Did You Notice? … NASCAR enters 2019 with a slew of major changes? Among them: a new handling package designed to bring the cars closer together, the end of restrictor plates, disqualifying race winners that fail inspection. But, most importantly, there’s a new CEO (Jim France) and new President (Steve Phelps) compared to this time a year ago.
Those people acknowledge major changes are needed in order for the sport to be successful. Phelps, in a widely-publicized article this week, admitted the sport “probably lost our way” over the past decade-plus. The new handling package, designed to lower speeds and increase competition, was tested at the sport’s All-Star Race last May with mostly positive reviews.
That’s likely the tip of the iceberg. A merger between ISC and NASCAR is fueling rumors about a major investor or complete sale of the sport. If it stays in France hands, a schedule overhaul in 2020 is virtually assured. Tracks like the Nashville Fairgrounds, Gateway Motorsports Park and Road America could pop up in Cup with race dates in the middle of the week.
Clearly, NASCAR had to try a different approach. In the fifth year of its 10-year TV deal, ratings have declined at a frenetic pace. From the sport’s high in 2005-06, the audience for some races has been cut in half. The Daytona 500, which scored an 11.3 rating for NBC in 2006, had just a 5.3 last year, a decline of 53 percent. Seating has been reduced by tens of thousands in the past decade at virtually every track on the circuit.
Problem is, we’re less than one week into the new season and people are already ready to jump off the deep end. Kyle Busch was highly critical of the new handling package after Las Vegas testing. He, along with others, claims it takes too much driver skill out of the equation.
Then, an underwhelming Advance Auto Parts Clash left NASCAR with egg on its face. Rain ultimately shortened the event from 75 to 59 laps. The race was run in mostly single-file conditions; it was more a procession than a prizefight. Then, just as aggression set in, a side-draft gone wrong by Jimmie Johnson triggered a 17-car wreck. Only three of the 20 cars ended without damage and a crash some thought was Johnson’s fault resulted in him winning the race. Pole sitter Paul Menard, who ran one of his best races in a journeyman career, was despondent. Fans were also raving mad.
But hold on a minute. The ratings for this race… increased a few hundredths of a ratings point? That’s right. While Daytona qualifying had a slight decrease, the Clash held serve despite the worst possible outcome. (Red flags, horrible wreck, controversy surrounding the winner). A disastrous exhibition didn’t run off the several million fans this sport has left.
Yes, both events still fell short of the 2.1 Nielsen rating posted by the new Alliance of American Football that premiered on CBS. (That’s right; NASCAR got outrated by minor league football.) There are plenty of problems. Having just 38 cars attempt the NASCAR Xfinity Series opener for a smaller, 38-car field foreshadows car count issues. The sport’s charters are still dirt cheap on value compared to major league franchises. There’s no guarantee the new handling package will work and efforts to replace sponsorship have been mixed.
But can people just give this sport a couple of weeks? For years, fans have clamored for people to do something to stem the hemorrhaging of fan interest, sponsorship and close competition. Well, for once, NASCAR finally listened. But everyone is so used to criticizing every move they make, at every turn, it’s almost impossible to stop.
My hope is we can take the first month and do something harder than ever to do in modern society these days. Let. It. Breathe. NASCAR has gone ahead and tried to make the product better.
Let’s take a step back and not make a rash judgment on one exhibition race or one test. It needs to be given a chance to work.
Did You Notice? … Two of the three slowest drivers in Daytona 500 qualifying, Cody Ware and BJ McLeod, are locked into the Daytona 500 field? Their team, Rick Ware Racing, owns two charters that earn them an automatic spot on the grid each week. Even though both men have never made a Daytona start in Cup, they’ll earn the right to run the sport’s biggest race just by strapping in.
Along those same lines, Spire Motorsports has never run a NASCAR race. But its new charter, which it purchased for a reported $6 million from now-defunct Furniture Row Racing, earns them a spot. No matter how 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray does in Thursday’s Duels, money equals an automatic bid.
Therein lies one of the problems NASCAR has had for the last 15 years. Anyone who pays the right price, not the right speed, can earn a spot in its Super Bowl. Could you imagine being able to play in the NFL Super Bowl against Tom Brady two weeks ago? In NASCAR, you can if you’ve got money, a small amount of experience and a team with an automatic spot.
There’s no shame in NASCAR’s charter system; I understand why it exists. The goal is to ensure these owners have equity in the sport over the long-term. In 35 of the 36 races, some type of guaranteed spot makes sense.
But the Daytona 500? Especially with its unique qualifying system and legacy? That needs to stand on its own. The best teams should be able to race their way in without a problem. They have two chances: raw speed or the qualifying Duels. Perhaps you leave some provisionals (NASCAR used to have seven a race) to ensure someone like defending champion Joey Logano doesn’t miss.
Nothing against Ware, McLeod or Spire. Any of the trio could wind up with a top-10 finish or better if the Daytona draft goes their way. But you shouldn’t be able to buy your way into your sport’s top athletic competition. You should have to earn it.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Per Patrick Perrin, the NASCAR TV stat guru, this year’s Daytona 500 features the first winless front row since Mike Skinner and Steve Grissom in 1997. Let’s hope William Byron and Alex Bowman go on to bigger and better things because those other two? They combined for 437 career Cup starts, zero wins and just 15 top-five finishes.
- Will 2019 be Kyle Busch’s year? He has 13 career Daytona 500 starts but has yet to cash in on the Great American Race. At least he has a victory in July’s 400 miler; Martin Truex Jr. has yet to win at this track, period, in 27 career starts. The closest he came was a nail-biting runner-up finish to Denny Hamlin in the 2016 Daytona 500. (0.010 seconds). Truex has the longest victory drought (0-for-14) in the Great American Race of anyone who will run it this Sunday.
- It’s far too early to say if Hendrick Motorsports is back on the upswing, as I wrote about after the Clash. But there just seems to be this different, positive energy around both Jimmie Johnson and former crew chief Chad Knaus I’m interested to observe down in Daytona. In just one week, Johnson has won, armed with a new crew chief in Kevin Meendering and a new determination to prove to people he can still be competitive. He’s running the Boston Marathon this spring, is in Mark Martin-like shape at a younger age (43) and knows time is short. (His current contract runs through 2020; who knows what will happen but remember, mentor Jeff Gordon retired at age 44.)
- On the other side of the fence, there’s Knaus, faced with a new challenge and a 21-year-old in Byron who’s underachieved. Less than one race in, they have a pole together and Knaus, aware of Hendrick’s storied history, is attempting a little Ray Evernham-Jeff Gordon Part II. Remember, Gordon didn’t have a crew chief change early in his Cup career but his rookie season was riddled with wrecks and inconsistency. He rebounded in year two to the tune of two major Cup wins (Charlotte, Indianapolis) and was winning a title by year three. Can the new HMS prodigy do the same?