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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? How Michigan Saved Itself, Ringers Unemployed & Fixing Mark

Did You Notice? How Michigan’s attendance for the June race increased by 5,000 between 2009 and 2010? It’s an interesting twist during a year of continued attendance declines, especially considering the state unemployment rate, as of March 2010, was hovering just under 15%.

What gives? I think there’s a bit of a pattern we can detect on the heels of Charlotte having the same type of healthy crowd. In both cases, there was a major rivalry occurring mere days before the race: Hamlin-Busch for CLT and Harvick-Logano packing a punch at MIS. The additional press of DeLana’s “I wear the firesuit in my family” t-shirts certainly helped spread the word something big might be going down at the speedway this weekend as well. And while the first 90% of NASCAR races still often leave something to be desired, the last 10% have been significantly improved this year. It’s that type of highlight reel action, especially in the last month, that’s enough to make casual fans turn their heads and say, “OK, we’ll head back to the racetrack after all.”

Not only that, but while I think there’s far more than the economy causing the recent downturn in attendance, MIS has been extremely sensitive to conditions in the area. Prices were slashed anywhere from five to 63%, including letting children 17 or younger into the stands at half price. That reduced general admission for them to as little as $12.50, with the adults’ minimum price set at $25. Compare that to Bristol, let’s say, where the lowest single-day walk-up ticket price was a shocking $93.

The Speedway also made significant improvements, spending $50 million on a better media center, a brand new set of suites and a grandstand filled with wider seats, replacements anywhere from two to four inches larger. Add in a dedicated commitment to improving traffic, which sources say was better than ever last Sunday, and you’ve got a facility that’s creating a positive impression inside and outside the community.

Too bad the racing itself left a lot to be desired, something that ultimately will determine the future of putting fans in the seats. But you’ve got to give MIS credit, especially considering the tenuous position they were in just a few months ago. Once considered on the short list of possible tracks losing a date to Kansas next season, a source tells me the focus within ISC has now shifted to Phoenix and California, with Michigan and Martinsville not out of the woods but “all but safe” with two dates in 2011.

Both those tracks accomplished that goal in different ways: Michigan with capital improvements, Martinsville with the quality of racing. Now, if only they’d put two and two together… each one would be one of the top facilities we’d visit each year.

Did You Notice? How road-course ringers are finding it harder than ever to slide into rides in the Cup Series? Notice that missing from the entry list this week is longtime ringer Ron Fellows, on track to miss his first Infineon race in nearly six years. In his place steps just a small handful of drivers: Jan Magnussen (No. 09), Boris Said (No. 26), Brian Simo (No. 36) and Mattias Ekstrom (No. 83), stepping in for Brian Vickers. I’m not going to even count PJ Jones as a fifth, because we’re uncertain whether the car is going to run the full distance (it hasn’t in the past).

That’s a rather small list on the Cup side, half the amount that entered this race five years ago. Gone are the special road course teams put together for men like Said and Scott Pruett, designed to focus on just Infineon and Watkins Glen.

What’s caused the change? Part of it is money; teams just don’t have the extra cash to float around, paying a ringer for a one-race deal and in some cases putting together an extra team with the sponsorship and pit crew needed to compete. There’s also no incentive for Hendrick, Roush, Penske, et al, to field extra teams for research and development when there’s no road course within the 10-race playoff. Compare that to the Nationwide side, where rides could be bought for a dime-a-dozen these days and, to no one’s surprise, over a dozen ringers are entered in a race where only a handful of teams even worry about the championship.

There’s also the simple matter of on-track success on the Cup side. For the ringers, it’s harder than ever to step into the Car of Tomorrow and adjust in the course of three days. Unlike five or six years ago, there are also fewer opportunities for guys to step into top-tier equipment, reducing the ability not only to win, but earn a top-10 finish. Since the Car of Tomorrow came into existence in 2007, ringers have scored just one top 10 since at Infineon (Said, ninth with his own team that first year). More notable have been their epic failures, even pre-dating the CoT. Fellows finished 37th for Cal Wells in ’06, running a specially prepared car that cost the team hundreds of thousands of dollars and continued their downward spiral out of the sport. Last year, Said was blamed for being too aggressive, causing several incidents on the track en route to finishing 24th in the underfunded No. 08 car.

It all adds up to an environment that’s anti-“ringer” right now. Certainly, a solid run by someone like Magnussen or Ekstrom, both making their Cup debuts this weekend, would work wonders in changing things around. It’d be nice to see them have good runs and put some new faces in a running order that’s been increasingly predictable in 2010.

Did You Notice? Everyone’s trying to figure out what’s wrong with Mark Martin? With just one lap led the last 10 races, he’s yet to earn a podium finish this season and sits a precarious 12th in points. Certainly, as I mentioned in SI earlier this week, the distraction of the Kasey Kahne situation is clearly bothering him. But the more you think it through, he’s probably the best example of how racing has become so technology and simulation-based.

People think at 51, Martin can provide the answer to virtually any chassis problem. Unfortunately, using computers to set up your cars, something Hendrick specializes in more than anyone else, takes the driver out of that equation more than ever. And if you get to the track with your software off-base, there’s just not enough practice time to get caught back up, no matter how knowledgeable the man behind the wheel might be. I don’t think it’s a matter of Martin losing a step; it’s a matter of technology getting in the way so he can’t make the team’s lost step back up.

That’s why I’m paying particular attention to this new chassis Hendrick is bringing out for the No. 5 car this weekend, one that hasn’t been tested or raced. You’d have to think they’re going to be more aggressive in the coming weeks, with Martin’s place in the Chase hardly assured. And will they make some changes to help tinker with the chemistry, after losing engineer Chris Heroy and mechanic Kevin Hulstein to Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s No. 88 team?

It’s a tricky situation, with five teams within 107 points of Martin for that 12th and final Chase spot. You don’t want to get too aggressive with changes, but at the same time, this season is reminding many of Matt Kenseth’s difficult spring and summer last year. At the time, no one believed the 2003 champ would miss his first ever Chase, and Roush chose to stick with the game plan. The result? 2009’s Daytona 500 winner ended Richmond on the outside looking in.

No doubt Hendrick has studied that history, leaving the next month a crucial time for Martin and his team. And that’s not even mentioning what happens for 2011, ’12 and beyond….

Did You Notice? Some quick hits before we go….

  • Honestly, the command to start engines by Kevin James and Adam Sandler was the worst one I’ve ever seen. It makes the vuvuzelas at the World Cup seem bearable; is that the reason Sandler hasn’t made a good movie since 1998? I know it’s a polarizing topic, but count me on the side of “please don’t do that again.”
  • Not to be a marketing stooge, but for my take on Sunday’s debris caution (and Mike Helton’s Race Hub comments) check out my weekly mailbag I do for SI tomorrow. Short answer: there should be no instance, ever, where national television doesn’t show the debris that causes the caution. That should be mandatory; and in the final 25 laps, unless it’s a giant spoiler in the middle of the racing groove or oil sprayed every which way on the track, you don’t pull out the yellow flag. Only wrecks – like the Scott Riggs one at Phoenix – should cause the late-race restarts we’ve been seeing virtually every week. NASCAR needs to stop acting like an overprotective father when it comes to safety… yes, Tom Logano isn’t the only one.
  • Here’s an interesting factoid: Of the top 12 in Sprint Cup points, only Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Martin have won at Infineon. Among those winless include four-time reigning champ Jimmie Johnson, who has yet to score a victory on a road course, period. It just goes to show you when it comes to winning a title these days, you only need to turn left, not right. More and more, based on the current points system I would love to see a road course in the Chase to shake everything up, making it a true test of driver ability on every type of racetrack.
  • A few statistical quirks 15 races into the season: Carl Edwards has as many laps led as Paul Menard (two); Kurt Busch has two wins, six top fives and nine top 10s while neither one of his teammates – Sam Hornish Jr. and Brad Keselowski – have finished higher than 11th; Riggs has finished more races (one in one start) than Joe Nemechek (zero-for-14… and counting).
  • Casey Mears‘s removal at Red Bull Racing was still up in the air at press time. My first thought: can you blame them? No top-20 finishes + wrecking your teammate = recipe for a quick fix, soon. When the permanent driver (Scott Speed) calls you out… chances are as a temp, you’ll get the ax.

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