And now, collection of random thoughts in the wake of Sunday’s Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Yes, meteorologically, Las Vegas offered a little of everything on Sunday: sun and showers, wind and rain (presumably blowing in and out the window, like a moth before a flame… but I digress.) Some pundits insist on making a big deal out of the fact that it rains in the desert sometimes. Oddly enough the last time the circuit visited the arid Southwest, the penultimate race of last year staged at Phoenix International Raceway, it rained a good deal as well, delaying the race then ultimately causing it to be called (prematurely) due to precipitation, and what an unsavory mess that turned out to be. More than a few fans felt that with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in the lead and the network desperate to get off the air, NASCAR simply decided to throw in the (thoroughly moist) towel too early.
Yes, sometimes it rains in the desert. Hell, sometimes it rains in Death Valley. Intrepid fans on the road to attend this weekend’s Phoenix race live should be aware of Arizona’s aptly named “Stupid Driver Law.” If you come across rapidly moving water crossing the highway along some arroyo and decide your High Country Special Explorogator Cheyenne Custom Deluxe SUV with its 33-inch Meadow Mangler tires can make quick work of the crossing, beware. If you find yourself stranded and in need of rescue, you will be responsible for the cost of the first responders sent to help you… and it ain’t cheap. Call me a Darwinist, but as far as I’m concerned they ought to just let you drown with your final, “Hey, y’all, watch this!” text and video on your iPhone serving as an epitaph.
So what to make of the new low-downforce package so far? As I’ve said all along, the new rules package is a work in progress and it will likely take another half dozen races before competitors and drivers alike can come to any firm conclusions. So far there are signs that things are progressing as intended. Kyle Busch was able to make a series of wild moves on a restart to charge from fifth to first in half a lap. Some would argue that that was largely as a result of Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano scrapping over the top spot like a pair of mongrel dogs over table scraps while the Big Dog had them both in his crosshairs.
Compared to the synchronized teamwork of the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers at Daytona, it did seem like neither Keselowski nor Logano was going to get the “plays nicely with others” box checked on their report cards, but that is often the case — and is how it should be. It’s fine to hope your teammate runs well as long as you also make every effort to see that teammate runs well behind you. While occasionally cordial off the track Logano and Keselowski have frequently mixed it up on track as well. Oddly enough, it was Keselowski’s strong recommendation to Roger Penske to hire Logano that won the New Engander that coveted seat back in an era where Sliced Bread’s stock has fallen to “Day Old Bread.”
While tire wear was nowhere near as dramatic as it was at Atlanta in the closing stages of the race, Keselowski had the advantage of fresher rubber while race leader Kyle Busch started losing the handle on his Camry. And therein lays the rub. It would appear that with the new aero-package and new tires, a driver can be fast at the beginning of a run or he can lay back a little early and be stronger at the end of the run. I don’t know enough about racecar physics to point fingers but clearly Busch’s team’s decision to go with just left-side tires on its last stop wasn’t the right call, but that’s part of the learning process as the crew chiefs figure out this new package.
It’s notable that all three Cup races this season have been a bit tepid at the mid-stages but the action picked up considerably in the waning laps. I attribute that to drivers and teams playing things conservatively as they figure out what they’ve got at points in the race. But when the pay window begins creaking open at the end and the big hardware is on the line, they’re more willing to gamble. Perhaps that’s a result of the new rules package and perhaps it’s a result of the new win-and-you’re-in Chase format, but you definitely want to be around for the last 20 laps of a race this season.
It’s also been interesting to watch how the teams are adapting to the new aero rules and some of them are quick studies. The entire JGR organization seems to have adapted the best and the quickest. (Perhaps that isn’t surprising as JGR drivers won the two low-downforce experimental races at Darlington and Kentucky last year as well.) Also as expected, Hendrick Motorsports is showing some strength as well, but not as evenly across the four teams. To an extent, the Penske duo had been somewhat MIA in the first two races this season, leading just one lap combined this year prior to Sunday. It would seem they’re on a fast learning curve, though.
Perhaps most impressive this weekend was watching some drivers adapt on the fly to the new challenges. In some instances drivers were clearly out to lunch in the free practice Thursday and in qualifying. Kyle Busch comes readily to mind. After Busch qualified 23rd at Vegas, it didn’t look like he was going to be a factor and the frustration was evident in his voice after a rough start to the weekend. However, trying the setup from Carl Edwards‘ No. 19 car in Happy Hour provided more satisfactory results and from the drop of the green Busch was moving forward. In the end he lost the handle on his car and fell to fourth in the finishing order, but it’s hard to overlook that Busch has posted top-5 results in all three points-paying Cup events this season.
In the end I think it’s that ability to adapt quickly to new challenges that will determine race winners and eventually a champion this season. Say what you will about him as a race broadcaster (and that too is a work in progress), but a hallmark of Jeff Gordon’s championship-winning career was his ability to adapt to new rules packages. More spoiler this week? OK. Less spoiler next week? That’s fine. A new points system, shorter races, a messy divorce, new crew chiefs and teammates? No problem. Gordon just went out and kept winning races. One could say that 1998, the year of NASCAR’s late and unlamented 5-and-5 rules package, was a yearlong (wasted) test session for all but two drivers, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, with Gordon taking the crown at the season’s conclusion.
I’m not here to suggest that makes Kyle Busch a prohibitive favorite this season. Just as Busch’s weekend started out poorly this weekend but he got things turned around doubtless there are other drivers whose season’s aren’t starting out so well that will rally back as they get things sorted out.
Still wondering if NASCAR is headed in the right direction with the new aero rules? You wouldn’t be if you endured Saturday’s XFINITY Series race, during which Kyle Busch led all but one lap and LVMS was by and large designated a no-passing zone even minus Sunday’s meteorological aberrations.
I found it curious that NASCAR officials said there’d be no changes made to race officiating after a scary wreck on Saturday. Cody Ware’s car got out from under him and he slid up into the outside wall. As he came back down across the track, with the caution lights still in the off position and the field running wide open, Darrell Wallace, Jr.’s Ford made hard contact with Ware’s Chevy, peeling the right side sheet-metal off Wallace’s ride. The officials in the tower were slow to react to the wreck (maybe they were too busy watching the jets at Nellis Air Force Base rather than the race like the FOX boys in the booth) and it wasn’t until their spotter in turn 2 called it in the yellow was thrown.
Still, they didn’t see that as a cause to maybe have some more eyes on the track in the race control booth. It’s amazing to me how those eagle-eyed officials can pick out a crushed Styrofoam cup well outside the racing line on the back straight when they want to throw a “debris” caution, yet they somehow overlooked a 3,500-pound piece of debris bearing the No. 25 enveloped in tire smoke coming across the track.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, the three NXS races this season have all been won by Cup regulars: Chase Elliott at Daytona and Kyle Busch the last two times out. This year NASCAR added the Chase format to that series, leading to the awkward possibility that no regular-season race winner might be competing to be champion. (Of the NXS series regulars who managed to win an event last year, only two haven’t moved up to Cup this season.)
NASCAR has painted itself in a corner with the XFINITY Series. Because the Cup drivers, one of them in particular, have dominated the series so completely, interest in the series has fallen to a point track owners and promoters have a hard time turning a profit on a NXS-only weekend. The series’ first standalone event doesn’t occur until mid-June at Iowa.
Dover is one of the last few independent race tracks (as in, those not owned by the France family-controlled International Speedway Corporation or Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports, Inc.), so some interesting facts concerning its sanctioning agreements with NASCAR emerged when it filed its required reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission as a publicly traded company. As part of the five-year agreements tracks on the Cup circuit recently made with NASCAR, the tracks will get a slightly larger portion of the TV revenue for their events over the next five years. It’s a slight increase percentage-wise, though $1.4 million isn’t exactly chicken feed and will help Dover (and other tracks) deal with a decline in ticket revenue.
Presumably starting this year, the following year’s schedule will be released by April 1. That additional time will allow promoters to advertise their events earlier than the typical late-summer schedule release. It sounds like the schedule will remain fairly consistent, though track owners can petition for a change based on how the holidays fall (Easter’s fluid date always throws quirks in the schedule.) In some cities, race promoters try to avoid having their race run the same Sunday as the local NFL team’s home games in the fall. And starting next year, the race tracks can only choose pace cars from one of the three car companies involved with the sport, GM, Ford or Toyota. Oddly enough Lamborghini and Ferrari have never chosen to promote their brands with limited-edition NASCAR pace car replicas anyway. Having pace car rights can be a double-edged sword anyway. Several on-track activities were delayed at Las Vegas this weekend after celebrity rides in the Toyota pace car were said to have oiled down the track. Oops.
There’s also some interesting language in the agreements that forbids tracks that are on the Cup schedule from also hosting events from another current or potential racing series that features vehicles similar enough to NASCAR Cup cars to “cause confusion.”
Here’s the actual language from the new agreement: “Promoter agrees not to promote, host, conduct or stage, nor allow any third party[s] to promote, host, conduct or stage, a stock car racing event at the Facility that attempts to duplicate, emulate, imitate, copy, simulate and/or mimic the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series; or uses the same or similar race vehicles, rules, competitors, trademarks, trade dress, and/or ‘look and feel’ of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series; or would create confusion in the public; or would in any way dilute the stature, impact and value of the Event.”
Yep, don’t want anyone messing with mimicking NASCAR or mess with their “look and feel.” NASCAR now promotes “The Product” at “The Facility” via “The Event”. I liked it better back when they just raced stock cars.
Surely most people can differentiate between a NASCAR taxi-cab and open-wheel race cars. (Should we start calling them Ubers yet?) ARCA has been around almost as long as NASCAR (the series started in 1953, five years after NASCAR), and has traditionally staged races at so many NASCAR tracks (including Daytona and others owned by ISC), I don’t think NASCAR is out gunning for them.
Which leads one to wonder: what’s the ghost in the machine that led to the new language included in the contract? Is someone out there toying with the idea of a rival stock car series to capitalize on NASCAR’s recent dwindling popularity? Maybe a series with stock cars that are closer to stock then current Cup cars? Maybe a series with a shorter schedule that doesn’t drag on from President’s Day to Thanksgiving? Perhaps a series broadcast by a sports-based channel more focused on televising sporting events than entertainment? Could such a series feature shorter races that seem more in accordance with younger generations’ dwindling attention spans, with some events run on weeknights to free up weekends for other pursuits during good weather?
I don’t know. It’s been proposed more than once before. I do know if someone was serious about trying to start such a series, there’s only one corporate entity outside of the ISC that has a large number of appropriate tracks and only one or two cable networks with the reach to highlight such a series, one of which owes a large degree of its startup and ratings to stock car racing way back when.
For the record, the notion of a rival series to NASCAR is hardly novel. For years USAC, which then ran the Indy 500 and open-wheel series, also had a stock car racing division. NASCAR in that era was featured in the Southeast and USAC in the Midwest. During the two great car company NASCAR boycotts in 1965 and ’66, had the big name factory drivers defected to USAC as was suggested, it might have spelled the end for NASCAR. Chrysler really wanted Richard Petty and his team to run USAC events, but ironically Petty declined to do so saying he didn’t want to travel all that distance to go to races… sort of like the teams all do now traveling coast to coast.
Late Sunday afternoon I got to thinking (a rare state of affairs, admittedly), “Hey, what if the racing actually hasn’t been as bad as commonly perceived over the last couple years? What if that perception stems from how truly awful race coverage has become on TV? Let’s face it, even when a race track sells out (another rare state of affairs lately) and in this era of declining NASCAR TV ratings (a regular state of affairs), I’d guess somewhere around 95 percent of fans who follow a race do so from the couch or recliner, not in the grandstands. (And some other small portion of folks follow the race on their phones via Twitter or some other online entity while out and about no doubt irritating the hell out of their soon to be ex-girlfriends and friends.)
As a case in point, re-watch the last 50 yards of Sunday’s Vegas race. There was a three-wide battle between Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch (all fairly big names) for second. Presumably, that’s what most of the fans in the grandstands were focused on. The boys in the FOX booth saw what was going on and were hollering about it. Meanwhile fans at home were treated to a tight single-car shot of Keselowski’s Ford taking the checkers. Yes, FOX did go back and replay the stampede for second, but it’s not the same as watching it live, especially since you already knew who finished second, third and fourth. The same thing happened at Atlanta last week. TV viewers at home watched Johnson coast to the line even while Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. were going at it hammer and tongs for second, which needed some explanation anyway in that the caution was said to be flying at the time.
Yes, to the victor goes the spoils, but the winner will get plenty of “clear and in focus” Joyce Julius moments as he does his burnouts and doughnuts and heads to victory lane. Call me uninformed, but I would have guessed the secret to race coverage is to focus in on the actual racing. If I want to watch cruising I’ll take a seat on the curb along High Street in Pottstown Saturday nights this summer.
I’d guess the secret to race coverage is an attempt to entertain rather than irritate your viewers. Yes, there’s an air force base next door to the track. You’ve mentioned that… more than once. Sure, let’s just ignore the race to interview the lady who won the UFC fight last night. There’s got to be at least a few people left who don’t realize that the UFC is the WWF reborn, staged entertainment for easily amused pinheads… sort of like some NASCAR races. Earnhardt is indeed very popular, but he’s running 13th and hasn’t led a lap. We can do without a prolonged discussion of how he’s doing with in-car video to document that he has in fact not run into anything yet. How come the other 38 drivers don’t get the same treatment?
It seems that FOX has decided behind closed doors that maybe NASCAR racing isn’t so exciting after all and thus needs to have plenty of fluff and PR stuff to keep viewers entertained rather than showing them the actual race. So, let’s see. We’ll go to a lengthy block of commercials at the halfway point. When we come back, rather than showing the race, we’ll have our panel of experts predict who they think will win the race. After which we’ll cut away to another lengthy block of commercials.
I mean, what the hell could have happened in those 14 minutes out on the race track anyway? Predictions are like belly-buttons. Everyone has one but nobody has much use for them. Show the race and we’ll all figure out together who is going to win.
The latest shtick involves the ticker on the last lap, the one where you actually want to see who is running where. Now the last lap is presented by someone or another so fans get to see their logo rather than how the top 10 are running. Brilliant! Yep, Ford Fast Facts, the Coca Cola family of drivers, Toyota’s top performers, the mid-race recap — on and on. I’m convinced if there was half as much commercial crap and resultant missed plays during an NFL broadcast there’d be rioting in the streets after the game.
So the question becomes, what if NASCAR racing actually does improve but there’s nobody left to watch it because the broadcasts are so bad? We’ll see. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.