*Did You Notice?* … No news is bad news? That’s the theme in NASCAR Nation this week, where some of the quietest off time we’ve ever seen has kept the sport out of the national consciousness. Baseball, with Opening Day festivities and beyond has gripped the headlines, along with the start of the NHL Playoffs and the upcoming push for the NBA’s. Football, too, despite being in its offseason continues to make the rounds atop _SportsCenter_ and keep fans focused on anything but cars going in circles.
It would be one thing if NASCAR happened to be pulling in ratings left and right. But they’re not. FOX’s numbers for Sprint Cup are among the lowest during their 12-year tenure covering the sport; attendance, in particular at Bristol continues to struggle. The International Speedway Corporation (ISC), NASCAR’s sister company who owns the majority of tracks on the schedule posted a profit of $127.4 million dollars over the first quarter of fiscal year 2012. That sounds like a lot, but it’s actually 14 percent less than last year and continues a troubling downward trend from when the sport was raking in unlimited cash during the peak years of the mid-2000s.
So what’s the problem? We’ve discussed that many times here; what I’m more interested today is the consequences. With Facebook and Twitter, America has become more of an ADD society than ever before. Out of sight, out of mind is a sad but simple philosophy, the Information Age providing constant distractions for anyone who wants a different source of entertainment. Football, more than any other major sport understands that and has found a way to keep itself in the news cycle pretty much 24/7 – even though it’s a once-a-week sport, whose schedule is five months shorter than the pinnacle of stock car racing. For those who don’t follow the NFL, a quick rundown of what’s transpired in the last few months…
– Peyton Manning, the sport’s most-well known QB and a multi-time Most Valuable Player has left the only team he’s ever known, Indianapolis to sign with a new one (Denver)
– Andrew Luck, a college quarterback is being called the best draft prospect in a generation. Fellow quarterback Robert Griffin III is right behind, to the point a team (Washington) traded away multiple draft picks and mortgaged the entire future of their franchise to pick them.
– There was a scandal unveiled over defensive players conspiring to “knock offensive” players out of the game through vicious hits. This bounty program caused the head coach of a franchise to be suspended for an entire season, along with fines and penalties for several players involved. Harsh, but in many cases appropriate consequences were doled out for each infraction.
Note that even in the last case, negative news became positive as the NFL stood tough by its rulings. The final result, while controversial seems to be accepted by not only league principles themselves but the majority of fans. Now compare that to the Jimmie Johnson appeal. No matter where you stand on the penalties that resulted (and I’m on the side of “he shouldn’t have lost points,”) how happy are you over how everything unfolded? It seems that everyone you talk to, from people in the garage (even the Hendrick personnel themselves) to fans paying for tickets are dissatisfied with _some_ portion of what happened, whether it’s the appeals process itself or the final result.
And that brings us to our first two bulletpoints. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the sport’s Most Popular Driver is signed with Hendrick Motorsports through 2017. He also hasn’t won a race in almost four years, which has limited the excitement over his recent resurgence that sees him second in points, just six behind a driver who also hasn’t won (Greg Biffle). Neither driver will be going anywhere, anytime soon; NASCAR’s business model is so out of proportion with today’s economy no new owners are around to offer them better contracts. The days of major Silly Season “driver hopping” have turned rare, aside from the rare situation of someone having off-track problems to the point they have to be fired (see: Kurt Busch, Homestead). Take Hendrick Motorsports, for example. Everyone on the four-car team is signed to long-term deals; no one is going anywhere. Stability can be great for an organization, but too much of it across the board for a sport can also be a snoozer for the news cycle.
Next, let’s compare the NFL excitement over two upcoming prospects. What NASCAR up-and-coming talent do we have running in Sprint Cup? Of the two rookie candidates, one had to drop back into the Nationwide Series and the other is start-and-parking due to lack of funds. Danica Patrick is running a limited schedule, yes, while her full-time participation in the Nationwide Series has probably caused those ratings to rise some (they’re up this year). But she has yet to contend in that division this season, without a top-5 finish in five starts and sits 17th in the point standings.
All of these factors combine into the consequences of fans getting distracted and looking elsewhere. Even the great finish of Martinsville, as wonderful as it was didn’t have enough to sustain more than 24-48 hours. After that, fans started looking for something else and there was… nothing.
*Did You Notice?* … The nominees for the next NASCAR Hall of Fame class get announced today? Now is when it starts to get interesting; all of the “early must haves” in my book like Richard Petty, David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Bud Moore, etc. have already been included. There’s a lot of people left that deserve to get in, and all of them on the next list of 25 will get there eventually. But with no “unanimous decisions” left among the voting bloc as to _when_ some of these people should make it, it’s anybody’s guess as to who’s going to comprise the next class. It’s going to be interesting to see what the voters think going forward; does the old-time history of the sport matter more than recent success, like Rick Hendrick’s 199 victories and seven championships? Will historic records by drivers in other series, like Jerry Cook and his Modified championships eclipse old school Cup careers cut short like Bobby Isaac and Joe Weatherly? The next round of voting will definitively be the most unpredictable yet. By the way, my vote for who should be on the next nomination list? Sam Ard. How could you leave the two-time Busch Series champion off when you’re including drivers from other series? In three years, Ard won 22 times and never finished lower than second in points. You can’t do much better than that.
*Did You Notice?* … Some quick hits to take off with on this slow week…
– Check out the top 7 from November’s race at Texas: Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Of those seven, five have yet to win this season or have struggled mightily (see: Gordon and Kahne) to gain momentum. Chances are good we could see a major winless streak, like Earnhardt’s (remember, his first Cup victory came at Texas in 2000) come to an end Saturday night.
– Jimmie Johnson sponsoring Dave Blaney? Rick Hendrick putting his car dealership on Richard Childress’ Nationwide car? Stewart-Haas Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing participating in a “technical alliance?” The lines between each team within a manufacturer have become so blurred it’s impossible to even tell who’s truly in charge of what anymore. Four-team rule? How about there’s four manufacturers, people within each brand working together with the money they can drudge up within NASCAR today and… well… that’s about it. To say this rule is being enforced, by now is laughable at best.
– If NASCAR is so gung ho about the 2013 versions of their cars, why haven’t they tried to lure in another manufacturer? That seems to be where the money is coming from these days while Fortune 500 companies either cut back their involvement or get out altogether. The last time we were on the verge of short fields – in 2004-05 – it was Toyota’s entrance into the sport that sparked both interest and a surge in car count. Considering Ford, Chrysler, and GM are well in the black, recovered from their nearly insurmountable debt a few years back can Daytona Beach executives convince another surging automaker to join them?
– It’ll be interesting to see how a Saturday night race under the lights at Texas compares with Sunday. Typically, these moves hurt the ratings but then again, NASCAR Primetime at Daytona had excellent numbers.
– Travis Pastrana is the grand marshal for Saturday night’s race. But isn’t he an (about to be) NASCAR competitor? Isn’t the grand marshal supposed to be someone who isn’t, conceivably a guy who could make the 43-car field? These tracks need to work on booking better celebrities…