NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Frontstretch Five: Questions Yet To Be Answered in 2014

Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy has five questions that there are no clear answers to this year.

1. What does winning mean, really?

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s wins weren’t enough to keep him in contention this season. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

That’s become the million-dollar question as the new Chase format is put to the test. With three races left to decide the season champion, two of the top 4 in driver points have zero wins between them. Ryan Newman, who’s currently second, has the same number of top-5 finishes as Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who is not in title contention, has race wins this season. In January, when NASCAR announced the new points format, the sanctioning body was adamant that winning would be everything. But so far, it hasn’t exactly played out that way. There was some press given to the number of different winners to start the season, but in reality that wasn’t an unusual number by any stretch. There were a couple of unexpected winners, and that’s always good for the sport.

The other part of the question is whether fans would truly embrace a winless champion. Based on a lot of social media postings out there, a large number of fans are pulling for either Newman or Matt Kenseth to win the title, some admittedly because it would show the flaws in NASCAR’s controversial system. But, to be fair, there were fan complaints before the Chase format was devised who didn’t like that a driver with one win could win the title over a driver with several more. It could go either way, and that makes it harder to diagnose any flaws in the system.

2. Why are ratings are still falling?

This trend is puzzling and alarming. On paper, the season has been everything race fans should hope for. With the possible exception of the title format looming over the races, the season has been pretty good. Certainly some of the races have been stellar, including this past weekend’s show at Martinsville Speedway.

Yet fewer and fewer people are watching. Of the seven Chase races so far, only two, New Hampshire and Chicago, have seen a ratings increase, and Chicago’s increase may be attributable to a rainout in 2013 rather than attracting new viewers. Martinsville numbers weren’t out as of Tuesday, so there’s an opportunity for another boost as well, but overall, the numbers are dismal.

And while some of that can be attributed to NASCAR being a trend a decade ago from which many have moved on, can all of it be placed on the shoulders of those jumping onto the next bandwagon rolling by? Maybe. But maybe there’s more to it, and that’s something that needs to be answered not just in the interest of the fans who remain loyal, but to the sanctioning body and its sponsorship partners as well as teams and their sponsors. For those sponsors to remain involved, there needs to be a return on investment, and for that to happen, people have to watch.

3. Has the guard changed?

This question is a tough one to answer. Certainly, a couple of drivers who’ve been in the championship picture as recently as last year have seen a noticeable drop-off in performance. Jimmie Johnson has been barely mediocre in the Chase, despite winning the title last year and having three wins on the season. Tony Stewart, the 2011 champ, hasn’t won at all this year. Neither Stewart nor Johnson is getting any younger, and neither looked like they could figure out the cars this year in any consistent manner. Meanwhile, Joey Logano has finally arrived and a few other younger drivers have made a splash.

On the other hand, Jeff Gordon is having a resurgence at Stewart’s age and Johnson’s shopmate, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is contending at a year older than Johnson. Team Penske has emerged as Ford’s top team; of that there is little doubt. Hendrick Motorsports is still Chevy’s flagship, but they have slipped a little this year. Is it the cars? The Chase? Or is Penske poised to be the new dynasty? With more new rules just around the corner for 2015, this question is one that can’t be answered yet but should still be on everyone’s radar.

4. Are seven titles or 105 wins attainable in today’s NASCAR?

Well, the answer a year ago is not the same as it is today. When Jimmie Johnson won his sixth title last year, seven seemed easily within reach. But as badly as Johnson has stumbled in 2014, it’s suddenly not simply a matter of time. Johnson will have to prove himself all over again to win a seventh and tie the record currently held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, two of the sport’s biggest legends. Johnson’s good; there should be no questions surrounding his talent anymore, but is he that good? That’s something that won’t be answered for at least another year.

On the other hand, David Pearson‘s mark of 105 Cup race wins, second all-time, seemed like it might be safe forever. In today’s ultra-competitive NASCAR, that number of wins looked unattainable. Johnson isn’t close enough to be a threat, and Jeff Gordon seemed to have fizzled. Then came 2014 and the rekindling of Gordon. His four wins this season put him at a career total of 92. 13 more could be a stretch, but suddenly, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Gordon is already third on the all-time wins list.

2014 Martinsville II CWTS pack racing
Will the Truck Series still be around in 10 years? 20?

This conversation does come with a little twist. If you’re among those who believe that the non-chase standings would stand in other years (and that’s debatable), then Gordon, not Johnson, would be staring down that seventh championship in 2014, and he’d have a 42-point lead with three races left.

5. How healthy are the Nationwide and Truck series, really?

Well… ratings and attendance aren’t pretty. But that’s in comparison to Sprint Cup to some extent, and that’s an unfair comparison. AAA baseball games don’t draw the same crowd as a big league game, and it’s not realistic to expect Nationwide or Trucks to stand up to Sprint Cup. So those comparisons are misleading.

But the series aren’t exactly growing either. NASCAR announced cuts to the Truck Series field next year because it simply is not getting 36 trucks most weeks. Martinsville was an exception, but for the most part, that series is struggling to attract new entrants. Nationwide is faring better in that department, but it’s hard to ignore the fans’ rumblings over the Sprint Cup drivers winning many of the series’ races in top-level equipment.

On the other hand, there are some talented drivers in both series right now, and more are just getting their feet wet until they’re old enough to run a full schedule. Last weekend’s Truck race at Martinsville featured 18 rookie drivers and some of them were impressive. Chase Elliott is beating the socks off some of the Cup drivers at times in the Nationwide Series, so there’s a lot to look forward to. Perhaps the answer lies in rebranding those series into something more autonomous… but it can’t be said that they’re on life support, either. At least not yet.

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Bill B

It will take 20 years for people to accept Johnson’s six (soon to be seven?) championships as equal to Petty or Earnhardt. By then most of the older fans will be outnumbered by those that never knew of any system but the chase. However if Brian keeps on changing it every year then no one might ever be able to accept it as legit.

BTW, according to Jayski, ratings were down again for Martinsville. Ha!
If I didn’t know better I’d say some fans were purposely avoiding watching the new chase (but that can’t be, right?).

The guard is changing. It won’t be long before there aren’t any pre-chase drivers left.

Well, Johnson has a chance to make 7 championships. Gordon, a much longer shot of 105 wins. But I’d say once those two move on that will be it. All the rules that NASCAR has put in place to force parity and manufacture excitement work against rewarding the guy with the best car/season and raise the hand luck has in the results. This works against dynasties because being good is no longer enough, you have to be very lucky too.

They still televise truck and nationwide races? Who’d know.

JohnQ

Hey smarty pants for your information the Martinsville truck race almost drew as many viewers as the two hour ShamWow infomercial on at the same time and was locked in a virtual tie with Test Pattern in the Southeast.

Bill B

Yeah, I was just joking. I watch a lot of the truck races because they are usually on Friday night. I would have probably watched it but I decided to spend five hours waxing my truck instead.

SR37212

Nascar is marketing towards a more urban and diverse market. They are marketing to get a more broad fan base (Northern markets). Yet look at where the 10 top markets are. Except for Indianapolis (which is a kind of North/South border city) the other nine biggest ratings come from the South.

The big question should be how long Nascar can continue to keep ratings strong there. I’m in Nashville (tied for 9th) and I’ve seen a drop off of not only my viewing but the viewing of friends. I’ll watch a race I might think will be interesting but if something else comes along I do that. Something that would never happen just a few years ago.

Mike

As a born & bred Southerner, it’s not surprising that most of the tv markets are in Dixie. That said, there’s not a lot of Dixie left in NASCAR (to their detriment). Oh well, Pro Cup is far & away better racing (like Winston Cup used to be).

Grand National & Trucks should be more-or-less completely detached from Sprint Cup. Might could have all 3 series for crown jewels of Daytona, Darlington, Bristol, & Martinsville. Otherwise those series should compete at tracks like IRP, Iowa, Hickory, the road courses not on the Cup schedule, etc. They’d be wise to align schedules with ARCA or ProCup as well.

But I doubt Czar BZF will listen to a dumb ol’ country boy like me…

JD in NC

The idiot king BZF won’t listen to anybody unless they are pushing a wheelbarrow full of Benjamin Franklins.

Russ

Society is changing at the speed of light, and motorsports, including but not exclusively Nascar, is rapidly fading into the margins. That rather than the chase is imho the reason for the plummeting ratings. Expect them to continue to drop as the audiece, primarily the over 50 crowd, drops away.

JohnQ

Right on point, sometimes the simplest answer is the correct one. Younger people just do not have the same relationship with their cars due to the increasing complexity of the technology of today’s autos. For people under 50 cars have become mere appliances for transportation. It is logical that racing would be of less interest to them. As to NW and Trucks, how can one continue to ignore that with the domination of Cup drivers they have become the very antithesis of “racing”, mere practice sessions. Non zillionaires more like the drivers of old that one could relate to, developing (or not) from week to week was much of the draw for both series. Fans have realized that NASCAR has decreed the Cup drivers will continue to flatline even a chance of any competition. Given the take it or leave it proposition more and more of us are leaving it. I stopped watching both series this year. I won’t be back.

Russ

The Nationwide and Trucks are just part of the bigger picture. It would be interesting to know what was the logic behind Trucks anyway.
But the question is what is driving the business/sport anyway? TV’s insatiable need for content of course provides Nascar, and to a lesser extent the teams, with major amounts of money.
Yet, have you considered the B to B impact? Suppose I have a chain of car dealerships. If I can get an oil company to sponsor my race team – in exchange for an exclusive deal in my dealerships? I’m golden, money comes pouring in for everybody. So how concerned am I going to be with attendance at the track? Does that scenario sound familiar? it should.

racefangurl

Some people think Chase can be champ, but it’s hard for me to believe a rookie champ can be legit. Because of my views on rookies, it would look like funny business, like they did something cheat-y to his car. Like a cheat engine. Joe Nemechek taught me about rookies when I was a kid. Ty Dillon makes rookie mistakes, which is what I expect.

Earner

Why can’t a “rookie” be champ?

racefangurl

I said my views on rookies. I’m strong-willed and learned to expect little from rookies in the 2nd half of the ’90’s, when I first watched NASCAR. So by performing as he has as an 18 year old rookie, Chase challenges my views and with my strong will it’s hard for me to believe he can be better than Lewis Hamilton. On racing-reference.info’s boards someone said Lewis Hamiltion, in his rookie season of F1 was 2nd by one point. My perfect scenario is Chase ends up the Lewis Hamilton of F1, 2nd by one point to somebody like Regan Smith, as only the top-2 are realistic Nationwide champion possibilities now. Chase is a Rookie of the Year lock, I admit. I see a JR Motorsports 1-2 and the team sweeps Rookie of the Year and champ. Maybe the two-week break the Nationwide’s had will break Chase’s momentum and he’ll choke.

Earner

Think main veiwing drop is due to little to no passing, caused by aero on vehicles = no excitement ..The “chase” has been highly entertaining generally & all the negative (keep beating that drum cause it really seems to help) chase talk is lending itself to those results.. NOTE: This “chase” system is an improvment imo except the last race should be total points from the last 4 in.
But cot 1.0 7 part 2 & three have been a huge detriment to the sport (again no passing = no action = no/less interest) Loose the downforce & race the car..Note: Downforce worth testing-20% more than the factory had & then let the mechanical grip & drivers skill & adjustments take over…Yes brian is a dufus

Jay

As an older, avid Nascar fan, I am finding my biggest turnoff of watching races is the actual TV coverage, or lack thereof. All of the other items do enter into the equation, cars, ability to pass, marketing to younger set, etc., but overall I find it harder and harder to sit through any channel’s presentation. Fox Cup is awful announcers saying totally ridiculous things completely unrelated to what is actually happening on the track, combined with the sounds of the track so loud they drown out the announcers we don’t want to listen to anyhow. Truck races had much better announcers but again they cannot be heard over the sound of the trucks. ESPN is just plain awful. Both networks put too much emphasis on scripts and not enough on telling the story of what’s going on in the race – too much emphasis on too few people. Even if the younger generation did tune in, they would click it off quickly because there is no coverage of what they are seeing. I also find it interesting with all the theories being put forth about why viewership is down o one is addressing the tv coverage.

Russ

As for the viewers its simple. You have one choice, watch it or not. I suspect that virtually everybody that is interested, while they may complain, watch . It simply is that fewer and fewer people are interested enough to watch.
Look at how much the ratings have dropped since football season began. Its not, as much as we wish it was, because of the chase its because something more interesting is on.

Kevin

The 36 trucks that showed up at Martinsville is a sign that if you want full fields. The trucks need to be at short tracks. It doesn’t cost as much to run the short tracks as the speedways. The series should be a stepping stone for development. Tracks mostly like what the kids learn on with a few speedways. Then the Nationwise series has more speedways and then Cup. The problem is that NASCAR (ISC) wants to have more races at the tracks that they own regardless of the health of the series or the teams.

GinaV24

1. “win and you’re in” – wasn’t that the big tag line for this year? While I’m not cheering for either Kenseth or Newman to win it, there is a certain level of amusement in it simply because having this new format bite NASCAR in the butt if that happened.

2. Why are ratings still falling? I think it is multiple things. There are a lot of fans who have just stopped paying attention to the sport. The TV broadcasts do a terrible job of making watching a race enjoyable. The racing itself, while somewhat improved this year (at least early in the season), pretty much isn’t worth spending 4 hrs sitting in front of the tv on a nice day. My brother and I, along with my niece, were dedicated NASCAR fans but now not so much. I’ll wander in and out while doing chores, etc. and yes, watching football now that the NFL season has begun, but I just don’t sit and watch. Also, if there is something else to do, I won’t decline the invitation to watch which is also something I would have done 7 or 8 yrs ago. And as people pointed out, as the 50 plus crowd leaves the sport, will there be new fans to watch?

3. Has the guard changed? To a degree it probably has. I plan to watch NASCAR only so long as Gordon is driving. After that, I won’t bother because the sport has nothing else that interests me. I don’t plan to pick a new driver. Since I was at Martinsville, I can tell you there were a lot of Jr and Gordon fans there. Lots of loud boos for the Busch brothers (not unusual), but also for Johnson & Kez and Logano, too. Unless there are drivers that fans are willing and interested in cheering for – the ratings will fall even more when the “guard” changes.

4. 7 championships & 100 wins? Well, IMO Gordon would already have 6 if the chase had never been put into place and Johnson wouldn’t have the 6 he does. Guess it depends on how you count it and no, the 10 race championships don’t add up the same as full season ones. Again, I’m sure it depends on your point of view, but that’s how I look at it. This version, well, it is a crapshoot for sure. I’m just hoping Gordon pulls it off for his and my personal satisfaction. I would love to see Gordon get to 100 wins – he needs at least a couple more seasons running well like this to get there.

5. The trucks & Nationwide – well, I no longer watch either series. I swore off the trucks because I can’t listen to Mikey Waltrip and too often having cup drivers dominate and Nationwide because I don’t care to watch Cup lite. Its a shame, too, because they were fun to watch.

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