Apparently, when hyping up this year’s Chicago-based Chase debut, NASCAR forgot to send an invite to Mother Nature. She had her hissy fit Sunday, rain popping the hot-air playoff balloon by postponing the scheduled Sprint Cup race until Monday at 11 AM Central – a time when there’s still a 30% chance of more green stuff on the radar. It was a murky end to a week of pomp and circumstance, designed to pump up Sprint Cup’s new playoff system by placing it smack in the country’s No. 3 media market.
For the suits in Daytona, though, there is no such word as “disappointment” when it comes to the Windy City. “Infatuated” sounds about right; in fact, they green-lighted Chicagoland’s place heading the 2012 Chase schedule before this week even began. Huh? It’s a bold statement, to say the least, especially since there’s little to any evidence the move has boosted overall fan interest in the area. Saturday’s Nationwide Series crowd, our only true gauge, was at 36,000 this year; that was up 8,000 from June’s standalone event but down significantly from the 57,500 that showed up for July’s Nationwide/Cup weekend in 2010. Chase week, with various events everywhere from ESPN’s _NASCAR Now_ on Navy Pier, to Media Day/Fan-Driver Q & A at LaSalle Power Company, to the opening of the first NASCAR Car Wash in Romeoville, played to varying crowds. But a flash mob of tens of thousands, screaming LeBron-to-Miami style as any of the top 12 drivers passed through? That was nowhere to be found. Instead, just like when NASCAR’s come to New York, Los Angeles, or the major cities across America there’s a large cross-section of people who never knew stock car racing was there.
It’s a discouraging sign for this market, considering NASCAR had a “picture perfect” situation heading into this week. The Bears, the city’s major NFL draw, had a road game this Sunday, while baseball’s crosstown rivals, the Cubs and White Sox, are long out of their respective pennant races. Heck, even Northwestern University was away, leaving _nothing_ to overshadow the sport’s September entrance. And yet, here we are on a Monday morning and there’s no additional press coverage push, no extra Sportscenter stories and marginal national coverage of what’s setting up to be the most wide open playoff Chase in its eight-year history.
Some of that is as simple as playing pretend with location. Anyone who’s been to Chicagoland knows the Speedway name itself is deceptive; the track is a 49.2-mile, one-hour drive from the Windy City center. (In comparison, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, until this year the Chase’s debut racetrack lies 72.3 miles away from Boston… the No. 7 media market in the country. Go figure). ESPN also didn’t help matters much, shifting around their _NASCAR Now_ program to times only DV-Rs could watch while letting the stick-and-ball sports they better understand hog the limelight.
NASCAR still feels it’s a building process, that over time its mere presence here will be enough to gradually turn the Midwestern urban crowd its way. But in going gaga over postseason promotion, they’ve forgotten the No. 1 rule to build excitement: providing fans a guaranteed, quality product to cause buzz, a competitive balance which has been Chicagoland’s longtime Achilles heel. Last year’s event had just ten lead changes, tied for the fewest in Sprint Cup, and no race has featured more than 20 since its 2001 debut on the schedule. Heck, even the much-maligned California Speedway threw up 18 for their similar, 400-mile tilt this March.
“It hasn’t evolved,” claimed Tony Stewart of this oval at Friday’s pre-race presser. “It is still the same place. That is the bad part about it is, it is still a cookie cutter track, that shape is still the same. It is the same for everybody and we all just deal with it and try to figure out how to be fastest around it.”
“You can’t build round race tracks and expect guys to pass and race when guys don’t have to get out of the gas enough. When you are running almost the same speed through the corners as you are down the straightaways, it is hard to have that difference to make passes.”
Cue Saturday’s Nationwide Series showdown. The race had just eight lead changes, a dominating performance up front by Brad Keselowski, and a train of consistent, single-file competition with little passing during a final, 130-lap green-flag stint to the finish. It was hardly the type of knuckle-raising competition that gets fans flocking to their television sets, a reason I’ve contended for years NASCAR needs to start its postseason at a place like Martinsville. Want a bigger media market? OK, well then how about Daytona Beach? Virtually anyplace would suffice over hyping a Sunday afternoon nap.
But in any ugly situation, there’s a silver lining, and that’s true even with this postponement. Noon on Monday gives NASCAR a brief opening in this busy Fall sports world; there’s no NFL, no college football, no other major events to directly contend with. On the off chance there’s a miracle, some sort of competitive finish here the highlights won’t be buried 50 minutes into _Sportscenter_ or on the back pages of the _Chicago Tribune._ Ratings, while suffering a significant decline, would likely fare better than an awkward, eight-hour rain delay that would have seen the race start at slightly after 10 PM ET.
And if there’s ever a time drivers might spar at this oval, well, Monday would be it. The Chase field is a scary version of _Real Housewives_ at the moment, nearly everyone ticked off at somebody else. You’ve got Jimmie Johnson vs Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch vs Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon vs Richard Childress Racing (post-Paul Menard spin) and let’s not forget, old scores to be settled with Brad Keselowski vs Denny Hamlin _and_ Carl Edwards to boot. Every blind squirrel finds an acorn occasionally, and Chicagoland has had its share of crises: see Matt Kenseth, spun out of the lead by Jeff Gordon in 2006 and Harvick’s 2001 spin-and-then-win as examples.
Certainly, the sport also possesses a great deal of momentum heading in, with Richmond ratings up over 15 percent and a Chase lineup filled with potential. This field of 12, with the sport’s Most Popular Driver included, has perhaps the greatest amount of parity we’ve seen in any playoff; except for Junior, Ryan Newman, and perhaps a rebuilding Hamlin it’s hard to count anyone out. Over the long-term, fans who tune out for this ten-race stint in protest will wind up disappointed: they’ll be missing more action during this section of the schedule than we’ve seen over the past seven years.
To get there, though, we still have to push through the overhyped, likely underdelivering, Chapter 1 at Chicagoland Monday. It’s NASCAR’s unnecessary risk, with limited upside considering the importance of “first impressions.” The sport has gone out of its way this year, in the process of rebuilding its image to tell the media it’s trying hard to attract more fans. Well, how many casual readers finish the first chapter of a book, hate it and then keep reading?
Seems kind of silly this sport set itself up to find out.
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