1) NASCAR’s TV ratings suffered a year-to-year decline for the first time last week. Just a month ago, they were up significantly over 2014. Is this a sign the new rules package has failed to deliver, the sport’s recent momentum is declining or is it really nothing to worry about?
Phil Allaway, Editor: I definitely agree that the new rules package hasn’t delivered. There’s no real tangible difference in the overall on-track product as compared to last year right now. In fact, having the in-car adjustments may actually hurt the on-track product a little bit. Kevin Harvick kicking butt every week probably skews perception a little, but the last three races have effectively been the same old formula. Joey Logano starts up front, leads, but then fades and Harvick comes to the forefront. I don’t recall any three-race stretch in Cup looking like that since Jeff Gordon ripped off his four-in-a-row streak in 1998 over Mark Martin.
Amy Henderson, Editor: Last year’s Chase created a lot of hype; perhaps that contributed to the ratings bump early. Now, the hype has worn off, and the fans who tuned in, expecting more than what the sport really is, are moving on. On a small scale, it’s similar to the growth a decade and a half ago. Here’s where the sport hits a conundrum: there are only so many gimmicks they can drag out to attract the ADD Generation, and the longtime fans just aren’t buying them. The ratings bump was the anomaly, I’m afraid, not the fall we’re seeing now.
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: NASCAR is unique in sports (and I use that term loosely) in that it kicks off its season with its biggest race, the Daytona 500, stock car racing’s equivalent to the Super Bowl. Say what you want about plate racing (and you know how I feel about it) but it does in fact lead to a lot of surprises, with any driver in the top 20 on the last lap still in contention for the win. It’s been stated that NASCAR does this format in an attempt to grab the attention of sports fans who are detoxing after another NFL season. So a potential new fan might have watched the Daytona 500 and decided yeah, that was worth watching. Next, he gives Atlanta a shot too and thinks in his mind, well, that really wasn’t very entertaining, was it?
The series then moves on to Las Vegas, where maybe our friend only watches the second half of the race and decides that was truly wretched, a complete waste of my time. One guy just stunk up the show and if I hear one more imbecilic statement from that DW fellow, I’m going to punch him right in the yap. You know, I’ve got some books I want to catch up on and I’ve been meaning to take electric bagpipe lessons so I think I’ll do something else with my Sunday afternoons. Besides, there are basketball games now. Goodbye, NASCAR!
Last weekend, the Cup race’s ratings were overshadowed by the NCAA selection show. Really. I mean, it wasn’t even a game, just a bunch of clearly happy hoops players and some coed cheerleaders in short skirts jumping up and down waving their pompoms. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) If that’s the level NASCAR has descended to, we might have already reached critical mass.
Aaron Bearden, Contributor: Whenever ratings are down, it’s something to pay attention to. However, anyone watching the racing lately shouldn’t be surprised. The sport is gradually declining in popularity, and the product on track hasn’t done too much for the casual fan thus far.
Fans came back after the offseason due to the hype built by the new Chase and a little race called the Daytona 500. No surprise there. However, the follow-the-leader style racing fans have been subjected to since makes it hard to justify watching. Sure, the racing back in the pack has been good, even great at times, but when you know the winner 100 laps before the finish, it’s hard to keep watching. Hopefully, Fontana lives up to previous years and brings some excitement back up front.
Joseph Wolkin, Xfinity Series Expert: The sport had a ton of momentum coming into the year. It’s quite different from any other sport, and ratings used to mean a ton for NASCAR. However, fans are able to follow races with the MRN/PRN apps, along with NASCAR Raceview on their computers, cell phones and iPads, which has caused a decrease in people watching live television. It’s really not something to be worried about.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: The first two races of the year bring ratings because 1) the Daytona 500 is the Super Bowl of motorsports and 2) there is nothing else on. Nothing. At all. Plus, the weather has pretty much sucked all over the country for the past month so it’s had a bit of a captive audience. Harvick’s recent domination and lack of any real racing has likely dialed down the enthusiasm a bit, but next week at Martinsville is cause for celebration. Short track racing, beating and banging, aero rules be damned. So it’s nothing really to worry about – things have stabilized and been on an uptick the last couple of years. Early 2000s growth and numbers are just not in the cards right now and won’t be anytime soon. NASCAR is in the process of finding its niche again and working the ratings will take a few more years. The big question will come when NBC Sports takes over this summer, with many races on NBC Sports Network – a channel not all subscribers will have.
2) Kevin Harvick has been the most dominant driver throughout NASCAR’s first four races. But who’s been the most surprising – and why?
McLaughlin: As far as pleasant surprises, the answer is obvious: Martin Truex Jr. and Barney Visser’s No. 78 bunch. Truex found himself the poor innocent victim of Michael Waltrip’s insatiable greed and lack of sportsmanship after Spingate in the fall of 2013. He then suffered through a miserable 2014 season in the No. 78 car. In all of last year, Truex managed only five top-10 finishes and just one top-five result. This year, he already has four top 10s, including a strong second-place performance at Las Vegas. As far as unpleasant surprises, you have to go with Tony Stewart, who is running like a three-legged mule on a frozen lake. As far as an even more unpleasant surprise and a possible omen of the upcoming apocalypse, fans, team members and drivers headed to next week’s race at Martinsville will find those familiar Jimmy Jones red hot dogs have been replaced with another brand. If you run that brand’s parentage back to where the money ends up? It’s in China. What good can come of that? NASCAR: New traditions made daily.
Wolkin: There’s no doubt that Truex Jr. has been quite amazing through the first few races. The chemistry that he has with Cole Pearn is outstanding, and it is going to carry them right to the Chase for the Sprint Cup this year at this rate. Though it’s still a drop early to tell if they can contend for wins, the No. 78 team is under Richard Childress Racing influence, a partnership that should continue to pay off. It wouldn’t be too surprising if the team gets a win at this rate, but it could probably get away with losing some momentum and making the Chase based on points with some more consistent runs inside the top 10.
Henderson: Hands down the most surprising has been Truex Jr. In four races, he’s got four top 10s. In 2014, he had five all season. His team, with a new crew chief at the helm, is performing above anyone’s expectations. His Furniture Row Racing team made the Chase in 2013 with Kurt Busch, and it’s making it very clear it’d like to be back this year.
Pugliese: Jamie McMurray just missed a top 10 at Las Vegas, finished second last week at Phoenix and was running strong in Atlanta (qualified third) until a mid-race wreck took him out of contention. Early season momentum is a good sign for McMurray, particularly with Talladega not too far around the corner. He remains the most underrated restrictor-plate driver in the series with four wins to his credit, including a Daytona 500.
Kyle Larson is a mystery at this point in the season. He’s been in the top five in Happy Hour almost every race (and practice session) so far but hasn’t been in contention to win. He does have two top 10s in the last two races – an eighth and a 10th – but is still 18th in points.
Allaway: That depends on if you’re asking about “surprisingly good” or “surprisingly bad.” On the good side, I’d definitely go with AJ Allmendinger. Getting in the Chase by virtue of Allmendinger’s win at Watkins Glen did JTG Daugherty Racing some serious good. The team had real expectations for the first time in years and just having that experience is nothing but beneficial. That team worked its butts off in the offseason and it shows. On the bad side, it’s definitely Stewart – he’s having a miserable season. Harvick’s form makes Stewart’s plight that much worse. Even when things were going well, bad luck bit him on Sunday. I doubt he was planning on racing Justin Allgaier for 10th, but getting himself inside the top 10 would have been a major accomplishment knowing how the first three races went.
3) Fontana has a history of competitive racing over the last few seasons. What can we track from this track, once one of NASCAR’s most boring configurations, and apply elsewhere to make the racing better?
Pugliese: Fontana took a while to develop its own personality. It isn’t subjected to harsh winters like Michigan International Speedway is, and it takes a while for tracks to sort themselves out, particularly when there’s one race a year there early on. This phenomenon, coupled with the early CoT races, meant there usually wasn’t much in the way of competition to get excited about. Old-pavement tracks typically provide the best racing as bumps, dips and quirks that require drivers to straddle and be mindful of mix up the field and help generate different lines, strategies and setups. This weekend will be a true test of how much work the new rules package needs. The downforce doesn’t seem to be much of an issue but with cars choked down 150 horsepower from a year ago, we might be in store for follow the leader, strung out, long-green run racing with little passing.
Bearden: The obvious answer would be to save repaving tracks until absolutely necessary, but Fontana’s success also shows that NASCAR’s new cars run best on superspeedways. It’s no secret that older, rougher tracks tend to have better racing than newly-paved ones, but tracks like Kentucky have still had fairly boring racing on old surfaces. Fontana (and its midwest twin Michigan) just have the perfect mixture of surface, speed and aerodynamics to make NASCAR excel.
McLaughlin: It’s pretty obvious. Track surfaces are like wine: they get better with age. If Corvette restorers can take a fully restored car and backwards engineer it into a barn, find maybe track owners can do the same to their racing surfaces. I’d start by researching the ultra-abrasive track surfaces at Darlington there in the sand hills and work from there.
Henderson: Easy: don’t repave a track until it’s falling apart. Fontana’s aged surface is tricky and abrasive, and that’s why the racing has been better there recently. The aging asphalt forces teams to make decisions to improve grip and tire wear, which have an overall effect on the race. Repave Fontana, and the racing goes back to what it was 10 years ago: tame on a good day. NASCAR and the tracks should be looking at repaving projects going forward and also considering different asphalt compounds that could make racing surfaces trickier from the get-go rather than having to wait decades for asphalt to age.
Allaway: The ability of track management to leave the track alone. The track is still on the original pavement that was laid down nearly a year before the first Cup race there. As a result, tires wear out and multiple lines are at hand. The problem with that strategy is that it’s boring.
Wolkin: With the new rules package, NASCAR has a lot to look forward to for this weekend’s event. Auto Club Speedway has been amazing over the past few years. The track surface is perfect for close racing right now. It’s taken a while for this track to get exciting, but the wear and tear of the surface is outstanding. Not only have there been amazing finishes, but the racing has been closer than most tracks, which is just what NASCAR needs.4) Recent reports put the cost of XFINITY Series sponsorship for a top program at close to $10 million. Where do you think the cap on spending should be for NASCAR’s second-tier division, and how do you bring costs down?
4) Recent reports put the cost of Xfinity Series sponsorship for a top program at close to $10 million. Where do you think the cap on spending should be for NASCAR’s second-tier division, and how do you bring costs down?
Allaway: If that $10 million includes activation, I might be able to understand it. Remember, Ryan Reed‘s sponsorship package is about $5 million. However, if that number is $10 million just for the branding, good cripes. I’d honestly have to see which team is getting that kind of money. I’d almost put money on it being either the combination of Discount Tire and Hertz for Team Penske’s No. 22 or Monster Energy for Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 54. In that case, I don’t think you can do anything about it. Those companies are addicted to having Sprint Cup drivers in those Xfinity Series cars. They’d rather see NASCAR kill the “declare your series” rule and let Kyle Busch and Logano try to win the title than the status quo. You tell them that they can’t have Busch, Logano, Brad Keselowski, etc. drive their car and they’ll just bolt. The destination would either be Sprint Cup or right out of the sport.
McLaughlin: $10 million? Really? Wow. We’ve come a long way from the days Busch (nee Grand National) cars used to arrive at the track on an open trailer pulled by a three-quarter-ton pickup, haven’t we? (And those pickup trucks all lined up at the concession stands at Martinsville to get a box of bright red Jimmy Jones hot dogs.)
A) Well, I guess a good place to start would be banning those $1 million air guns MWR claims it’s using in response to a lawsuit filed by a former employee. Make Harbor Freight the official air gun of NASCAR and tell the teams they have to use them. Teams save money, Harbor Freight makes money and NASCAR makes money. Perfect.
B) Limit the teams to two cars for the season. Each would be assigned a NASCAR-issued medallion affixed to the roll-cage and pity the fool who was caught messing with them because the penalty would be a season long suspension. If a team felt a car was legitimately beyond fixing they’d have to haul it to the NASCAR R&D center to have it looked over. If the car was judged to be too far gone to be safely repaired the team could present a new car and, once it cleared inspection, the old tag could be affixed to it and the old car would be scrapped.
C) It’s time the series switches over to crate engines. No, I don’t want to see a generic Chevy engine used in all makes of cars as has been tried in some series but rather a generic Ford, Chevy and Toyota (and maybe someday Dodge again) crate engine putting out somewhere in the neighborhood of 450 horsepower and costing somewhere in the range of $7-8,000. A Chevy ZZ4 with a dry sump oiling system comes to mind. The engines should be designed to last a minimum of five races without an overhaul. Teams replacing engines within that five-race period would be forced to start at the rear of the field in all subsequent events. Chevy and Ford sell a ton of crate engines to street-rodder and resto-modders so they’re all but there. What’s that, you say? Toyota doesn’t offer pushrod style V8s as crate engines? Oh, dang, but we do have some lovely parting consolation gifts for Joe Gibbs Racing, MWR and their satellite teams.
D) Immediately cut the length of all NXS races in half. Less miles turned in competition means less wear and tear on the racecars, lower fuel and tire costs etc. lowering the expenditures by the teams. It also reduces the likelihood they’ll wad up their cars than in a longer race. As a third benefit, shortened races might appeal to newer generation fans with morbidly reduced attention spans.
E) It’s been discussed to death, but it’s time to greatly reduce the amount of NXS races that are companion events to Cup. The NXS needs to define its own identity rather than serve as a Saturday walk in the park for the Cup regulars. The new NXS should forge its identity on storied short tracks like Hickory and the Thunder Road International Speedbowl in Barre, Vt. (Set 30 NASCAR racers loose on a high-banked quarter-mile track and let’s see what ensues.) The season finale would be held at North Wilkesboro, N.C. of course. And at least four events would be run on dirt tracks. Is Hillsboro still around? Running at the short tracks eliminates the need to tweak cars in wind tunnels, a hideously expensive process the teams shouldn’t have to do. By reducing the companion events, a new generation of drivers can forge their marks while their Cup cohorts are busy at the Gallerias of Speed, those new McRace 1.5-mile ovals.
Bearden: Man, $10 million?! That’s insane. When I was growing up, you could run a top-tier cup team with that kind of money.As racing’s popularity declines, so does potential return for sponsors. That means that sponsors are investing less in NASCAR, and looking for safe picks when they do invest. In order for small teams to afford to run in the series, it needs to both cut the costs of running and make it possible for teams to find sponsorship. Two major advances are needed for this change to occur: 1) NASCAR needs to work to cut the costs of building and/or maintaining of cars. They could accomplish this by forming sponsorships to help supply teams with them, forcing the recycling or parts and tools for certain periods of time, or even regulating the number of cars allowed per team. 2) The most important point here: NASCAR needs to get Cup drivers out of NXS competition. While it might supply a few more views and give the series regulars experience, it also takes away many of the sponsorship opportunities for NXS regulars. Think about it: If you were an investor, would you rather sponsor an unproven driver that runs 15th, or a car driven by three to four Cup veterans that wins four or five times each year? Get the Cup guys out, giving NXS regulars a chance to shine.
Wolkin: The Xfinity Series is meant to be a development division. However, part of developing a driver is making them a corporate figure, who might be able to bring a sponsor up to the Cup Series. Though it is extremely expensive, the price pays off and leads to being able to contend with the Cup Series drivers. Having Cup Series drivers in the Xfinity Series has commercialized it to the point where young drivers can’t get a chance unless they split a ride with someone that can attract incoming sponsors. It’s something that won’t get better over time unless NASCAR stops enabling drivers to race in the Xfinity Series for their Cup Series teams, which is what I’ve said for quite some time.
Pugliese: Not sure how you control spending in motorsports; nobody has found a way to do it yet. Things like spec engines and bodies get thrown out as ideas a lot, but what spec series has ever thrived let alone survive? It killed ASA over a decade ago, and IROC was using Firebirds that had been out of production for four years at the end of its lifecycle. As far as how to limit the cost of the series, require engines to be run for two consecutive races (except Daytona/Talladega/road courses), swap out some of the speedway races for short-track events with the Truck Series and maybe, most importantly, increase the purse sizes for the races, particularly for the back half of the field who often carry blank quarterpanels. A composite-spec body such as been recently introduced in the NASCAR K&N Pro and ARCA Series might be an option, except then you’ve just put a lot of fabricators out of a job – and massaging a racecar body is still an art and speed that be obtained through innovation. If only the rules might be freed up a bit in this area to exploit it.
It’s always going to come down to Cup teams that field lower-tiered series entries. The trickle-down technology transfer between the two give them a leg up on the competition, let alone when Cup drivers compete in second- and third-tier races. The playing field needs to be lowered from about 10th on back, and that can be helped with purse monies.