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Beside the Rising Tide: Breaking NASCAR News – There Is None

I’d hate to call it a “meeting of the minds” in that some participants obviously lack one, but there was a mass assemblage of “principals involved with the product” at Michigan on Friday. NASCAR hierarchy, drivers, team owners, crew chiefs and representatives of the car makers involved in the sport gathered together to discuss the near-term future of the sport. If any fans were on hand they’d probably wandered into a restricted area looking for a restroom. Had they been able to come up with a few elephants and big cats it would have made a grand old circus, because there were plenty of clowns involved.

On a practical level, the invitees were there to discuss potential rules changes to the cars for the 10 upcoming Chase races. Given the brevity of the meeting it would seem like it was more of an announcement than a group discussion. Apparently no one stood up and let an impassioned plea “we can’t keep doing this to the fans, we just can’t!” a la Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And after the grand meeting it was announced that the big news was… there was no news. The standard rules package adopted in 2015 will be in place for the 10 Chase races. (Let’s be fair here. NASCAR officials did say that they plan to do something about Talladega, seeing that their focus groups indicate that people would prefer no racecars or large parts of them end up in the grandstands. They just didn’t say what rules changes would be in place. OK, a new rules package at Talladega with no testing in advance. What could go wrong there?)

So after this incredibly important meeting, the big news was there was no news. There was, however, news that there might be news in the not so distant future. The 2016 schedule will be announced in about a month.

But just to keep the anticipation on a back burner, it was also announced not to expect any big changes to that schedule. (Well except for Laguna Seca in the Chase maybe, but that’s just between us, OK?) It’s tough reporting or discussing the news when the news is in fact that there is no news. Even WPVI-6’s talented and hardworking Annie McCormick can’t do much with a non-story. “Yes, Jim, neighbors report that a large group of youths were street racing here in South Philly. There were no wrecks, nobody got hurt, everyone seemed to have a fine time and the Mustangs shut down the Ricers then everyone went home.” Or, “Walter, we’re told by neighbors that a family with six children, one of them special needs, and an adorable silver Lab puppy live in this home. Given that it’s 90 degrees out the family was not using the oven to heat the home and there was no fire. Had there been, the smoke detectors all had batteries in them. This is the fifth consecutive week with no big fires in the area. We are told the puppy violated household rules by jumping up on the couch but he’s so darn cute that nobody cared. Film at 11.”

Yep, it’s hard to be a reporter when there is no news to report. Because I’m lazy at heart, I’ll leave news reporting to the young go-getters (and in some cases those with fertile imaginations) and default to my usual “analysis” mode. It’s so much easier anyway and it is fact quite hot out here at the Acres.

After nearly 20 years of doing this (with a few breaks to maintain the sanity on which I have only a tenuous hold) this was my immediate post-meeting analysis of the non-news. “Really? WTF?” Remember you read it here first.

On one level, I understand why the call was made. After a lackluster 2014 Cup season, NASCAR came up with the 2015 rules package and told us it was going to be the greatest thing since they started putting holes in the middle of doughnuts. As it turned out… well, not so much. But that doesn’t mean that the teams, those large enough to afford the changes and those small enough they could not, didn’t expend a huge amount of money, time and talent to make their cars as competitive as they could be given the rules. Some teams did a far better job on that than others. Some drivers were able to shift their driving styles to suit the new package better than others. But ultimately, it seemed like the same teams and drivers were dominating the races. As Kurt Vonnegut might say, “And so it goes.”

And on that one level, it would be tremendously unfair to change the rules midseason, negating all that hard work and expense by the teams who have done well. There is precedent here. NASCAR came up with what they called the “five and five” rules package back in 1998 if I’m recalling correctly. That was in response to a couple seasons when spoiler heights for various brands of car seemed to change near weekly. But NASCAR laid down the law and told everyone “this is the new rules package and this is what we’re going with for the year. Deal with it.” And some drivers and teams did well and others did not. As with most rules packages, five and five was supposed to make for better and more exciting racing. It most decidedly did not. There were 33 races that year. Jeff Gordon won 13 of them. Mark Martin won seven. Worse yet, Dale Earnhardt only won one, though it was a biggie: the Daytona 500. The racing was lousy. As NASCAR celebrated its 50th anniversary, they were left to tell everyone, “We’ve had some amazing races and finishes over those 50 years. Just not many this year.” But they did in fact leave the rules in place until after Gordon clinched the title, since he was in fact playing by the rules and the No. 24 bunch had done the best job in preparing for the season. I get that. If an NFL season was marred by low scoring games, they wouldn’t switch the field to 80 yards long to make for more scoring.

But this year NASCAR has found itself on rocky shoals. There’s no more arguing that attendance is down and that it has been for years. The TV ratings don’t represent a sport with measurable growth but rather one that’s gone into a tail spin and recently had its corporate butt kicked by women’s soccer. Even the drivers formed a posse and their own little council to meet with NASCAR and express their concerns. (Over and above Tony Stewart’s concern that Brian France wouldn’t come to those meetings.) The driver’s idea was to lessen the downforce on the cars and a hastily arranged experiment with that concept yielded satisfactory results at Kentucky though the tires hadn’t been optimized for the event. They’ll try that package again at Darlington early next month. NASCAR types preferred the high drag, big spoiler package that debuted at Indy to generally poor reviews. Now they’ve tried that one again at Michigan over the weekend and the drivers were notably circumspect in their comments on it afterwards. Perhaps they’d been admonished about the old “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” axiom in the drivers’ meeting.

While it would seem highly unlikely that, absent the powers that be huffing model glue fumes out of a brown paper bag all night, they’ll try that one again, that might be a double-edged sword. Brian France has gone on record as saying to improve racing he wants to see “pack racing”. Reading between the lines, I think that means he wants to see huge multi-car pig piles of wrecks that put cars on their roofs, sort of like he says “glass dashboard” rather than “digital instrument panel.” And rumors are rife that to have pack racing, NASCAR might mandate restrictor plates at Pocono next year, and Michigan. Perhaps it would have been better for the sport had the high drag rules worked at Michigan.

While accepting the logic of those who say “you don’t change horses midstream” while still wondering what sort of imbecile rides a horse into a stream anyway, I’m hesitant about the message that’s being sent here. Trying those two new rules packages midseason and on short notice was a tacit way for NASCAR to admit the racing hasn’t been very good this season. In some cases it’s been dreadful. In several instances it’s been even worse than that. But as we’re now three events from the all-singing, all-dancing, must-see-TV Chase, NASCAR is telling those new fans they hope the new championship format will draw into the fold, no the racing hasn’t been very good this year and here’s more of the same! Seven of the 10 tracks that will host Chase races this year have already run Cup events earlier this year, and there wasn’t an instant classic among them. As NASCAR goes head-to-head with the NFL (sort of like the army in Grenada taking on the U.S. military) they really need to put their best foot forward not simply staunch the bleeding.

And as a contrarian, I’ll offer this thought to those satisfied with the status quo: yes, some teams have worked awfully hard and spent a whole lot of money to adopt to the 2015 rules package. In turn, they have won a bunch of races, typically finished well when they didn’t win, and gathered up a passel of points. But now thanks to the Chase format, they’re basically reduced to running neck and neck with some other teams and drivers that have merely reached a certain level of mediocrity, in some cases without winning a single race. It’s like stopping the Kentucky Derby midway through turns 3 and 4, lining the horses all back up side by side and letting them make a sprint to the finish. Even drivers with multiple wins might suffer one or two bad races in a Chase segment and find themselves eliminated from contention. So here’s a radical idea, why not crown a champion who scored the most points in a 36-race season since they clearly adapted best to the rules package. I mean, it worked for decades. And if some driver clinches the title with two or three races to go, well, hellfire son, everyone will be watching football by then anyway.

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14 thoughts on “Beside the Rising Tide: Breaking NASCAR News – There Is None”

  1. I believe (yes my tinfoil hat is on) that the Toys group, unhappy with their results since entering Cup.. had a “Come to Jesus” meeting with Brian and he caved. Also, I do believe Brian is a idiot regarding racing (however very savvy with TV rights $$$$ lining his family’s pockets) subscribes to the “pack racing” mentality as it creates the “best” highlight reels of endless crashes, hot headed fights, back pushing stunts when the driver has no business being there..etc. In a word DRAMA!!!! It is all about the show for the clueless who watch commercials..(with no guarantee or proof they tune in, the opposite in fact). To even think the package would result in “great” racing, shows how out of touch BZF and his yes men are. If he talks change and means it…”The Chase” is the first thing to go. People are dreading it already, I know I am, and most fans. This brat just continues to dig his heels in and thumbs his nose at the “fans”, he will be in for a rude awakening one day, but I am sure not. His pockets are lined with billions. Damn shame..idiot! I am shocked that the teams have hung in for so long, I am feeling no doubt it is about respect for their employee’s and contractual commitments to their sponsors. Somebody at some point needs to tell this idiot to fluck off and mean it…maybe others will follow. My two cents.

    • I’ve worn that tinfoil hat when it comes to Chevy many many seasons… I swear they’ve been given a competitive advantage year after year and have had NASCAR in their hip pocket. Now, I really really have no brief for Toyota, couldn’t care less about them as a manufacturer, I’m more partial to Dodge and Ford. But, I’d rather see the Toyos win than the Chevys. Dodge, alas, is gone and Ford is barely above water with only 2 cars in serious contention week in and week out… I also think that Joe Gibbs is an infinitely better man than Rick Hendrick so, I’m happy to see Gibbs have success. But, look for Chevy to get their mojo back Sep. 20th… “I’ve had enough, we’ve had enough, It’s all the same, she said”.

  2. Like I said in yesterday’s Brian France/Jerry Jordan column, this sport is in trouble. Rewind 10 or 12 years, if I was home, I was watching whatever practice or qualifying was on. Now, yard work is more appealing than watching more than 10 laps of the Cup race.
    If you ever want to see proof, just go back and research the NASCAR TV ratings from 2002 or 2003, before the Chase came to save the day. IIRC, the Fox coverage of a Sunday rainout (i.e. no race) at Texas in ’02 or ’03 outdrew the actual race this year. The 2003 Busch race drew a 2.0 rating. The 2002 telecast of the pit crew championship held at some place called North Carolina Speedway drew a 1.9 rating. Cup races are approaching these levels.
    What happens when Jeff Gordon isn’t out there running 14th every week next year? Shy of Kyle Busch, nearly every elite/marquee driver will be in their early to mid 40s at the end of the decade. With the money these guys have earned, I can’t see them stretching out like the Wallaces, Martins, Elliotts, Rudds, Labontes, or even Dale Sr. What happens when Dale Jr. decides to hang it up?
    Ratings in the low 2s may seem like the good old days come 2020.

  3. Amen Matt. If you look at all the changes that have been put in place since Jackass took over, very few of them have been successful (if you measure success by ratings and attendance). Hell, he could have flipped a coin and had better results. How does someone so incompetent rise to such a high level… oh, yeah, right, he was born into it and that is his only qualification.
    Oh well, Gordon is retiring and with him goes what little passion I have left. Now, finally, I can be what S*$t For Brains cares most about, a casual fan.

  4. If they insist on keeping the chase, they should also have a regular season champion. Other sports have regular season & playoff champions.

  5. Matt, you are one funny guy and I always love your sense of humor. You’re not exactly subtle, but neither is Donald Trump, and everybody except me seems to love the old buffoon. But on to my real comment…

    I’m no conspiracy theorist, but it seems to me that that the top Chevy team, the one with the big bucks and the marquee drivers, hasn’t really done a very good job at mastering these high/low downforce packages, especially a certain 6-time champion and his crew chief Chad. I may harbor some dislike for that team, but I will admit it was fun watching the #48 team floundering at MIS like a fish out of water, pun intended. I suspect that Big Rick was quick to voice his concerns that he wanted Nascar to stay with the set-up that allowed the #48 team to win 4 races earlier in the season, and when Big Rick speaks, Brian listens. Nascar’s decision was no surprise. If anyone expected Nascar to do otherwise, they’re probably the kind of person that thinks Danica Patrick will soon start winning races and that Brian France may one day speak eloquently and coherently. Not gonna happen.

  6. If Laguna Seca is on the schedule next year, one of the races will probably be dropped. Looking at Brian’s history of satisfying the fans, my betting would be Martinsville or Bristol.

    NBC’s main stations showed gymnastics and beach volleyball (I’m thinking it was women’s) during the race.

    If they are using the low downforce setup at Darlington, they’d better put the guard rails back up so the drivers can put the Darlington Stripe back on when they use them to straighten the car for the straight. Johnson should spin out a lot.

    And I see where the diva has a news conference scheduled for today. I read where she has the fourth highest earnings for women athletes at almost $14 million. What surprised me was only $6 million was endorsements. I guess she needs more commercials in her bathing suit. Maria and Serena are one and two. Maria had $23 million in endorsements out of $30 million. Ronda made the top 10 list with $6.5 million. Learn to fight, girls.

    • Maybe I’m wearing a tinfoil hat, but, if Laguna Seca dos make it onto the schedule (or maybe even Mid-Ohio), I honestly think that, after this weekend, and that debacle called a race, that Michigan will be losing one of their dates. Could this also be a way of appeasing Toyota even further by cutting out a race that’s held in the backyard of Ford and G.M.? I mean, NASCAR already spit n the faces of Ford and G.M. by letting Fanatics offer a Toyota diecast car with the Michigan program this past weekend. (Notice I said “offer”, as the price of the program didn’t change. It was still $12.00, but now, through greed on the part of Fanatics, that little car is now extra! And for he first time, I came home without a program.) Or maybe the management of Indianapolis could tell Brian to take his “show” somewhere else, as the NASCAR races there have been a total disaster, and they are sick of Indy’s reputation being ruined by Brian’s stupidity.

      I hate football and definitely won’t be watching any come fall. So, given that Brian is such a clueless moron, and loves to hype something up, no matter how phoney, the thought of having a repulsive champion who only competed in 25 races, while the rest of the field busted their behinds for all 36 races, is a major turnoff. I know a lot of people have said they will walk away when Jeff Gordon steps out of the cockpit for the final time. Once Brad and Joey are eliminated (if they are allowed to compete in the chase, following the confiscation of their splitters on Friday), the TV goes off. After watching NASCAR for some 54-years, it just might be turned off permanently.

      • Michigan is in Chev’s back yard. Even Brian isn’t stupid enough to take a race away. It doesn’t matter to him that it’s Ford’s too. He has to keep Hendrick happy and if Chev is happy so is Brian. Axing one of the new cookie-cutter tracks is out too. That doesn’t leave too many as options. Based on Brian’s ludicrous decisions in the past….

  7. While I may be wrong, I can’t believe that, beyond the potential impact of their wallets, these “stakeholders” are meeting to discuss whats best for the fans. Seems to me that this has become an entertainment business whose core concerns are business to business relationships and getting sponsors to pay the bills. Therefore no bad news to make the sponsors worry about the return on investment.
    if they want to make news my advice would be to do it quickly before football season.

  8. If the first 26 races are supposed to create the ‘drama’ for the ridiculous ‘chase’, it certainly seems to be failing miserably. It boggles my mind to hear that BZF thinks the ‘chase’ format is so popular. Attendance: down, Ratings: down. How delusional must he be to believe himself? Just like insisting the high drag package would produce better racing. I suppose he would rather believe his ‘yes men’ in the Ivory Tower than the driver who actually participate. Truly astonishing self delusion!

  9. LOL, NASCAR is making changes for the fans! that is so funny.

    Next season, I’ll become what Brainless has said he wants — another casual fan.

  10. Not using the Kentucky package is an opportunity missed. The fans have been punished enough by aero-push parades. Yet, Brain thinks that he can make the cookie-cutters as well as other tracks pack race. I guess the biggest problem is that France doesn’t like stock car racing and is trying to take NASCAR in a different direction.

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