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NASCAR 2015: A Glass Half-Empty Or Half-Full?

Editor’s Note: Beginning this week, Tom Bowles’ long-standing Monday column moves to Tuesdays. He’ll write weekly here along with Did You Notice? every Wednesday.

The world in 2015 is a strange place, one we still struggle to understand even in the happiest of times. Something as small as a tweet of 140 characters can be used to break up with someone in public, get someone fired or turn a once-petty story viral. Social media, an almost-automatic for everyone under 35, is just as important to someone’s personality as, well, actually seeing them in person. A sentence as simple as a Facebook post can be perceived as weird and suddenly, we’re thinking that an old friend is angry. Depressed. A trained assassin…

OK, maybe not the last one, but you certainly get my point. It’s a tricky world to navigate, one where perception is just as important as reality. If people think you’re doing well, then you are doing well, regardless of whether it’s actually true.

Marketing that perception will be the key to NASCAR’s future in 2015.

Right now, as the sun rises on Daytona Speedweeks there are compelling arguments this sport is rising from the trenches. The economy, once slow to recover has trickled its growth back down to NASCAR teams that survived this recession. The Sprint Cup Series, which dipped below a full-time field of 43 last season, will have at least 45 cars attempting to qualify each week. The XFINITY and Truck Series, while still with lower car counts than they’d like, boast a number of high-profile sponsorships. Different names, like Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, and Chase Elliott, are forming a tidal wave of young talent, poised to replace a retiring Jeff Gordon and even the likes of Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick atop the NASCAR charts within the next couple of seasons.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Old guard, young guns, rich teams, underdogs on a shoestring budgetp… how fans see them run is more important than ever in 2015. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

The new Chase, reviled by so many, did tick the ratings upward (less than 1 percent is still considered growth) and the younger crowd appeared revitalized by its format. The way in which the playoffs boosted that crucial 18-to-34 set is still unclear, matched with a mixed set of numbers, so as a reporter there’s also that critical extra element: word of mouth. In my world, a part of the Northeast that might name more badminton players than NASCAR drivers, the Chase offered a surprising amount of buzz. New York City co-workers asked often about how the playoffs unfolded; plenty of Pennsylvania twentysomethings could call themselves “fans,” whether they liked the designation or not after watching the season finale at Homestead holding their breath. It was a race that sold out, by the way, along with Phoenix, a positive sign during a time when most sports fans are sitting on the couch, holding a smartphone rather than attending an event.

Entering year two, this Chase brings with it an ability for every driver to go all out in the races that matter. No longer will a team spend the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, or even Southern 500 “stroking” for points. Last season, for the 30 or so teams that could win just one victory was all you needed to get over the postseason hump. Even with a deeper field this time around, that’s probably all you need once again, making DNFs matter less and late-race restarts can’t miss television.

Then, you have Brad Keselowski, a driver whose personality ignited a fan base with passionate opinions we haven’t seen in over a decade. You love him, you hate him… but you’re not indifferent, and that matters. He’ll be a title contender, along with Gordon, creating nostalgia in his final season behind the wheel. Carl Edwards moves to a new team, igniting his chances while Harvick is focused on repeating. The trailer for NASCAR’s movie is ready as clearly, the pieces are in place for a slugfest in this Chase’s second season. The flared-up competition offers hope; television (with new partner NBC) offers fresh faces; young energy brings with it the possibility of a sport on the upswing.

Yet amidst all the pomp and circumstance, plenty of people would still argue the other way. Series sponsor Sprint, after changes at the top, is running from NASCAR like it’s a ticking time bomb. The actual reasons are rooted in a different reality but that’s the perception (see that word again?) after the company chose to end its Cup Series sponsorship after 2016. The pursuit of a title sponsor will be a storyline all season; the sport has had just two since 1972. Finding the right partner will take time, especially for the lofty price NASCAR will command — but there’s only so much time before the public takes “no future sponsor” as a vote of no confidence from the Fortune 500 community.

The sport’s core group of older fans, ones who have been around since the dawn of Gordon’s career in 1992 remain dissatisfied with the Chase. Gordon, the poster child for what this new format can do to a season, had a championship effort before contact with Keselowski derailed it. His hefty fan base, filled with an aging generation, could use his retirement to abandon this sport rather than keep following with replacement Chase Elliott. Keselowski, for his part maintains he’s no Dale Earnhardt and there’s factual evidence to believe it; he is not the most well-known driver in the sport, by name nor is he its most successful. His personality, Kyle Busch’s, Denny Hamlin’s… their aggression causes headlines but we have yet to see permanent proof they put fans in the seats the way Dale Earnhardt winning races did back in the day.

The Cup Series, while filled with a healthy car count still suffers from a lack of new ownership. NASCAR CEO Brian France, once waffling on expanding the four-team limit for men like Rick Hendrick may soon be forced to expand it, simply because no other rich people want to come and play. An expensive sport has been morphed into a mix of country club alliances, a half-dozen programs holding the keys in the form of chassis and engine programs. Want to smell a whiff of contention? You better have $20 million in your pocket per team, multiple cars to share information with and a whole fleet of top-tier technology at the ready. There’s a reason middle-class programs are skipping Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited exhibition race; that extra cash keeps them on-track, a total put back in the budget that once could cover independents over a full, 36-race season.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Will Jeff Gordon’s lack of a Chase title ultimately taint fans’ perception of the rules… or of the driver? (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

These budgets will grow better if TV can help grow the sport. NBC, for its part, has marketed hard off the bat and will prove to be a solid partner with FOX. But the world in 2015 is changing; fewer fans have cable, while the ones that do keep forgetting about what’s on network television. How the sport navigates through those realities, finding ways to pump up viewership when declines may be outside their control will decide whether boardrooms choose to give them money. Sports may be entertainment but it’s also a business, after all.

With that in mind, it’s impossible to tell how NASCAR will evolve in 2015, a difficult truth in an age where predictions are a dime a dozen. All I can tell you, entering my ninth year covering this sport is that their glass is half-filled with water. How the millions of fans, hundreds of sponsors and dozens of key players see it — half-empty or half-full — will make the difference in a defining year for this sport.

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rg72

I don’t think it’s the new Chase that’s reviled by many fans. It is just that the lottery-style 2014 version was the nail in the coffin for most who at best tolerated the Chase in the past.
The sellouts at the end were hollow. Phoenix removed thousands of seats a couple years back and Homestead has many seats covered, as we all discussed three months ago when the NASCAR victory parade was beating this into our heads. The number of empty seats at Texas was stunning, even for those who have been numbed a little to the sight of swaths of empty seats at racetracks.
I can’t help but think that how last year played out was the final straw for Jeff Gordon. In many fans’ minds, he is a 7-time champion in the same ilk as Petty and Earnhardt by scoring more total points during the season, not just ten races or one race.
Unless the younger crowd is defined by the actors at the sports bars in the ESPN Chase commercials, I’ll hold judgment on how captivated the younger crowd is.
I say quarter-full.

GinaV24

The chase has been something I’ve disliked since its inception and last year’s crapshoot version was even worse IMO. for me, he’s a 7 time champion and the chase is big time nonsense. Having Gordon knocked out of the final 4last year because of what was a desperation move just sealed that point of view for me. yes, I know I’m biased in Gordon’s favor and yes, I plan to make 2015 my “final” season as a full time follower of NASCAR. When Gordon goes, I’ll be done, too. Will I watch and read some of the commentary? Probably, but spend my weekends and hard earned money to support NASCAR after Gordon is out, nope, not at all.

As rg72 points out, the tracks have been removing seats at a rapid pace, so a sell out is not what it was when NASCAR was really on the rise. Do those younger fans you cite, Tom, actually care about the sport or are they simply following it via social media? As far as all the new up and coming “stars”, well, good for them and I’m happy for the fans who will be watching them but I won’t be one of them. Gordon was always been a company man and he has, of course, said that he hopes his fan base will support Elliott. Maybe some people will and that’s great, I just won’t be one of them because NASCAR as it currently exists is simply not that much fun and that is why I started watching and going to races.

A new sponsor? Yeah, I’m sure that somehow Brian France will manage to con some big company into putting up the big money — I’m not sure why they would do that, but then again, I can’t figure out how come NBC was willing to ante up the money for the tv contract either considering a look at the ratings for the past several years doesn’t tell a story of a strong vibrant sport.

russ

Interesting article which appears to be even handed. However I think that the reality is that its a sport which no longer is open. The power is by design, the teams not Nascar IMHO, being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. If you don’t believe that just look at who’s sponsoring who. Do you see any major corporations painted on cars that aren’t from a mega team? Me either.
Whether the cup is half empty or half full is unsure. However it is certain that those good old days people long for aren’t coming back.

kb

Yup, to say that SHR or JRM isn’t a arm of HMS is absurd. They are as other teams interrelated. Just looking up names, who own what cars too, is laughable. Brian could have nipped that many years ago, he chose not too..a very small token response to a very big problem.

RussThe

Kb. Imho it’s the team owners as much as, if not more than BZF. In fact in think he would dateren see more teams simply because it keeps any of them from becoming too powerful. The teams ons the other handdont want to have to dividend the money too many ways.

kb

Oh agree, BZF has admitted it is a “problem”, but it remains business as usual and his enforcement is nonexistent.

russ

dammed auto spell. Its a problem for BZF in that he has to walk a fine line. Keeping the team owners at bay, but keep them happy.
IMHO everything recently has been to prevent serious new competition from coming in. That goes back at least as far as the Top 35 rule, which was a blatant effort to stifle competition. If you are an owner which would you rather see another competitor? or that same guy have to invest in your team to be involved?

kb

Interesting your word “perception”, you used it perfectly and played it well..you lit a match to see who would notice. I did. “…had a championship effort before contact with Keselowski derailed it”. Ah the print media. I do not consider myself old, not at all in fact. I do not like The Chase or this Chase because it just defies what a season long Championship is. No amount of cajoling and drooling by TV and print media can tell me different. The hard sell is back in full force telling everyone that it was a unqualified success and EVERYBODY loved it. Not so, I wish I had everyone of these idiots on speed dial. Just because one says it does not make it so, they all seem to forget that. A winner takes all in one race, removing the fantastic seasons others had is no way to crown a season long Champ. Why not just a track pulled out of a hat and whoever won that race is the season long champ, it is the same thing in reality. Brian has snubbed his nose at true fans once again by promoting incompetence at its finest…Mike Helton, the ever faithful right hand man to his mentor of booze’s every whim has been reward with a promotion. That does not bode well for the true fans with common sense. I hear that Brian makes a lot of his decisions via what people tell him are results and noise on “social media”, how sad is that. Can you picture the old schoolers and his Dad and Grandfather basing “racing decisions” on what a bunch of clueless “twits” say! My goodness a whole industry of skill and history is being destroyed by the metro moron who hasn’t a clue as to what they are talking about. How insulting for the men and women who worked to make this unique American sport what it is.

GinaV24

kb, you can’t hear me but I am cheering loudly for your post! Well said.

kb

Thanks Gina, tis a scary world we live in…

Bill B

I’m in the same camp as GinaV24.
I was dubious when the chase was first announced but I gave it a chance the first couple of years. In the end I still didn’t think it rewarded the most deserving driver. I’ve bitched about NASCAR for the last ten years but kept watching just because of my loyalty to Gordon, much like sticking with a tv series that you’ve invested so much time in to see the final season even though the show has lost it’s luster. So for me this is the final season of this sport turned reality television series. I’m not saying I will turn my back on NASCAR but I won’t ever be as invested in it as I have been.

The one thing that has always irked me the most was the hollow statements from NASCAR’s leadership about how great the chase was and how everyone liked it so much even though the numbers (ratings and attendance) showed the exact opposite. I’ve always felt that NASCAR was insulting my intelligence with those statements. Now it won’t bother me anymore because I won’t care.

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