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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship NASCAR’s Stimulus Package

It seems that the impending implosion that the country’s financial institutions and NASCAR faced last winter has passed and perhaps, just perhaps, there is now reason for optimism. Even as the U.S. stock markets continue to soar and the nation’s largest financial institutions begin to report profitable quarters, NASCAR is seeing what appears to be a leveling out and even an increase in TV ratings and attendance. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said this week, “Economic activity in both the U.S. and around the world appears to be “leveling out,” and “the prospects for a return to growth in the near term appear good.” Also this week, ESPN enjoyed its second consecutive increase in ratings for its Sprint Cup broadcast of the Sharpie 500 from the Bristol Motor Speedway.

There is no guesswork needed in understanding the uptick in the country’s economic health. The federal government has spent untold billions of dollars to prop up and stimulate banks and businesses. However, there has been no direct stimulus package sent NASCAR’s way, an enterprise that seemed to be on the skids before the start of the season. News on the sport of stock car racing was heavily saturated with reports of sponsors effected by the soured economy deserting the sport and forcing teams to close up shop. There were questions as to whether the Sprint Cup Series would even be able to present a full field of 43 cars come race day.

Even as the NASCAR season ramped up for its February kickoff at Daytona there was a bleak cloud of pessimisim hanging over the sport – a sport so dependent on the participation and support of corporations that were being battered by the economic recession. In the first column back from the winter break, Good Racing…A Cure For The Economic Blues, Turn 5 presented a not-so-rosy summation of the sports condition.

“The melancholy that is greeting the new race season is, in some respects, identical to the general discontent that our nation as a whole has been struggling with as our precarious economic situation increasingly dominates our thoughts. That’s not a surprising development, as NASCAR’s own well-being very much mirrors the nations need for a strong economic outlook to continue to grow and prosper. As corporate America goes, so does the nation and apparently NASCAR.”

Certainly the nation’s, as well as NASCAR’s problems have not been entirely eliminated. There are still plenty of unresolved issues to be dealt with, but the feeling of hopelessness that was so pervasive six months ago has inarguably eased. The nation’s financial institutions are not going to collapse, nor will NASCAR. At least not in the foreseeable future.

The sport’s survival is a testament to the loyalty of its core fanbase, to be sure. Yet, credit must be given to the organization as it has undeniably hit on a crowd-pleasing format that is providing exciting on-track action. It would be hard to come up with a better plan to keep auto racing fans watching than what NASCAR is doing – providing them with good racing.

The truth is, that despite all the bellyaching and complaining that fans have heaped on the sport, the racing has never been anymore competitive or exciting. The switch to the CoT, critics aside, has scratched every itch that it was designed to scratch. Not only is it a safer racecar, its cost-saving features could not come at a better time for team owners suffering during these tough financial times. They have worked well at Talladega and Bristol and every track in between. And in consideration of the lean times that the sport is experiencing, the car couldn’t have come at a better time.

Less controversial than the new car was NASCAR’s decision after the start of the season to employ double-file restarts. It is difficult to find anyone that won’t admit, perhaps grudgingly (some folks hate to give NASCAR credit for anything) that the side-by-side restarts have been a big hit – maybe long overdue, but a hit nonetheless.

NASCAR’s version of a stimulus package however is the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. First rolled out in 2004, it sure can’t hurt as the sport tries to keep its head above water as the duldrums invariably set in after more than seven months of racing. Perhaps more this year than ever, NASCAR needs every shot of excitement it can get to keep its momentum moving forward and fans interested as the nation’s most popular sport, football gears up to take center stage.

As much as some profess to dislike the 10-race Chase playoff format it is hard to believe that any race Sprint Cup fan isn’t keeping an eye on the points standings with only two races left before the championship-eligible field is set after Richmond. This year’s battle for the 12 spots in the Championship run is as interesting and almost as exciting as NASCAR could of hoped for.

The only thing missing is the sports most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. fighting to become Chase-eligible. Earnhardt Jr. is 21st in the driver’s point standings and out of contention for the Chase, however, perhaps the second largest group of NASCAR fans, those that love to dislike Kyle “Rowdy” Busch still have the Las Vegas native’s fight to gain top-12 status to root against. Busch with four wins on the year is presently 13th in points, 34 behind Matt Kenseth, a driver that has never failed to make a Sprint Cup Chase field.

Without the Chase format the next two races, Atlanta on Labor Day weekend and Richmond the following week would be just two more races on NASCAR’s excrutiatingly long schedule. Though Richmond International Raceway has been a fan favorite and sell out, Atlanta has struggled attendance-wise in recent years and needs any stimulus the Chase will lend it.

Besides fans that will be rooting both for and against Kyle Busch becoming Chase eligible, Red Bull racer Brian Vickers is still very much in contention, just five points behind Busch and, more importantly, only 39-points out of the 12th and final Chase spot. Richard Childress Racing’s Clint Bowyer cannot yet be ruled out as a candidate to make the field either, trailing Kenseth by 112 points.

Fans interested in Kyle Busch, Vickers and Bowyer certainly have an added incentive to tune into the next two races. But for NASCAR it gets even better, the margin between Kenseth and the seventh ranked driver Ryan Newman is only 55 points. So not only fans interested in Newman and Kenseth will be watching with interest, but supporters of Greg Biffle (eighth), Juan Pablo Montoya (ninth), Mark Martin (10th) and Kasey Kahne (11th). A total of nine drivers whose fans will no doubt be watching intently and hoping to root into the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship – football be damned.

How many? Hard to say. But you take the total of all those interested in the likes of a Kahne, Montoya, Martin or any of the other nine drivers battling for inclusion into the Chase, and the sum total must be significant.

NASCAR needs the stimulus that the Chase championship format provides. Perhaps this year more than ever.

And that’s my view from turn 5.