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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? France Manipulates the Truth, Why Parity is Still Problematic, & Driver Do’s & Dont’s

Did You Notice? That hidden underneath Brian France’s quotes on the drug policy was this little tidbit about the state of the sport….

“In terms of the ratings decline, yes, I think it’s also important to note where our fans and sports fans can get their news, information and other mediums that are now in play. We don’t like to be down in our ratings, but it’s important to understand in totality. I mean, NASCAR online, our video downloads are all at a record. Our shoulder programming, Truck Series, Nationwide, are up.”

OK, now I hate to say it but as an editor and a writer in the sport, that’s a terrible way to manipulate the truth. Yes, the overall number of video downloads are up, but that’s simply because there’s more video out there for hardcore fans to upload onto their computers, iPods, or whatever device they get their Internet from. As far as actual online visitors, though, I can tell you from personal experience there’s a downturn in NASCAR across the board.

As an editor at Frontstretch, we use several analytical programs to chart how many people visit our site each month. But there’s one free site in particular, called compete.com, where you can get quick stats on any one site and how many people have visited over the last year. Let’s use it to track the three biggest websites out there where you can get NASCAR news: thatsracin.com, nascar.com, and jayski.com.

NASCAR.com: Website visitor traffic down 22.18% from 2008
Jayski.com: Down 17.59%
Thatsracin.com: Down 10.02%

(In the interests of full disclosure, our site is down 5.30% according to this same tracking system.)

I hate to be such a Debbie Downer, but those numbers clearly don’t indicate an “increase” in online interest in the sport. And that doesn’t even address France’s comments on the Nationwide Series numbers being up… because that’s also a bold-faced lie. The Sports Business Daily recently reported that ratings across the Disney network trio of ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 are down anywhere from 10-25% off their 2008 viewership. The Truck Series has proven the lone exception to the rule, holding steady on SPEED despite a field of start and parkers that sometimes approaches eight, nine or 10 trucks per event.

So, not only was that statement incorrect, but there appears to be no “special place” where “other fans” go unaccounted for. Instead, the cold, hard truth to explain the downturn in TV viewership is fans simply aren’t watching. And with the sport out of excuses, it makes me more than a little upset the sport’s CEO is skirting around the issue. You can’t fix a problem if you refuse to acknowledge it.

I’ll end with this point: I had more than a few readers this week send emails about how they read Brian France’s comments on drugs, ratings and the 2010 schedule from Friday and simply struggled to understand what he said. That’s an even bigger problem, because when you give a State of the Sport address, the goal is to present a unified front in which your leadership skills deliver strength and assurance that things on your watch will continue to grow. Instead, the message was one of… confusion. Drivers were just as confused about the drug policy as before Jeremy Mayfield got suspended. Fans were left confused about steps the sport is taking to remedy its problems. And when you leave a room of people scratching their heads… you’d better believe plenty of business owners with money to sponsor NASCAR were likely doing the same thing. Not exactly a message you want to send during a tumultuous time for the sport.

Did You Notice? In this space last year, 11 races into the season we took a look at how the “Big Four” of Gibbs, Childress, Hendrick and Roush were dominating the Cup Series. Since we’re at the same point in 2009, I thought it might be a good time to revisit those numbers and see if we’re a little bit closer towards the parity NASCAR hoped to achieve with the Car of Tomorrow.

As a reminder, here’s how the Big Four stacked up through 11 races in 2008:

2008 Top-Five Finishes Through Darlington

  • Joe Gibbs Racing (3 teams) — 15
  • Hendrick Motorsports (4 teams) — 12
  • Roush Fenway Racing (5 teams) — 11
  • Richard Childress Racing (3 teams) — 8

TOTAL: 46 of 55 possible Top-Five Finishes (84%)

Let’s compare that to this season:

  • Joe Gibbs Racing (3 teams) — 6
  • Hendrick Motorsports (4 teams) — 15
  • Roush Fenway Racing (5 teams) — 7
  • Richard Childress Racing (4 teams) — 7

TOTAL: 35 of 55 possible Top-Five Finishes (64%)

There’s a few things we can analyze from this chart. First off, JGR has clearly been hurt by the defection of Tony Stewart, their dropoff clearly the result of Joey Logano’s freshman struggles. Childress has also taken a big hit, too, despite expanding from three to four cars over the offseason. That leaves Hendrick in a league by itself, a dominance proven greater when you consider who else is collecting top fives these days…

  • Stewart-Haas Racing (2 teams) — 8
  • Penske Racing (3 teams) — 3
  • Richard Petty Motorsports (4 teams) — 3
  • Team Red Bull (2 teams) — 2
  • JTG/Michael Waltrip Racing (3 teams) — 2
  • Yates/Hall of Fame Racing (2 teams) — 1
  • Phoenix Racing (1 team) — 1

As you can see, SHR, the de facto Hendrick “B” team, is clearly benefiting from the Mother Ship’s early-season success. Adding it to HMS’ total gives the six-car program 23 top-five finishes, nearly 50% of all those accumulated this season. And that’s with the struggles of Dale Earnhardt Jr. over in the No. 88….

Anyways, even those against multi-car dominance can’t argue there’s a greater degree of parity across the board this year. So, does that mean the CoT is finally delivering the goods?

Hardly. For while there are more teams competing up front, they’re just not racing as aggressively as they used to. The series is averaging 20.5 lead changes through the first 11 races of 2009, down 5.5% from last year and 9.2% from 2001. Most of those have occurred on pit road during green- or yellow-flag pit stops, as teams use strategy to gain track position with a car that’s reduced passing from difficult to near impossible.

It’s also notable that of the half-dozen new car owners attempting to gain a foothold in the series, not one of the small-time operations has had successful on-track results. None of them have finished better than 15th, while underdog Phoenix Racing is the only single-car operation with a top-10 finish (two). And despite their upset win by Brad Keselowski at Talladega (in former Hendrick equipment, no less), even they haven’t been able to crack the Top 35 in owner points. When you consider Hall of Fame Racing and JTG/Daugherty are running cars produced by bigger outfits, the highest standalone single-car team is Robby Gordon Motorsports in 34th.

Organizations such as TRG Motorsports, Tommy Baldwin Racing, Gunselman Motorsports and others have struggled to simply qualify for races and may not even survive the summer months. Instead of proving the little guy can be successful in the sport, they’re sounding a serious alarm that to gain a foothold in Cup racing, you need to either start out working a strong alliance with one of the big teams or come in with at least two cars. And who has that kind of money in this economy?

As a result, expect any type of new blood from an ownership standpoint to stay on the sidelines. Whether the death of the little guy has seriously affected viewership is tough to tell, but word on the street appears to be the fans would love a couple of fresh faces up front. Teammates from the same organization finishing 1-2-3 is a Formula 1 staple… but are NASCAR fans built from the same breed?

I’m not sure they are.

Did You Notice? The weird way several drivers and teams came out for this year’s All-Star Race? Since this column wound up being such gloom ‘n’ doom, I figured we’d end on an upbeat note with a couple of All-Star Dos and Don’ts:

DO Act like you’re happy to be there. Jeff Gordon, Stewart and Carl Edwards were among those that genuinely smiled and seemed happy to interact with the fans. Sadly, too many others kind of went through the motions during a hyped-up driver introduction designed to energize its audience. Let’s put it this way… if your favorite driver isn’t even cracking a smile, why in the hell should you as a fan be all amped up for a race that doesn’t even count?

DON’T… Leave the stage without shaking hands with your crew. Keselowski’s first All-Star appearance also came with this serious flaw; it’s almost like he’s a hired hand from Hendrick that doesn’t even know who his crew guys are! Oh, wait, I may have said too much. Another awkward driver/crew moment: Kevin Harvick having to force a smile and play pretend with guys he’s been working with for a little less than three weeks.

DO… Some sort of gesture that gets some type of emotional response from the crowd. Kyle Busch’s bow may have been a little conceited, but it’s something you remember from Saturday night now, don’t you? Greg Biffle’s team also gets an honorable mention here for spraying Diet Coke onto the crowd. As for Kurt Busch’s crew? They had the best of intentions, yes… but I’m not exactly thinking everyone was pleased to be doused with beer.

DON’T… Attempt some sort of impression of Ric Flair when you don’t have the voice to do it. Poor Logano tried to be cool, and, well… the whole thing gave me flashbacks to Screech from Saved By The Bell. Let’s all band together and see if we can’t get him a voice coach…

Did You Notice? The Indy 500 starting lineup includes three women in its 33-car field. Zero women are currently listed on the entry list this weekend in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series. And you wonder how the sport could attract new fans….

With that fact alone, the difference between the IRL and NASCAR continues to widen when it comes to diversity. The star power of Danica Patrick is what’s keeping the open-wheel series afloat at the moment, while NASCAR finds itself scratching and clawing to even find a woman to try out in its top-three series. We’ve been told for years diversity is a long-term process, but isn’t it interesting year after year it’s the same old statistical anomaly? The IRL is attracting drivers of all ages, genders and backgrounds… while NASCAR is still stuck with, “I could, I should and I want to.”

OK, that’s it for this week. Happy Racing Holiday everybody, and I hope you get up early to watch all three motorsports gems: The Grand Prix of Monaco, the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600.