fine. The team admitted last year they’re playing the Chase game, and the first 26 races only matter in that their boy Jimmie runs well enough to claim a top 12 points position after Richmond in the fall. After that… the game is afoot. Thus, they consider the 26 race “regular season” an opportunity to test new setups and strategies with their eyes towards the final ten races of the season.
On the other hand, great things were expected of Mark Martin’s pairing with HMS for what is supposed to be his final run at a title. (We’ll see about that.) With two blown engines this year and no finishes better than 16th to date, Martin doesn’t exactly have the titlist favorites shivering in their sponsor-logo laden pajamas just yet.
But the big story for HMS this year is Earnhardt Jr. (And let’s face it, the big story in current day NASCAR is always Junior, whether he’s winning races or running lousy. He is the planet the rest of the sport revolves around, 24-7.) Earnhardt started off the season with a boneheaded move at Daytona that earned him widespread criticism. Earnhardt retorted with an arrogant attitude that seemed to suggest that Vickers was one of the few drivers not smart enough to get out of the way when the sport’s Most Popular Driver laid claim to a piece of real estate. After blowing an engine at Fontana, Junior responded with 10th- and 11th-place finishes at Vegas and Atlanta, hardly the stuff legends are made of. That’s left him currently ranked 24th in the standings, and if his last name was Smith, the rumor mill would have Earnhardt out of a ride soon.
Matt Kenseth started the season hot with two straight wins, including his Daytona 500 victory which paid pretty well for a short day’s work. That streak ended with an ignoble engine failure in the opening laps at Vegas, one that left the always laconic Kenseth sounding slightly more pessimistic than Eeyore in the Hundred Acre Wood. A 12th-place finish at Atlanta helped right the boat, but it remains to be seen if Kenseth can follow up on his barnstorming start to the season.
Chevrolet, Wherefore Art Thou? Four races deep into the season, the scorecard reads Ford two, Dodge one, Toyota one… Chevrolet nada. Considering the depth of the Chevy-backed teams, that has to be considered a bit of an upset. Of course, Bow Tie loyalists have to be a bit more concerned whether the Mother Ship out in Detroit is going to survive this recession than whether a Chevy will win a Cup race this season. Still, I don’t believe the rumors I am hearing that the company wants to change it’s DJIA abbreviation to GC for General Chaos, or that Jeff Gordon, Johnson, Junior, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer have been picked as pall-bearers for the General’s funeral.
Brother, Can You Spare $20 Million? Sponsorship is tough to find in this economy, and that fact is beginning to take its toll. The Nos. 28 and 8 teams might be shutting down operations after the next few races if sponsorship can’t be found. It’s hard not to notice that the No. 39 team of Ryan Newman is showing up at races lately running Haas Automation decals, which amounts to self-sponsorship from the team’s nominal co-owner, federal inmate Gene Haas. Other teams have sponsorship woes of their own — many are facing uncertain futures as contracts with backers expire over the next few seasons — so unless we see a Pollyanna style turnaround in the economy. I suggest it’s time for some teams to steal a page from the National Lampoon. They can paint a cute puppy with a gun to its head on the hood, and add the logo, “Sponsor this team or the puppy gets it.”
The Truck Series Thanks to Camping World, at least NASCAR’s AAA series has a title sponsor — albeit one that lacks some of the clout of Sears and their Craftsman brand of tools. (I think Sears now sponsors a one-legged, half-blind driver in a dirt modified car run at a local track in Pigs Knuckle, Idaho. They have money problems of their own to worry about.) But it’s pretty telling when series points leader Todd Bodine — who has finished first, second, and third in this years three truck races — may have to park his ride soon if sponsorship can’t be found. Attendance is down, a race has already been canceled, and the very idea of racing pickup trucks might have seen its time come and gone, baby, gone.
Once the darlings of American consumers, the half ton pickup — including the F-150, America’s perennially best selling vehicle since the days when I needed a comb more than Viagra — Like a Rock Chevys, Ram Tough Dodges, and whatever that rolling abortion that looks like a the bastard love child of a wiener dog and Crosley that Toyota is trying to push have become decidedly un-PC. It started when gas prices spiked last summer, and continued as the hysterical green chicken littles got the general public’s tits in a wringer about global warming. All of a sudden, pickup trucks have gone from a symbol of America’s tough broad frontiers heritage to greenhouse gas-spewing, inefficient, symbols of wretched excess. Lord knows some folks still need pickup trucks. I’d rather give up my left nut than my GMC Sierra four-by; but in polite company, I don’t mention that yes, indeed, my truck rides high enough that I look at Smart cars as speed bumps if they get in my path. When you need to haul home 76 fence posts, a ton of wood pellets, or a rebuilt 454 LS6, a Prius just doesn’t cut it. But as environmentalists’ fury reaches a fevered peak and the Big Three bosses go to Washington with hats in hand looking for a handout, the very notion of racing pickup trucks isn’t going to sit well with the talking heads in the Beltway who ride in limousines to work every day. Racing pickups was a silly idea to start with; it turned out to be a whole lot of fun and some of the best racing in recent memory. Maybe it’s time to just stop the silliness, though. Remember, one rule of winning gunfights is not to hand the opposition ammo…
Tony Stewart and Pals A lot of preseason punditry was spent wondering just how long it was going to take Stewart to adapt to his new role as owner/driver of a team he co-owns. Some felt Stewart had gone Thelma and Louise, piloting his career right over a cliff. Well, so far things haven’t worked out too badly for him. The No. 14 car has three top-10 finishes in the first three races of the season, and Stewart sits sixth in the standings. Things aren’t going so well with Newman’s team on the other side of the shop, though. Newman’s best points-paying finish this season is 22nd, and he’s averaging a 28th-place finish in four races. Stewart’s first true challenge as a team owner may be turning things around with the No. 39 team and landing more sponsorship for that organization. Maybe the Home Depot is looking for greener pastures?
Kyle Busch was ultra-hot last season until it came down to the Chase. He’s starting out this season well, too. Busch dominated the Daytona 500 before getting caught up in a mess not of his own making (karmic payback?); after that, he won at Vegas and finished third at Fontana. He also won the Nationwide and Truck series races at Fontana, and won again in the trucks at Atlanta. In four race weekends, Busch has scored at least one victory in three. That’s impressive — even if you can’t stand the guy. So, how many more victories does the younger Busch brother have up his sleeve for 2009? Plenty. Take it to the bank. But the real test is going to start when this year’s Chase begins.
Rookie of the Year Joey “Sliced Bread” Logano is averaging a 28th-place finish this season, and he’s managed to lead one lap all year in the Cup Series. These are not the sort of numbers that land a driver in a Hall of Fame. Too much, too soon? The hype that Logano was the Second Coming of Gordon was shoved down fans’ throats so relentlessly last year, it’s hard not to notice there’s a lot more sizzle than steak to his season so far. He’s currently mired 33rd in the standings and in danger of having to race his way into the field soon if he doesn’t get up on the wheel. One can only imagine the fallout if Logano were to fail to make a race.
Yet Sliced Bread is all of 68 points ahead of the only other declared Rookie of the Year candidate, Scott Speed. Let’s just say the competition for this year’s Rookie of the Year honor is less than compelling to date; though of course, most rookies tend to run better later in their first season.