NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? NASCAR Driving is a Day Job, Marcos Ambrose is Saved for 2011 & Sponsor Cutbacks

Did You Notice? Joey Logano’s words, while spoken in the heat of the moment with Ryan Newman, delve deeper into the psyche of NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers today? In case you’ve been too busy watching MTV’s Jersey Shore drama to pay attention, the following quote Logano uttered Sunday has been causing its own shock value with NASCAR Nation this week:

“There’s 70 laps to go at a 2-mile racetrack. That’s a long ways to go. You know, if somebody races me clean, I race them (clean) back. Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. did it with me earlier in the race, he passed me and he was trying to pass cars in front of me. I helped him pass them, then I got back to him and he let me go. That’s kind of how this (racing) – I’ve found – that it works: If you give someone respect, you get that back.”

“There’s a time to race. When you’re running 400 miles, 500 miles, why do we gotta race each other so early in the race? It’s just frustrating when you’re trying to get by someone at that point. It wasn’t a big deal whether we passed each other or not at that point. Most times, if a faster car is behind me, I let them go and hopefully I get that back later.”

Before you jump down Logano’s throat for riding, not racing, let’s take a step back for a minute and realize he’s not the only one who thinks this way. What does Mark Martin do when someone’s coming up to pass him early in the race? Or how about common courtesy between teammates, who often pull over during the Chase so the other one can lead a lap?

So no, I don’t necessarily slam Logano for wanting to play it safe. What I do worry about is the way in which the current racing rules have reshaped the mentality of these drivers. Between an outlandish focus on a consistent points system where there’s no reward for risk, to the almost unlimited ways to get back on the lead lap without racing hard, race drivers have figured out the intelligent, not necessarily entertaining way to achieve their goal of a championship. Why race hard on lap 65 when you don’t get any more points for it? Why bother to worry about going a lap down when a debris caution will give it right back? Whereas 20 years ago, there were no concerns about whether drivers would race hard at mile 50 or mile 499, the current theme hidden amidst their weekly comments is clear: The perfect Sprint Cup style now matches the point system’s basic concept of rewarding both participation and endurance.

At first, I got confused over why this brand of racing conservatism happens now; yeah, we’ve had the Chase for the last seven years, but the point system by and large has been in place for the last 35. And then, the light bulb went off and I started to get it. You go back to classic races in the 1980s and ‘90s, and drivers were not only racing for sponsors but a bigger share of their paycheck. $5 million salaries didn’t exist, but needing the money to pay the end-of-month bills certainly did. Where they finished each week was their livelihood, not some sort of end-of-year prize, and the drivers knew for the sport to grow they needed to buckle down, give it all they had on every lap and put on a show. A trophy’s worth of bragging rights was more than enough for a largely blue-collar crew appreciative of where they came from and ready to ride this wave of wherever the sport was going to end up.

And more than anything else, these group of guys: Earnhardt, Richmond, Allison, Yarborough… had fun. Jarring door-to-door with another competitor was as good for Earnhardt on lap 5 as it was on lap 305. The championship was secondary, evidenced by Yarborough, Benny Parsons and several other superstar’s choices to run a limited schedule just as the sport was hitting its stride. And if there was an on-track incident? It didn’t matter when or where you pissed off another competitor; payback would happen in the then and now, not in some carefully controlled minor league environment a few months later. The raw type of aggression and talent we saw in our racing legends let loose with a car that was as fun to drive as it was to be a part of the series. There were no worries about aero push, fuel mileage or making sure you pit on the right lap. These guys just went out, jammed door-to-door and beat the living fenders off each other.

Fast forward to 2010, where one little dent in the aero causes five pit stops and countless unnecessary drama. Drivers’ days are determined not by raw talent but whether they take two tires or four. Those who give maximum effort up front know their lead can get wiped out by a hot dog wrapper or the threat of a flat tire (seriously, is that what they threw the Jeff Gordon caution for Sunday?) at any second. Passing is so difficult, and costs you so much time, it’s more of a pain in the butt to run side-by-side with someone than an exhilarating experience.

No wonder Tony Stewart lights up when you talk about Eldora, not Pocono. No wonder Kasey Kahne runs off to the World Of Outlaws every chance he gets. All these drivers are pursuing all these outside-of-NASCAR racing commitments; and they’re doing it with a smile and a passion they should be exhibiting during their Sunday job. Instead, more than ever don’t you feel like some of these guys are treating their Sundays like they’re clocking in at a 9 to 5? Sure, they know all the right things to say, the pre-rehearsed answers that make their marketing guys happy and the cute little quotes that serve as a perfect Sportscenter hit. But deep down, the hardcore fans can sense the frustration. Little quotes like Denny Hamlin’s battle with Kevin Harvick

“I haven’t had that much fun racing someone for a win in a long time.”

Considering Hamlin’s won 23 races the last five years in NASCAR’s top two series, that’s a statement to stand up and take notice of because honestly, that battle isn’t going to make the pantheon of greatest races of all time. Sure, it was good, had its share of heart-stopping moments, but it’s not like it went on for 20 laps.

There’s plenty of ways to fix driver incentive to run harder early in races. I’m sure confusing points bonuses and more money for 50, 100, 150-lap segments would do the trick. But changing a group of people’s mental attitude? That’s going to be a much harder sell.

The most telling statement someone has said to me since the secret driver fine incident one month ago was by a source: “You know, there’d be no reason to even worry about these things if the sport wasn’t making someone well and truly pissed off every week.”

Fair enough. I just hope NASCAR, in these crazy town hall meetings, is asking drivers the right questions about how to bring that fun factor back.

Did You Notice? Budweiser’s sponsorship agreement with Richard Childress Racing only includes a limited schedule of 20 events? To me, that’s the biggest news to take from an official announcement pretty much everyone in the sport knew was happening for months. Since 1983, the company has backed a car for the full schedule, jumping from team to team while increasing their level of support to ensure their brand was on the car every week.

Budweiser’s desire to scale back tells me two things. 1) Companies are getting smarter and realizing they can get a similar type of boost from half-a-season of branding as opposed to a full slate of 36 races. 2) I’m sure the type of money they’re putting up over this three-year deal is enough to run the full schedule… if you were a single-car team looking to make it in this sport. Childress’s ability to limit one of the lower-tier primary sponsor spenders means he’s not lowering his per-race cost to do business. Either he’s got enough companies out there willing to pay an exorbitant cost to keep the financial support at the same level he’s always had, or there’s a steadfast refusal to lower the asking price.

In the face of Bud, DuPont and other companies scaling back, that’s chilling news to some of the smaller teams looking to simply stay alive in this sport. Not only are the rich keeping the cost of doing business high, but the more sponsors they suck up to make ends meet, the less companies remain for the little guy. Remember when the U.S. Army wasn’t just a 16-race deal and it was on the car for all 36 events? Ditto with a rapidly outspent Interstate Batteries, Bass Pro Shops or Motorcraft.

Now, as we head towards the other direction, I expect companies like UPS, FedEx and others in the coming years to follow Budweiser’s lead, unwilling to hike up the price they pay while understanding losing races won’t cost them customers in the long run. With fewer and fewer companies expressing interest in exorbitant fees, you wonder how the sport’s going to survive with a 43-car field long-term…

For a full, detailed analysis of the Harvick deal, be sure to check out my colleague Vito Pugliese’s column on the website today.

Did You Notice? Marcos Ambrose is back home again? Just as Kahne couldn’t leave Ford fast enough, Marcos is practically doing cartwheels to find himself back running the Blue Ovals. It’s not that Ambrose had the same type of hatred for Toyota; far from it. But when a manufacturer provides you the opportunity of a lifetime, that’s the type of instant bond you never forget.

“All of us at Ford are very happy to have Marcos back home,'” said Ford’s new director, Jamie Allison. “We helped Marcos come to America and become a NASCAR driver because we believed in his talent, and loved the way he connected with Ford fans here and in Australia. Already a Ford champion in Supercars, we believe his move to RPM will give him the car and equipment to win races and contend for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup going forward.”

Of course, Allison wasn’t in that position then, but Ambrose remembers with a warm heart how executives took a chance on an Australian who had zero experience in NASCAR. The Blue Oval brand was so committed, they were ready to follow the man back to the Australian V8 Supercar Series if sponsorship didn’t materialize. It still seems plenty of Ford’s own money is behind the effort, as Stanley Tools doesn’t exactly have the UPS-type of money to sponsor a full-scale, competitive program. Rest assured there are behind-the-scenes investors banking on the foreigner’s American success.

Will they hit the jackpot? I think Ambrose will have a better season in 2011, no doubt, if only because 2010 couldn’t get any worse. Keep in mind that Ford hasn’t had a road-course victory at the Cup level since Ricky Rudd in 2002, so there’ll obviously be a big push for Ambrose to break that streak at Infineon and Watkins Glen. On the ovals, though, RPM’s biggest strength has been Ambrose’s greatest weakness: intermediate tracks. Whether they bring him up to speed – or vice versa – will tell the story of how well this team ends up doing. Preliminarily, I’m going for a win at Watkins Glen, 19th in the Cup Series standings, and an uncertain future for RPM still beyond 2011.

Did You Notice? Quick hits before we take off:

  • Count me in the minority, but I wasn’t sitting there doubled over with excitement all 400 miles at Michigan. It’s never been one of my favorite tracks, I’ll give you that, but I still thought we had a bit of an overreaction on both the attendance and quality of competition. “Oh, my God… there was an actual battle for the lead!” Seriously, it seemed like some people were ready to faint. Don’t you guys realize that used to happen about nine or 10 times every week? And for all the talk about Michigan attendance, there were two giant grandstands in turn 3 that hardly had anybody in them. We’ll never know the right attendance numbers for virtually any track, but the viewing audience agreed with me: Numbers for MIS were down 12%. I’ve said it many times this season: you can’t put in a three-hour investment only to get the real action in the fourth quarter. There has to be more.
  • Speaking of ratings, remember Brian France’s obsession with trying to conquer the NFL? The first exhibition game of the season, the Hall of Fame Game, drew a 7.6 overnight rating. Can you guess the ratings high for NASCAR this season? That’s right, the Daytona 500; its final Nielsen drew a hefty 7.7. In case you haven’t been through fourth grade yet, I’ll go ahead and do the math for you: 7.7 – 7.6 = a ratings difference of 0.1. That’s just a tenth-of-a-point, folks, between NASCAR’s Super Bowl and the NFL’s first meaningless exhibition game. I don’t have any witty comments for this one. Let it sink in for a second before we move on….
  • If you need any more proof about how much the Kahne situation was weighing on Martin, check out his interview after hitting the wall and finishing 28th in Sunday’s Cup race. The guy was smiling so wide, you’d think he ran second if you hadn’t actually witnessed what happened. That’s why I think poor Clint Bowyer is a sitting duck after three straight finishes outside the top 10. Martin is free to relax for the next 15 months, go out there and pursue a title with the same type of equipment that’s won Jimmie Johnson the last four. It’s a mental edge he hasn’t had that should put him over the top at Bristol, where the No. 5 already has a top-five finish this season and put the rest of his 12th-place rivals out to pasture. I know what you’re saying… what if that old Martin luck shows up? Well… I can’t control that, Charlie Brown. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Hendrick installed a security system to keep poor Lucy off the property.
  • Keep an eye on IndyCar drivers’ meeting to put together a formal alliance. With owners having private meetings and going public about lower driver salaries, fears of less money combined with disgust some have with NASCAR decision-making could force their hand on a union. Will it happen soon? Absolutely not. But if this IndyCar thing works out the next 12 months? Keep in mind racing’s a copycat business…

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