NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Battling Against The Beast

As the Sprint Cup Series ends its final off week this Monday, the biggest story affecting the sport has little to do with Nashville’s empty crowd, Carl Edwards’ free agency or even the whispered rumors of memos warning against little to no one attending Indy’s Brickyard 400 (if you believe what you hear, attendance will consist of a midget, two old ladies who got lost and Tony George – it’s the only way he can get in!) No, the strongest punch to the face comes in the form of an… ow, ow ow ow ow.

That hurt.

Got tackled by a 300-pound defensive lineman, sorry. As I was saying, the sport takes a hit as we speak this Monday with NFL players and owners ready to marry like that new law in New York State, ending their lockout and returning pigskin to the national pastime it’s blossomed into with record numbers both at the TV set and the turnstiles over the past decade. Where stock car racing has grown, football has exploded with last year’s Hall of Fame Game exhibition alone generating ratings competitive with the 2010 Daytona 500.

So what in the world does tackling, field goals, and Brett Favre watch (again) have to do with NASCAR? Plenty. For one, Daytona Beach was hoping for an extended lockout, a competition-free Fall so the much-maligned Chase would take center stage instead. Without a distraction, they surmised millions would _naturally_ tune into their second choice, stock car racing and get hooked on cars going ‘round in circles all over again. Umm… OK? I don’t like pears, so I’m going to eat them because I can’t find any oranges? Doesn’t make much sense, does it. But however far-fetched it was – both that theory and that the nation’s biggest sport, with an estimated $9 billion in revenue per season would even stay on the sidelines in the first place – the bottom line is people believed it, at high levels and now they’re stuck with earning momentum back the hard way, by beating the toughest competition in sports without much of a backup plan.

It won’t be easy. Sprint, whose inaugural Summer Showdown is set to kick off at Indy, will have the next five race winners vying for a $1 million prize come Atlanta Labor Day Weekend. But announcing their plan is one thing; getting it publicized is another during a time when free agency, training camps, and the sport’s second-biggest event playing to empty seats will dominate ESPN’s _Sportscenter._ Public relations reps need to work overtime to rise above the tidal wave, sending out the message NASCAR is not only still around but relevant heading into the Dog Days of August; otherwise, fans’ lasting memory will be six hours of Kentucky traffic before something else came to capture their attention.

It sounds like an easy excuse, football siphoning away NASCAR’s audience. But it’s not. Even back in 2001, during the sport’s major growth phase ratings fell a full tenth of a point once put into direct competition with the NFL. Just last season, FOX pulled a 4.8 for their slate of Spring races versus a 2.6 for the ABC/ESPN portion of the schedule – a startling decline of 46 percent. One major difference? FOX had zero NFL games against them, while ABC/ESPN dealt with football conflicts for roughly half of their 17-race coverage to close the season.

So how does stock car racing put its best foot forward? It’s a tough question. More than ever, this time is where the current lack of new ownership (and subsequent Silly Season) dramatically hurts the sport. Exciting, feel-good items that can keep it in the news, like major drivers switching rides and long-term futures just aren’t happening in the current state of the racing economy. A best-case impact scenario here would be Carl Edwards leaving Roush for Joe Gibbs Racing; otherwise, if he re-signs most drivers will maintain the status quo, creating little movement and more of the same old, same old that will pale in comparison to 20 NFL signings in one day. Football’s about to revel in story after story about people earning money; meanwhile, with sponsors bailing in droves, too much NASCAR speak revolves around losing it.

And while this year’s Daytona 500 was a breath of fresh air, winner Trevor Bayne injecting new life into the sport the underdogs have quietly retreated in recent weeks (David Ragan’s Daytona triumph notwithstanding). Indy typically goes to raw horsepower, leaving little to chance and favoring the multi-car giants; August offers more of the same, with Watkins Glen and Bristol your lone exceptions. Sprint Cup has done well trotting out three first-time winners this year, but typically four or more would be too much to ask; with the title race unfolding, expect the balance of power to shift back towards familiar faces who’ve held it.

That’s where it gets super tricky, underneath the battle for two Chase wild cards hardcore fans will be sure to latch onto in August. Jimmie Johnson, second in the standings still clocks in as the favorite, pit crew rant at Loudon notwithstanding; it’ll be virtually impossible to convince people otherwise who’ve been there, seen that during a remarkable five-year run by the No. 48. Especially in a year with no clear-cut challenger, how can you argue right now that title reign is threatened? And despite some small changes, reworking the postseason system how do you convince people two race winners, drivers who showed no shred of consistency outside a few Victory Lane performances will have any impact within a “consistency-based” postseason contest?

At times, this season has actually been full of encouraging signs; ratings on both FOX and TNT suggest an all-out bloodbath of fan departures has slowed dramatically. But now, in the midst of Operation Rebuild comes the biggest test. With football advertising following their every move, how will even the most loyal of stock car racing fans respond?

We’re about to find out.

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