NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beside the Rising Tide: Has Now Grown Old?

Seriously, is it over yet? Seven more races. Seven more weeks? Please tell me you’re kidding. There was a time when I impatiently counted the hours until the next NASCAR race within minutes of the finish of the previous one, but it’s been awhile now. After four hours of Sunday’s Dover race and much internal debate, I decided my best course was to call in sick this week and let someone else handle my column. I don’t do that very often and haven’t often done so over the 20 some-odd years with this rodeo. And Sunday’s event wasn’t the first that left me bored, that happens time to time in any real sport, but increasingly I find myself simply irritated by some races.

Oh, blame it on the cool, damp weather and the earlier sunsets of autumn. That sort of weather inspires dour moods and after a certain age, the chilly dampness triggers a reminder of everything foolish you’ve done to your knees or lower back over more than five decades of living. A race that’s won by almost ten seconds’ gap between the victor and runner-up with just six cars on the lead lap doesn’t help any either. Yeah, sometimes a driver just hits that magic combination and runs the table like Martin Truex, Jr. did on Sunday. And I’m actually appreciative that NASCAR didn’t try to resuscitate a moribund event with an unnecessary “debris caution” late. That would have been even more annoying. Stick-and-ball fans will sometimes sneer that stock car racing is just a bunch of guys driving around in circles. Sometimes, they’re right.

Oh, but that’s why we have the Chase to spice up the proceedings. Incessant yammering and hand-wringing over whether Tony Stewart would make the cut to the next round and if Kyle Larson could recover from early-race woes was as toneless and irritating as a murder of crows on the phone lines debating which way south lays on their annual migration.

Now, if Dillon were to blow an engine on the last lap and get hit with a 25-point penalty for conduct unbecoming the sport, then….

Like I said, I’ve been doing this a long time, practically from the infancy of NASCAR internet. For the last ten years I’ve been here on Frontstretch. Back when I started, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. was still around, Bill France, Jr. was still running the show and they were still racing at Rockingham. I survived (and was incredibly amused by) NASCAR’s original attempt to rein in and control internet coverage of the sport with the infamous “Circle R” rules. They wanted us to use “NASCAR®,” not “NASCAR”. At the top of every page they wanted you to put a disclaimer that read along the lines of “This is not the official site of NASCAR® and this site is not affiliated with NASCAR. The official site of NASCAR® is NASCAR.com.”

The problem was, whatever slick highly paid lawyer NASCAR had sicced on us didn’t know how to make the ® sign so he wrote in the threatening letter he sent everyone that we should use NASCAR with “the R in a circle” after it. Some folks caved or even took down their websites because the threatened penalties for defying the new rules were pretty harsh. I think they even said they even threatened possible prison time. But for the most part, a lot of us just laughed ourselves silly and kept on doing our thing. My then-boss, Derek over at what was then “Speedworld” and I had a lot of fun with it, adding disclaimers like “This site is not affiliated with NASCAR and you should be damn glad that’s the case because their official site is a load of horsesh*t.”

(Photo: Zach Catanzareti)
Are the days of eternal hope and packed grandstands fading into the lore of what NASCAR once was? (Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

I don’t know who hated the internet types more back then, NASCAR or the NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association – back then, the ink-stained wretches still thought the internet was a passing fad). But all three groups kept on doing what they did with varying degrees of proficiency and the internet types I’ve known along the way are an incredibly diverse group bound by one common thread…we all like to color outside the lines. (Oh, and just in case you ever need to do it, adding a ® isn’t that hard. Hold down your “ALT” key and type 0174. If the lawyer you’re hiring to launch a trademark lawsuit doesn’t know that, try moving further down the bar. And if he “misunderstands” the difference between “forthwith” and “forsooth” give him a job as Brian France’s personal assistant.)

So, yes, I’ve learned over the course of all those misspent years, the fall is always a hard time for folks in the business. It feels like the season has been going on forever and the breaks in the schedule are few and far between. All but the cub reporters new to the gig start making noise about finding more gainful employment (once again, I missed out on the gig as lamplighter here in the boonies.) Last minute requests for a substitute are frequent. But I tend to just keep banging columns out because I signed up for the gig and I was raised to see things through…even when they’ve become dry and joyless like this season of late. In the end, most everybody sticks around anyway cause hope springs eternal…and winning Power Ball tickets are so few and far between.

But the season really is far too long. When this season started, those of us in the  Northeast were still wondering if the lawn still existed under the remnants of the Blizzard of 2016. (Sorry, Weather Channel fans, Winter Storm Jonas…how do those geeks look at themselves in the mirror?) Spring came early and often around here and it rained only occasionally then it rained incessantly and the only thing you could count on every weekend was that Darrell Waltrip’s incessant yammering would make the weather, no matter how horrid, seem a minor annoyance. But then it stopped raining unless NASCAR races were scheduled in the area. An annual rite of spring ensued with the sometimes grumpy sounds of Harleys left unattended over the winter being summoned to life. Like the croakers, it starts out as one or two but in weeks it’s deafening, a sirens call of big V-twins calling other like-minded individuals back to the highway. And the barbecues all seem to be ignited Sunday afternoons, there’s car shows at the VFW, parades, and the first lazy migrations to the shore. But not for you. Cause you have to watch the truck race at Gateway just in case something of consequence happens…which it never does at Gateway.

Then, the summer starts drawing to a close and when you stop by the Lowe’s they’ve got the snow-blowers all lined up and ready to go. (OK, that was early August and it was like 95 degrees out so I have no idea what Lowe’s was thinking but it’s still a sign that the “endless summer” is coming to a close.  The eternal summer only exists until you turn around 30 and you still feel like it’s summer when you’re snowmobiling.) Now the leaves are changing, and occasionally I’ll glance out the window guiltily and remind myself a quick raking now might make the task less odious later but given my track record I’ll just let it go and eventually the neighbor will get sick of my leaves blowing onto his lawn and come over with that leaf-sucking thing towed behind his John Deere and take care of it at which point I’ll leave a case of brew on his front doorstep because he has a snowplow too. And most likely it will snow again at least once before the NASCAR season ends. It usually does. Not much snow of course. Just enough to get everyone in a panic and to predict gravely that such an early snow means we’re in for the winter from hell. Which we seldom are. Yeah, we had a blizzard last year. It was the only time it snowed the entire season. But still, it confounds me that leaves that started as tiny green buds on the branches during the NASCAR season are now turning colors and beginning to fall and the season still isn’t over. There have been Grammy-winning rock stars whose entire careers haven’t lasted as long as the NASCAR season. Yep, if you want to join this circus, read the fine print “single, orphans and people too dumb to own Harleys preferred. All aboard, Nebraska’s our next stop.”

In the end, though it’s not the discontent of the electronic and print media that matters. It’s the fans. And somehow, the powers that be decided maybe the season was in fact a bit too long so they’d go ahead and fix that by adding a playoff system to the sport, AKA the Chase, as of late the Eliminator Chase. So how’s that worked out? Well other than that, did you enjoy Our American Cousin, Mrs. Lincoln?

The Richmond race that set the Chase field drew 2.7 million viewers and a 1.7 Nielsen rating. The Joliet kickoff to the Chase drew about the same. And the numbers were down for the New Hampshire race setting a new low for any Chase race (1.55) since the concept’s inception. In general, the TV ratings recently have been down around 15% over 2015 and 30-35% over 2014. That ought to be cause for great concern. Some will argue that just about all televised sports ratings are down. Even the NFL is having an off start to their season. Well, the Thursday night Dolphins/Bengals game got a 4.8 rating with “just” eight million viewers.

It gets worse for NASCAR. The ESPN Monday Night football game last week aired against the Presidential debate, an event which was the highest rated programming this year other than the Super Bowl. (It’s a wonder they didn’t have Springsteen do a half-time show during the debate.) The game still earned a 4.9 rating with eight million viewers. That’s off from a 8.3 rating and 13.5 million households last year for the Week 4 Monday night game. To put that in perspective by going up against the debate that NFL game lost more viewers compared to 2015 than have watched the last two Cup races COMBINED! That’s how many viewers they lost, not how many watched. (The record for the most viewers ever is still the first moon landing back in July of ’69 with 600 million sets of eyeballs glued to TVs around the world.)

With the weather difficult again this weekend Saturday’s XFINITY Series race got postponed until Sunday morning at 10 a.m. Dover track management did something I thought was very nice (and I am not being at all sarcastic here) by telling those fans with tickets to the NXS race they should feel free to stick around and watch the Cup race at 2 p.m. as well. They only asked if someone else showed up with a ticket for the seat those folks were sitting in that they yield to the Cup ticketholder. There were plenty of other places to sit. It was, in fact, a nice gesture, but not that many years ago it would have been impossible. The Cup race would have been sold out. Back in the sports boom era, tickets were tough to come by even as the tracks were adding new grandstands as quickly as they could be built.

That demand at Dover started back around 1992 when they added a ton of new seats for fans who wanted to come see Richard Petty race at the track one final time. Having been there many times for the Saturday race as a paying customer I can tell you the place was usually about three-quarters full for the support race. And here’s the disheartening part. Despite having already removed 37% of the seats that once circled the track, and despite letting folks with an NXS ticket attend the Cup race free on Sunday, there were still vast swaths of empty seats clearly evident for the race. It’s more than I ever recall seeing at a Busch Series event at the same track during the ’90s.

So again, the heck with the peanut gallery, the press. It’s those paying customers, the fans who are weighing in on the Chase, the quality of the racing and the length of the season. With both attendance and TV ratings down precariously it seems it would behoove the folks running the Circus McGurkis to make some changes and make them fast.

I went into this season with a lot of optimism. I really thought the lower downforce package was going to improve the quality of the racing. On an occasional weekend indeed it has, but it’s been spotty improvement, not consistent. (I do believe that Truex’s domination of the World 600 had me lapse into a dangerous near comatose state so I’m getting a keg of Red Bull for this weekend’s race.)

The other part of the equation is to have Goodyear get aboard with the program. I think the folks in Akron decided to wait a year and see how the low downforce package worked out while playing things conservatively. They’re still gunshy after that horrific tire debacle at the Brickyard in 2008. But for the racing to improve Goodyear needs to bring softer tires that are markedly faster when new than when they wear. And that dropoff needs to occur quickly. Or perhaps it’s time to introduce a second tire compound, a stickier, faster but quicker wearing option like they use in F1 and IndyCar (neither of which Goodyear participates in any longer) to stir the pot. And if they won’t, maybe NASCAR needs to rethink the sole tire supplier relationship with the blimp boys. Truthfully, I think the quickest way to improve the racing would be to go back to bias-ply tires and I’ll probably keep beating that drum until the arthritis in my wrists makes it impossible.

The season should start no earlier than mid-March and be over no later than late September. Face it; once the NFL starts playing in earnest, NASCAR doesn’t have a chance despite dear Brian’s flights of fancy. It’s time to take a quick bow and exit quickly stage left. I’ve called before for tracks in a geographic area (say Dover, Pocono and New Hampshire) to be reduced to four races annually, with each track getting a second date on a rotating basis. Less supply (as in the amount of seats available) would presumably lead to more demand.

As for the Chase itself, a quick demise and a steadfast denial it ever existed (sort of like the Car of Tomorrow) seems in order. It’s as if we had a perfectly good push mower and someone decided that it might be better to have a riding mower. After much debate, design, and brainstorming they came back with a blender and waited breathlessly for the applause. It’s a blender. It doesn’t cut grass. There is not a single part or element of it that can be salvaged moving forward. The amount of damage done to the sport by the now 14-year failed Chase experiment is so grievous and undeniable it calls for a change at the top of the command structure. Humpy Wheeler is still floating around out there somewhere and I nominate him to run the sport in hope he can pull it out of its death spiral. But in recognition of all he’s done for the sport we do have a lovely parting gift for BZF…a blender.

Here’s my idea for a championship structure. Keep the points system as it is and let drivers and teams accumulate points for the entire season. But there’s a 100-point bonus for every victory (as long as the car clears post-race inspection) a 40-point bonus for finishing second, a 20-point bonus for finishing third, a ten-point bonus for finishing fourth and a five-point bonus for finishing fifth. No points would be awarded to any driver finishing 20th or worse. (Give them a free blender instead.) Thus, a driver who seemed hopelessly out of contention could make up huge sums of points if he or she racked up a string of race wins. And the battle in the closing laps for a win would intensify with a significant bonus (not two points) for winning rather than finishing second.

Any harbor in the storm and NASCAR is taking on water below the waterline. I’m open to any suggestions no matter how radical because simply put the current status quo isn’t working and I very much doubt that’s going to change over the next very long seven weeks.

The autumn winds blow chilly and cold;
September I’ll remember
A love once new has now grown old.

-Paul Simon

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21 Comments
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kb

END THE CHASE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And yes it could be done, I am not buying it cannot be undone.

rg72

In light of the continued downward spiral of attendance and ratings unmistakably correlated to the Chase, a thinking person would get rid of the culprit (i.e. the Chase).
NASCAR, on the other hand, is more likely to double down on it. Expand it to 24 or maybe 32 drivers (after all Danica has to make one somehow) and bump it up to 12 or who knows, 16 races.
Another stellar 1.5 rating on the board for Dover, down from 1.9 last year, which probably seemed wretched to us at the time.
Maybe they are on to something by accident by putting the Busch race on track a few hours before the Cup race. Could solve the problems of the Cup drivers poaching wins.

Bill B

Lots of good reading there Matt and not all NASCAR related, nice thoughts on the changing of the seasons, and I never knew that “awhile” was one word and not “a while” however, thanks to Homer Simpson, I did know that a group of crows was called a “murder” (is there anything you can’t learn from watching that show?).

I can’t believe you have an issue with 6 cars being on the lead lap at the end of the race. There were only 2 cars on the lead lap at the end of the spring Dover race in 1999 (Bobby Labonte and Jeff Gordon). My recollections were that, before the wave around rule, it wasn’t that rare for there to be less than 15 cars on the lead lap at the end of a lot of races but I am too lazy to verify that assumption. Anyway, if my choice was to have every race end with less than 10 cars on the lead lap, or have to watch a 4 hour race where NASCAR’s wave around entitlement program ensures that everyone will be back on the lead lap with 40 laps to go (even though most of them sucked donkey dongs for the entire race) negating everything that happened during the first 3 hours, give me the former. Give me an honest race over one where the rules manufacture crapshoot endings with lots of cars on the lead lap, where a fake caution and double file-restart create a game 7 ending any day of the week.

Based on numbers alone, the chase is a failure by anyone’s measure (except the idiot in charge). There is only one brick still allowing NASCAR to pretend that the chase is a success and that is the television contracts. For some reason the networks are so hungry for programming that they are still willing to overpay given the low ratings. That can’t go on forever. At some point the low ratings will translate into lower tv contracts and that may be when the chase will be acknowledge as a failure.

It is also hard to envision shortening the season. While I agree that it probably would be better for the overall health of the “sport” it’s very hard to go backwards and shrink the revenue stream. If there were 25% fewer races would tv contracts be decreased by that amount? The cost of sponsoring a car? The drivers’ salary? The engineers and staff? Not many people are willing to take a 25% decrease without a fight unless they have no choice. All I am saying is that contraction is a much messier deal than expansion.

N_Woods

“The season should start no earlier than mid-March and be over no later than late September.”

What’s funny is Indycar does exactly this and gets lambasted for it. Calls for a longer season are pretty constant

Russ

three suggestions, pick any two:

1: multiple tire compounds, say two, at each race. Teams have to run both compounds at least once during the race.

2. Impound races. When they come off the track after the last practice or qualifying, impound the cars until the race. No fooling around with them. Top off the fluids and make sure the tires are ok. Then race.

3. Eliminate qualifying. Why have it if everybody makes the field anyway. Draw straws, do whatever, mixing things up wouldn’t hurt the show.

Just saying, obviously whats going on now isnt working.

Max

The downforce package was a step in the right direction, but here is the real deal: until Nascar raises that valence or splitter or whatever you want to call the front nose of the car up to let a significant amount of air travel under it, the racing is not going to get much better.
Certainly it will not return to days of yore which we oldtimers all pine for.
I remember the days when there were only 5 cars or less on the lead lap at the finish but so be it – that to me is racing and not everyone is going to hit the right set-up and do well.
The aerodynamic forces that the current splitter generates around the front of the car still is a significant barrier to easy passing, i.e. racing. It is very obvious.
Yes, the season is way too long – everyone knows it. Greed will continue to perpetuate it.
It will be interesting to see who signs on to sponsor this series and how much they pay (which will still be too much for what it is) and you notice there isn’t much said about it.
I will say this about Goodyear – they have had a lot to do with the poor racing we have seen over the years; it is not generally productive to give one manufacturer the monopoly on anything.
I won’t even begin to type anything concerning France – we all know about him already.

SmarterThanYou

The first 20 paragraphs of your weekly diatribe were the same-old same-old “grumpy old man” whining which your fans lap up, but I actually AGREE with (most of) your full season points scenario. The main reason I have supported the Chase is that the old Latford system was fatally flawed in failing to reward winning. Drivers with double digit wins in a season deserve championships. Drivers racing to beat a mathematical formula do not. The season-ending races before the Chase were anti-climactic yawners, nothing more than coronations. Now we have at least ONE race per season that actually matters,

However, I believe the Chase is here to stay and the fans and media who bitch incessantly really ought to learn to accept reality. The main change that seems to be on the horizon is to reward the regular season points leader (I refuse to call him “champion”) with a first-round bye or some other incentive. If NASCAR had rebooted the archaic points system 25 years ago, there would be no need for the Chase format.

Bill B

Well I think you have a problem when in a USA Today interview Brad Keselowski called the current system “a lottery”. Personally I don’t call any sport that uses a lottery system to determine winners or champions a sport at all.

http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nascar/2016/09/29/brad-keselowski-interview-team-penske-2016/91248378/

“Q: Who will win the Sprint Cup in 2021?

A: I don’t know. I kind of feel like the system is orchestrated in such a way that it’s a lottery. So I can probably just tell you who will be in the lottery. I think there will be about five of us: Me, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kyle Larson and probably one young driver — maybe Chase Elliott.”

LOL that Brad already missed the boat on Larson.

Bill B

Ooops…Well forget that last line about Larson as I forgot that the question was asked about the 2021 chase.

SmarterThanYou

I will never consider Brad Keselowski to be the ultimate spokesperson of the sport. He is the equivalent of the back end of a donkey (and he looks like the front end).

Bill B

LOL, I can’t argue with that but he isn’t the only driver I’ve heard say similar things about both the chase (and restrictor plate races as well).

And there are a lot of fans that feel the same way but who cares what we think.

Tim S.

Millions of fans have indeed accepted the reality of the Chase, and numerous other changes. And that’s why they’re gone, unlikely ever to return.

wildcatfan2016

I was fine with Dover ending the way it did since that meant that for a change NASCAR didn’t interfere in the finish.

I totally agree with end the chase. Yes it is a failure, no matter how much the paid by NASCAR media and the tv people insist that it is great. Of course instead of ending the chase, they added it to the other 2 series – the ones practically no one shows up for these days — oh wait, that’s all 3 series now.

You could easily shorten the season by going to each track once per year instead of twice to tracks that currently have 2 races.

Goodyear – bah – what a waste, I won’t even run them on my personal vehicle.

Humpy Wheeler in charge could possibly make it interesting again.

William Coopman

The season being extended to get two races to Las Vegas and add Iowa are going to kill us all. I agree with one race per tack policy, even Daytona. The France family (ok, Brian) fiddles around with the Chase as often as young boys grab their thingies! Leave it alone! It’s easy to agree that you can’t compare driver’s from different eras, but we can’t even compare them since the Chase was started because it’s been farted around with so much! As great as NASCAR is, it will never win against College and Pro Football. A shorter season would help our sport return to a more exciting championship possibility.

Old_Timer

Matt … … here is a Point System I have played with for a few seasons now … … and points only go to the Top ten … … … 10th = 1 pt. … 9th = 2 pts. … 8th = 4 pts. … 7th = 8 pts. … 6th = 16 pts. … 5th – 32 pts. … 4th = 64 pts. … 3rd = 128 pts. … 2nd = 256 pts. … … and 1st = 512 pts. !! …. … points only go to the Top Ten and it DOUBLES for each position up!!

But(!!!) … here’s an even BETTER one!! All 40 starters get points, plus there are BONUS POINTS for leading laps!!

The “Position Points” are:
1 250
2 220
3 205
4 190
5 175
6 160
7 150
8 140
9 130
10 120
11 110
12 103
13 96
14 89
15 82
16 75
17 70
18 65
19 60
20 55
21 50
22 46
23 42
24 38
25 34
26 30
27 27
28 24
29 21
30 18
31 15
32 13
33 11
34 9
35 7
36 5
37 4
38 3
39 2
40 1

Notice they are “weighted” for every five positions plus an addition weight for winning.

Now, the BONUS POINTS for laps lead … … there are 200 “lap leader” points for each race — divided per number of laps per race … for example, each lap lead in the Daytona 500 is worth one point (200 laps) … every lap lead in the Firecracker 400 is worth 1.25 points (160 laps) … and every lap lead at Martinsville is worth 0.40 points (500 laps) … … plus a 50(!) point bonus for leading the MOST laps! Therefore, a driver who wins, leads the most laps, and (in the rare instance) lead every lap would receive a cool 500 points!!

Of course, NASCAR would say “but, the fans would never understand it!” … … … Yeah? We may not have LIKED it … but, in 1974 we understood the Points System of “Points = $$$_Won X Events_Competed X .001” … … … …

–Old_Timer

Bill B

LOL. I won’t say it’s too difficult for the average fan to understand but most would definitely need a calculator and some practice.

Is the idea to create excitement with the larger numbers and big points swings because that won’t do it for a lot of people? They just want a system that results in a high probability that the driver that kicked ass the most over the season wins the championship.

MarkM

There was a race Sunday? I’ve watched exactly one race this year, & I’m someone that grew up just outside Charlotte, attended my first Grand National race, (pre Winston/Nextel/Sprint/insert next title sponsor here), way back in 1968, & followed the sport religiously for years, attending races at several tracks as well as watching on TV.

Like you I wrote about it online for a few years, & now? I simply can’t work up enough interest to sit through a race ninety-nine percent of the time now. It’s not just the Chase, it’s how totally the sport has been ruined, & that started before BZF or the COT.

David

gee i give up on NASCAR 3 yr’s ago when the serictry round me up like a cow … now they beg me back an i still do not go.. the tower called nascar knows before the finish of a race who will win . and i had rather watch a local dirt track race ……

CC

Here’s an idea. Dump the Chase–Keselowski is right, it’s a lottery–and institute a simple system that awards points for the top ten places as follows: 25, 18, 15, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 and 1. You could even award a bonus point for winning the pole, which would add drama and real meaning to qualifying. It’s easy for everybody to understand, places a significant premium on winning, and by not awarding points past 10th, it might cut down on the infuriating late-race wrecks among back-markers racing for stray points.

Oh, somebody would need to call Bernie Ecclesone to make sure it’s okay to borrow the Formula 1 points system…

Don Lewis

Send Toileta to the scrap heap as well. Go back to run what ya brung rules of 1992,,the last year that I was an avid fan.

mypappywasapistolimasonofagun

i traveled 6 hours to the dover cup race cause my big brother got free tickets from his farm equipment employer (the blue colored ones), hadn’t been to one in ten years. my 17 year old son wanted to go. we enjoyed some quality together. we arrived about 10 o’clock and got to enjoy some extra tailgating time with my brother’s family due to the later start. after all that time has gone by i still got goose bumps hearing the engines roar at the drop of the green flag of the nxs race. i still love the noise, the flyovers, that almost moment of quiet as the cars are all at the opposite side of the track and the deafening roar as they come back around …and the hypnotic effect of a long green flag run that can put me to sleep. still, i couldn’t believe how empty it was compared to 10 years ago. best seats i ever had though. so yeah, i’d still go again…as long as the tickets are free.

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