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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? The Wave Around Needs Fixing, Ownership is Aging & Who Kansas Bumps

Did You Notice? Hidden amongst the stories this week was ISC claiming Kansas will still get a second date in 2011 as long as their casino gets approved? Whether the racing has been good enough to deserve it is open to debate (though I’d argue it’s been ten times better than at its sister track, Chicagoland). With 100,000 fans at the track for last Sunday’s race, the fan support is there for a second date, and it’s not like the Midwest has a ton of tracks to choose from (Iowa, and Chic… no, that doesn’t count).

So why does this move makes the headlines now? Because it’s widely assumed, even reported that expansion would finally cost California its much-maligned second date – especially with attendance numbers generously estimated at 70,000 this Sunday.

Eh-eh-eh… not so fast, people. A quick look at the attendance numbers shows that it’s Martinsville at the bottom of the list for ISC, with just 63,000 fans attending in a small market this spring compared to California’s “70,000.” The last few dates have been tough at the facility, with the spring race failing to sell out and the Truck Series rain-delayed show bringing a crowd somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 or 30 that Monday (official attendance was listed at 2,500).

There’s also the rating for California’s Chase date on television, which proved a moral victory on a weekend sorely in need of one. It pulled a 3.0, likely the result of some boring NFL games and Jimmie Johnson briefly opening the door for the competition more than anything else. But the fact remains, pending the final ratings bump, that it’s the most-watched playoff event held so far this season.

Look, I love Martinsville as much as the next guy, but I fear the writing is on the wall on this one. L.A. is a major market, that’s where NASCAR wants to be, and they’ll do anything in their power to stay there. Martinsville, like it or not, isn’t going to be a big-name city anytime soon and has pretty much reached the limits of expansion in and around that facility. The mood in and around that place reminds me of how it was at Darlington just before they lost the Southern 500, with fans lulled to sleep thinking both races will always be there – so they’re hesitant to stretch their pocketbook in a tough economy to show their support.

You’d like to think with consistent start times, NASCAR is back to choosing tradition over profit margin. Trust me, if that were the case you’d have a Southern 500 back on Labor Day. Instead, with profits down 89%, they’re going to take a look at their pocketbook more than ever, and L.A. provides the potential for growth that Martinsville does not – even if they have to suck it up one day and rebuild the track after all.

With the Virginia oval giving us some of the best racing year in, year out, I hope that little half-mile is with us for many years to come. But the second that casino gets approved, the journalist in me thinks it’s not rocket science to see the paper-clip drop down from two Cup dates to one after next season.

Did You Notice? Rick Hendrick’s 25th anniversary celebration got me thinking about something: NASCAR’s best-performing owner is growing old. But a quick check around the ownership ranks shows he’s not the only one. Let’s take a look at the age range of the sport’s top eight (Note: Stewart-Haas and Yates were not included as they get engines and chassis from other organizations):

Richard Childress – 64
Joe Gibbs – 69
Jack Roush – 67
Roger Penske – 72
George Gillett – 70
Rick Hendrick – 60
Dietrich Mateschitz – 65
Chip Ganassi – 51
Michael Waltrip – 46

A little surprising, isn’t it? Waltrip, a spry 46, is one of just two owners with any type of power in this sport under 60. So what happens when some of these guys want to retire or pass on their investment to someone else? For a guy like Joe Gibbs, it’s easy, as son JD already handles much of the day-to-day duties and is a shoe-in to assume the reins when he decides to retire. But for others – Penske, Hendrick, even Roush – the path to succession may not be so simple. Once they’re gone… there’s no idea if the team they leave behind will be nearly as effective without them.

People wonder if NASCAR needs some homegrown talent behind the wheel. More than ever, though, it looks like the real need for some new blood could be in the front office.

Did You Notice? How many debris cautions this year were blamed on water bottles? Not only do I think it’s being a tad overprotective, but if we’re getting that anal what’s to stop fans from throwing a beer can over the fence to cause a caution?

Think about it. You’re sitting in the stands, listening to your driver on the scanner and he’s about to get lapped by Jeff Gordon. You know NASCAR’s so paranoid about safety these days, they’ll throw the yellow for almost anything. You’ve also had a few, you’re sitting on the frontstretch, and that guy with the No. 24 hat is really starting to piss you off. What’s stopping you from throwing the beer can onto the track, seeing where it lands, and watching the sport throw a yellow to save your driver?

You’d think common sense would prevail in that situation… but honestly, I’m surprised this hasn’t happened already. And if the standards are getting that low… something needs to be done.

Did You Notice? That the Nationwide Series will only have five and not 10 drivers at their banquet this year? Much has been made of the change on ESPN, which is constantly highlighting the battle between Justin Allgaier and Steve Wallace for fifth in the standings (in stark contrast to my colleagues in the print and internet media, who really haven’t picked up on the story). But here’s the million-dollar question to me: Why even cut down from 10 to five in the first place? Wouldn’t you want to promote a series at the end of the season instead of trying to cut and run?

The move is explained as a cost-saving measure, combining both the Nationwide and Truck series banquets to save cash. But considering the sorry economic state of both divisions, you wonder if there’s more to the story here. Consider who you have behind the Allgaier-Wallace battle to round out the top 10 in points:

  • Jason Keller (whose Baker-Curb team has yet to find sponsorship for 2010)
  • Mike Bliss (without a permanent ride now after being kicked out by Phoenix Racing)
  • Brendan Gaughan (could be on the way out at Rusty Wallace Inc. in favor of David Stremme)
  • Michael McDowell (had to go to another ride once his regular team chose to start-and-park)

Don’t get me wrong, it’d be great if these guys could celebrate overcoming the odds at the banquet. But there’s just two drivers in there (the loser of the Allgaier-Wallace battle and Gaughan) who actually have the sponsorship and marketing money in place for 2010. As for the rest? Well, let’s just imagine some of these speeches:

McDowell: “I’d like to thank JTG Racing for sticking by me until they ran out of money, although I failed to qualify one time later this year because they kept that team around to start and park! But seriously, folks, I appreciate K-Automotive, their passion and dedication is really what this series is all about. But with the economy like it is, I’m here to announce I’ve signed a 2010 deal with them to start-and-park the whole season… because we already do it with two cars and boy, can that be a real moneymaker!”

Bliss: “I’d like to thank Phoenix Racing for kicking me out on the street and no one for believing in me, even though I’ve been a top-10 driver in virtually any car I’ve entered in this series. Thank you, Nationwide, for watching one of your top drivers get booted and not even putting in a recommendation for getting him a ride somewhere else. And did I mention I’m still looking for 2010? Someone, call me….”

On second thought, no wonder they cut down to five. Although with two of those five men guaranteed to be from Sprint Cup, it’s no wonder this series continues to have itself an identity crisis….

Did You Notice? How easy it’s gotten to use NASCAR’s wave-around rule to stay on the lead lap? I’m not blaming the sport, as a new rule is always going to go through its share of minor tweaks.

But after watching scenarios unfold the last few months, I think it’s time to make them. The sport just clarified that a car under penalty is not eligible for a wave around under caution, but what about someone who was penalized earlier in the race? Tony Stewart lost a lap due to an honest speeding mistake, but in the end it didn’t really hurt him because the wave around got him back on the lead lap right afterwards. In the old days, that type of penalty would kill your day, as well it should: mistakes aren’t mistakes unless you actually suffer for them, right?

Instead, Stewart had clear sailing on his way to finishing fifth, while a whole slew of other cars used the wave around to wind up back on the lead lap. Why wouldn’t you? The way the rule is set up now at a place like California, here’s how it works:

  • A caution comes out. All the lead lap cars will automatically pit for at least fuel only.
  • If you’re a lapped car, that puts you in front of the lead lap cars. If you don’t pit, you get the wave around and get back on the lead lap. So what if you have to end up pitting five or six laps later? At a big track like California, a green-flag stop will leave you exactly where you were before: one lap down. So if I’m a crew chief, all I do is keep using this rule over and over again until I get caught back up.

The reason this rule is beginning to piss me off is you could see a guy off for 400 miles, put a lap down by the race leader, only to use a free pass to come around and finish in the top 10. It’s yet another reason for cars not to be overaggressive in the first part of the race; after all, why abuse your stuff when it doesn’t really matter? You’ll just use a caution to get back on the lead lap later, and that’s when you’ll really turn it loose and position yourself for a solid finish.

In my view, part of the beauty of this sport is watching someone battle back from their mistakes. If we changed the wave-around so you could use it one time only – or limited the number of cars that could do it – I think it would increase the pressure for these guys at the back of the pack to perform for the Lucky Dog. That would lead to better racing, fairer competition and a whole lot of guys happier with the rule than they are right now.

Did You Notice? My usual barrage of quick hits before we go:

  • Kasey Kahne calling out the sport for mystery debris? The only surprise was that he actually went on the record with it… I’ve been hearing that gripe from drivers and team members for weeks. But like I said on Monday, nothing’s going to happen unless someone takes a stand, and the end of that race was so exciting I don’t expect that anytime soon.
  • Tom and Joey Logano are making me feel oddly uncomfortable this week. And what’s more chilling is the eerie silence from the son when the father absolutely embarrassed him on a national scale.
  • In four Chase races, a non-Chaser has scored just nine of 40 top-10 finishes to date. And don’t even ask about top fives: Kyle Busch (fifth at New Hampshire) and Matt Kenseth (third at Dover) have been the only breakthroughs. That’s slightly worse than last year’s numbers, which stood at three top fives and 13 top 10s, respectively, through the same number of playoff starts.
  • On the eve of the Hall of Fame, a quick reminder of my five picks and a quick reason for each (nope, not one of the journalists with an official vote):
    • Richard Petty: Want to know how much he transcended this sport? The U.S. President came down to see his 200th career victory. ‘Nuff said.
    • Bill France Sr.: None of us would be here if he didn’t have a dream.
    • Bill France Jr.: None of us would be here if he didn’t know how to make that dream a national phenomenon.
    • Dale Earnhardt: The most aggressive, hard-nosed, intimidating driver in history. There’s a reason his death has turned him into a legend.
    • David Pearson: During his heyday with the Wood Brothers in the 1970s, he was virtually unbeatable. I wonder if Petty would have seven championships if the No. 21 ever tried to run a full schedule back then.

As for what’ll actually happen? I think you’ll see four out of five get elected tomorrow… with Red Byron squeaking by Pearson for that final slot.

See you in Charlotte!

Tom Bowles is now on Twitter! Click HERE to become a follower… even though he’s still learning how to use it (be patient on that one!)

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