NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Decision 2010 – Is a 3-Way Championship Fight Enough to Save NASCAR’s Chase?

There has been a lot of talk about “change” the last two years — and 12 months — but the anti-incumbent mood is not stronger anywhere in 2010 than Daytona Beach, Fla. That’s right; even with the political landscape having shifted dramatically last night, the ballot issue I’m talking about is not tax cuts nor health insurance, but rather the much-maligned Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. The $4.8 billion boondoggle that was supposed to have propelled stock car racing to NFL stature has instead slowly backslid into a double-dip depression, with ratings and attendance down more so than other sports have experienced.

Those Nielsen numbers are consistently dropping 10-20% across the board, pairing with attendance losses that match them at virtually every track on the schedule. Even the better races, including one of the most anticipated superspeedway spectaculars of the season at Talladega, have seen a notable decline.

Further evidence of a burgeoning revolution are the comments and postings on virtually any racing-related forum, website, blog or Tweet. I have received my own share of email from fans that have had it up to here (I have my hand in a salute gesture at about eye level right now) with what “their” sport has sullied itself to.

This atmosphere accompanied Sunday’s AMP Energy Juice 500, which was not exactly the haunted wild-card wreckfest it was purported to be. Yes, Jeff Burton was eliminated, as was fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., the result of some overenthusiastic bump-drafting through turn 4 by the latter. What resulted was a photo finish of sorts, resorting to scoring loops, video and timing to determine which RCR car was the actual winner of the event. As luck would have it, the No. 33 Chevrolet of Clint Bowyer was deemed the victor, and the crowd went… mild.

Perhaps it was because nobody really knew when the race had actually ended, or what became of AJ Allmendinger, who appeared to either sit down or fall down next to the ambulance after exiting his inverted No. 43 Ford Fusion. Perhaps it was the convoluted TV coverage; forgive ESPN for being as completely in the dark as the rest of us, but then remember that CBS was able to cover races better 25 years ago with three cameras. The gaffes added up to an overall feeling of confusion rather than satisfaction over an event that had a near-record 87 lead changes, 26 leaders, and enough side-by-side racing to fill a decade of competition at Fontana.

Yes, Talladega has been one of NASCAR’s signature tracks since its inaugural event in 1969, but try telling that to fans who stayed home to the tune of a 14% decline at the turnstiles. With ratings and attendance down for the track that virtually guarantees you’ll make it on your local news if you sit near the fence on the frontstretch, it does not bode well for continued viability of the Chase format if a 2.66-mile track pulls in 35% less people than it did just a few years ago.

Fan polling and sentiment will support this preaching to the choir sermon from my seat here in western Michigan, but there is something far beyond wrong with this picture. The plot thickens when there is a collective shrug of the shoulders offered by many fans for a title battle that tightened following the race; we’re now down to a trio of teams separated by a scant 38 points with three races left.

What makes it doubly bad for NASCAR and Chase proponents is that if there was going to be one year that the playoff may have gotten it right, it should have been 2010. After all, the three drivers vying for the title are in effect the “right” ones contesting for the championship. Kevin Harvick led the points standings for virtually the entire regular season, while Denny Hamlin rebounded from knee surgery and nagging doubts regarding the wisdom of his decision to get cut open – and then get back into a car that would be involved in an accident in his first race back. Then there is Jimmie Johnson, the much-maligned four-time champ who is criticized either because he seems boring or because his team has figured out best how to work a convoluted points reset system to his advantage.

Rusty Wallace once likened Dale Earnhardt to a John Deere tractor who “just keeps puttin’ along” during his 1993 title run. Johnson and his No. 48 Lowe’s team, which year after year has remained largely intact, operates in much the same fashion, with Glock-like reliability. Much like the fabled Austrian plastic-pistol, it isn’t terribly exciting, does its job with mind-numbing repetition and does so rarely flubbing an assignment.

When they do, it’s tap-rack-reassess, and fixed either that race or the next.

Three different drivers, three compelling storylines that would drive the off-track conversation as little as five years ago. But what has become glaringly clear is that while the Chase does provide some talking points and opportunity for discussion and prognostication, it still fails to resonate with fans — both the grizzled old diehards or Fantasy Football Guy, who has just smashed his laptop and changed channels when the Detroit Lions defense has scored a touchdown with less than two minutes remaining against the Washington Redskins.

A number of different NASCAR avenues are at a crossroads. Chief among them is how to decide the champion of the premier series, and moreover, how to make it relevant so that people are interested again.

Where to begin? If the sport’s winningest driver is barely hanging on even in name only, then there stands to be some irrecoverable harm done to the sport. The 43-car field that has been a mainstay of competition is now bearing whispers that it should be curtailed – perhaps to the 36- to 40-car fields that were once the limit during the early 1990s. That may not be such a bad idea. It would discourage the start-and-park teams from showing up, but then again, how much air time does somebody running 38th get anyway?

The basic laws of economics dictate the answer nobody seems to want to accept: scarcity of product equals increased demand. Cut out a few dates, reduce the cost for teams to compete and make people hungry for it again.

With the over-saturation in the marketplace of everything NASCAR following the 2001 network and western expansion, the curiosity of the traveling speed circus was replaced with familiarity, and with the advent of the Chase, has in part bred contempt. The dead horse that the not-so-silent majority has been beating has not quite yielded the windfall of results that many had hoped. There have been cracks in the armor of the obstinate; normal start times, rejection of the wing and muscle cars now making up half the field of the once-proud Nationwide Series.

The people have spoken, but has NASCAR listened in time? The data suggests that the main issue of contention is that the championship system does not need to be kicked off at the most sparsely attended superspeedway next to the third-most populated city in the United States, but instead, repealed entirely. Viewership and attendance of the final three races should serve as a final referendum on NASCAR’s six-year redistributive championship experiment gone awry.

Will NASCAR heed to the actions of the fans that have spoken louder than a 43-car field ever would, or continue to do things its own way, stumbling down the same path that each political party finds itself doing the same way every eight years or so?

In the arena of sports and entertainment, fans vote with their wallets, ticket stubs and remotes. The early returns this year were not promising, and in the 11th hour of this cycle, it’s not looking pretty. That’s kind of a shame, as the three candidates for the 2010 championship have all run respectable races and gone about their quest in decidedly different manners.

Hopefully out of deference to these drivers and teams, there will be more than a few people who stick around to see how this one pans out. But at this point… no guarantees.

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