If asked to explain why NASCAR runs the Advance Auto Parts Clash (Sunday, Feb. 9 at 3 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1), perhaps the best comparison is asking why college football continues to contest (and proliferate) bowl games.
The Clash serves as a reward of sorts for the accomplishments of the past season. The best qualifiers in NASCAR get an early crack at Daytona (and a little bit of cash). They’re paired with former Clash and Daytona 500 winners that were full-time drivers in 2018. Oh, don’t forget former Daytona 500 pole winners. And did I mention drivers that made the playoffs in 2018?
It sounds an awful lot like why bowl games are needed to determine a national champion in college football… and 30 more are held to reward good seasons. You know, 6-6 seasons, and 5-7 teams with decent academic improvement…
Though the Clash, like a bowl game, is an exhibition that results in nothing but a trophy, there are fans out there that care. The Brad Keselowski fans I sat with in the Daytona grandstands at last year’s Clash (all two of them that were in our section) certainly cared their driver scored a Daytona win. And seeing as how college bowl games averaged more than 40,000 attendees a game in 2018 (paid, not seated), there’s clearly a market for said exhibitions. Speaking as a Wake Forest college football fan, I’ve traveled from Miami to Nashville since my time as a college student watching my alma mater play in meaningless exhibitions. Old Gold & Black is ever waving high.
The problem is, the positives end here when comparing NASCAR’s season-opening exhibition with college football’s season finales. The reality is, barring an act of God, today’s Clash will be run in front of swaths of empty grandstands. The field will likely struggle at times to put on any kind of show, as only 20 cars will be on track to generate the packs needed to pass at Daytona. And if the Fords get out front, just like Keselowski did in last year’s Clash or Stewart-Haas Racing did at Talladega in the last Cup plate race, the rest of the field might just bend over and take it. You know, just like they did in the 2018 Clash and at Talladega in the fall.
Opening the season in front of empty grandstands is not an image NASCAR should be happy with televising (who wants to see the World’s Center of Racing empty?) Now granted, college football contests many of its bowl games in stadiums far too big (take a gander at what the Wake Forest side of Legion Field looked like back in December’s Birmingham Bowl). But they can get away with it, because after the bowl games, college football goes away for eight long months. By the time Labor Day weekend rolls around, college football fans are foaming at the mouth and will pack the stands to see the SEC play the Little Sisters of the Poor.
It’s one thing to end on a celebratory, even hollow note. It’s another to start with one.
The Clash also faces a true identity crisis… it doesn’t have one. Since 2008, the eligibility criteria for competing have changed seven times. It’s to the point I’ve bookmarked the Clash Wikipedia page so I can more quickly fact check who is and isn’t eligible to race (kids, don’t fact check with Wikipedia at home). No wonder the field bowed into submission 35 laps short of the finish last season; it’s a race without meaning.
Perhaps the only meaning teams have found for running the Clash these days is the extra practice it provides. Just yesterday morning, when the track opened for the one Clash practice session, multiple teams opted to work on single-car runs… For a race that has no qualifying. There’s the identity the Clash seems to be missing! A race once reserved to honor pole winners, a dash for cash has turned into the Daytona 500 Invitational Practice. (Presented by Advance Auto Parts.)
Throw all those arguments out the window, and there’s still an incontrovertible fact. Just as the College Football Playoff has rendered bowl games obsolete, the reality of NASCAR qualifying in 2019 has done the same to the Clash. Namely, qualifying means nothing anymore. Why? The Cup Series starts any given weekend with 90% of the starting spots in a race guaranteed.
In 2018, 89% of Cup points races saw every entrant qualify for the feature event. In 2018, the sport’s biggest race was won by a driver starting at the back of the field. And I can’t count on my fingers and toes the number of times a Martin Truex, Jr., a Kyle Larson, or a Kevin Harvick has started in the back and found themselves in the top 10 scoring stage points by the end of the first stage. Qualifying is an exercise at this point rather than an essential part of the race weekend.
Which begs the question… why start the season celebrating it? Why not, in this cost-conscious era, cancel the first weekend of big-track Speedweeks, have everyone come in Wednesday to run practice and single-car qualifying, and leave the fans already in Florida to explore the Volusias and New Smyrnas of the region? Race fans that wet their appetites for racing after a winter break in front of packed houses with full, star-studded fields will likely be much more excited about the 500 than those who spend big dollars to sit in a cavernous arena watching a parade.
Frontstretch’s own Amy Henderson wrote as early as 2008 that the time had come to “Put this Bud [Shootout] on ice.”
11 years of declining attendance, car counts, and TV ratings seems long enough for NASCAR to take a hint.