NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fanning the Flames: NASCAR, Networks Finally Dancing With The One That Brought ‘Em

NASCAR’s sanctioning body takes a lot of heat from the fans and from the media. The car is no good, the on-track product is subpar, the tracks are all the same, the Chase is a sham, the penalties are too stringent, the penalties aren’t stringent enough… on and on we go, bashing away. Make no mistake, the sanctioning body deserves some flack (I mean someone has to keep it honest, right?) – but we also should tip the proverbial cap when it gets one right.

And over the last two days, it’s done so twice.

On Tuesday, it was reported that NASCAR/ISC would raise the catchfencing to 22 feet (from 14) at the circuit’s two restrictor plate venues, Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. This, in the aftermath of Carl Edwards’s harrowing flight into Talladega’s catchfencing in April.

Bravo… although we still need some rows of seats cleared out.

Then, on Wednesday, a short-notice conference call was conducted with members of the media to announce NASCAR’s intent to “standardize” race times starting with the 2010 Daytona 500.

NASCAR CEO Brian France, along with FOX Sports’ David Hill, Turner’s David Levy and ESPN’s John Skipper, conducted the roughly half-hour call which aligns race times across all the networks into what amounts to eastern, western and evening blocks. 28 of the season’s 36 races will begin at 1:00 p.m. ET next season, while Saturday night events will start at 7:30 p.m. ET. The Fontana, Las Vegas and Phoenix races will begin at 3:00 ET.

NASCAR and the networks have come under fire for their “shotgun” approach to start times. With FOX, TNT and ABC/ESPN all televising their own portions of the season, it’s difficult enough to remember what channel the race is on for fans of the more casual persuasion. Add on erratic time slots, and confusion levels escalate – but especially during the NFL season, it doesn’t take much to persuade one those 1:00 and 4:15 ET gridiron guarantees work wonders.

“I think making the case with everybody working together to get this wide across so many months of programming across so many different networks was not simple,” France explained in getting his own sport to follow suit. “But we did, and everybody certainly wants to drive ratings, drive interests. They want to accommodate the NASCAR core fan.”

“Core fan” is a term not often heard from France. In fact, he and FOX’s David Hill were the main proponents of latching on to NASCAR’s new breed of fan around the turn of the century. Later start times that bled into prime time would drive said interest and ratings up, the thought went.

Nine years later, here they were… with an admission they were wrong.

“I think that we’ve started to tamper with something that we shouldn’t have, and I’ll put my hand up and say ‘guilty.’” said Hill. “That what we tried to do was by moving the races later, you get into a television terminology called ‘cuts.’”

“So obviously, the later you move it, the more cuts there are, the greater chance you have at ratings. However, what we’ve found, and our research and NASCAR’s research is that the great thing about this sport is its wonderful, wonderful traditions.”

Before you read into this any other way (I know it feels patronizing when these guys throw words like “hardcore fan” and “tradition” at us), be mindful that above all, what we ask as fans is for the powers-that-be to admit when a mistake has been made and rectify it. Such is the case now. Are there other changes that need addressing? Of course. But for a sport where change comes at a tectonic-shifting pace, we’ve seen a 7.0 on the Richter Scale this week. So let’s give NASCAR and the TV networks their due for a decision well made.

Then, we can commence with any warranted criticism this weekend when we get to the track that embodies the hardcore fans’ frustration about all that “Realignment 2004 and Beyond” stands for: Fontana.

Thoughts, opinions, questions… anything is welcome. And for those longtime readers that have never written, type in “First time, long time” in the subject line and I’ll boost yours to the top of the list.

Q: Hey! I’m a daily reader of Frontstretch. Even though I consider myself to be knowledgeable about racing, I always learn more reading your newsletter!

My question is very simple: When a crew chief is caught with a less-than-legal car, who pays the fine? Do crew chiefs make the kind of money to afford a $25,000 or $100,000 fine? Thanks. – Ted Paskiewicz, Seneca, S.C.

A: Have you and I not covered this before, Ted? That’s OK; it’s a good question that has many answers. And it really depends on who the crew chief is employed by and what he did to earn the fine.

Chad Knaus, when asked once if Mr. Hendrick pays his fines, sarcastically told a reporter to check his W-2 at the end of the year. Ouch… as many times as Chad has been burned, it’s a good thing he gets his Kobalts for free.

Jack Roush also addressed the topic once, and seemed to have a pretty sensible policy: “If a crew chief wants to push a rule and I think it’s in the bounds of reason, I’ll say, ‘OK, I won’t stand behind you, but I’ll stand beside you, and if you do get in trouble I’ll send you a cake with a file. If you push a rule and you did not ask for my advice and counsel, then I won’t send you a file.’”

Assuming that most crew chiefs are making anywhere from $600,000 to $1 million per season, NASCAR’s $100,000 baseline fine – up from $25,000 to $50,000 over the last couple of seasons – can be a painful one.

Q: Hi Matt. I have a mystery I was hoping you might be able to clear up. After New Hampshire, Mark Martin had a 35-point lead over Jimmie Johnson (or at least that was what your site reported). After Dover, it was 10 points. Try as I might, I can only figure out where 15 of the 25 points Jimmie gained came from – 10 points between first and second and five points for Jimmie leading the most laps.

So where did the other 10 points go? As far as I know, drivers don’t get 10 “bonus” points for winning once the Chase begins, but maybe I am wrong. Can you help? Thanks. – Steve Pelzer

A: You’re not wrong, but something’s fuzzy here. I hate math, but sometimes an exercise like this helps me remain smarter than a fifth grader. Let’s break it down this way:

Martin entered Dover with a 35-point advantage over Johnson, 5,230-5,195. Johnson earned 185 points at Dover for the win, plus a five-point bonus for leading a lap and another five for leading the most. That’d be 195 points. Martin earned 170 for a second-place run but did not lead a lap. There’s your 25. That would give Martin 5,400 and Jimmie 5,390 – the difference being 10 points.

Cool?

Q: Matt, I was watching the race at Kansas today, when I heard the most astonishing thing. The guys in the booth said NASCAR had told Brad Keselowski to stop racing so hard against the “Chase” drivers. They were running for a championship and he isn’t. If anyone wants to know why I HATE this abortion of a format, that is exactly why. The hypocrisy is horrifying.

On one hand, NASCAR wants to pretend that all 43 cars on the track are out there to win if they can, yet they tell a driver to “take it easy” around the “chosen?” Why even bother to pretend they care about having a competitive race? If they aren’t going to let every driver try to win every race, then just put 12 cars on the track. That’s about the level of “exciting competition” they are encouraging, and it’s about as dishonest as you can get. I’d say the comparison to the WWE is pretty accurate. – Sally Baker, Davison, Mich.

A: Thought I’d hear about this. And it’s certainly one of those warranted criticisms I mentioned earlier.

The thing here is, regardless of how harmless the suggestion may have been from NASCAR to Keselowski’s crew, the intent comes across totally wrong to a viewing public. I’m only speculating here, but NASCAR’s message of “eeeeasy rookie,” is conveyed to those watching on ESPN as, “quit racing the Chasers so hard!” We just don’t know what exactly was said (Jamie Little obviously paraphrased the warning).

Honestly, I don’t know what the sanctioning body’s intent was. Keselowski is a take-no-prisoners type of driver. So is Juan Pablo Montoya. We were informed of the exchange on lap 113 of 267, which is early. And again, he is a rookie. Don’t think this is the first time NASCAR has reminded a rookie of such things.

I guess my take is if NASCAR is saying the same thing to Keselowski while racing Montoya at Atlanta in March, then I don’t have a problem with it. If, however, this is a Chase thing, then let that warranted criticism fly.

We’re done here. Thanks for the chat. Remember, “first-time long-times” next week.

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