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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: How Buy-A-Ride NASCAR Wins Are Perceived?

Did You Notice? … NASCAR’s final restrictor plate race reminded us why the sport is trying a different approach? Don’t get me wrong; the 2019 Daytona 500 exceeded expectations, especially after some shaky opening acts. Drivers were willing to break in an inside groove they’d been hesitant to try all Speedweeks to the tune of “it’s about time!”

In the end, Denny Hamlin broke his winless streak in impressive fashion. This second Daytona 500 in four years came with an emotional tribute win for the man who discovered him: J.D. Gibbs. Kyle Busch was denied the Daytona 500 a 14th time while impressive performances by Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Preece reminded us fresh faces are coming. Toyota, after leading one lap during the last week of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing, finally beat back Ford and Chevrolet when it mattered most.

Joe Gibbs Racing produced a 1-2-3 finish, the first time we’ve seen that at Daytona since Hendrick Motorsports in 1997. It’s appropriate to end this chapter this way considering the way plate racing has evolved. A sport still founded on the individual needed teamwork to succeed with this plate package. The last few races, it’s been multi-car efforts and in some cases entire groups of manufacturers working together to beat back the competition.

I remember the first time Hendrick accomplished that 1-2-3 finish. Like a freight train, they blew past Bill Elliott in the final laps of the 500 to show three cars were better than one. It was the beginning of the death of a single-car program, at least one that didn’t have an alliance with a larger group. Now? Plate racing can sometimes devolve into these three or four-car efforts flexing muscle. We saw at Talladega Superspeedway last fall how that type of dedication with Stewart-Haas Racing can whip the field into submission. Or maybe you didn’t. You might have slept through it.

I’d contend DiBenedetto’s emergence up front combined with a few issues that sliced up the big teams created conditions that spiced up this year’s finish. But even with these alliances split up, a lot of the post-race chatter focused on broken promises. Joey Logano couldn’t understand why an underdog Ford driver, Michael McDowell, wouldn’t bow down and push him forward. Busch was mad Hamlin played teammate only when it appeared to suit him.

It’s never a good look when a driver needs someone else to help him win. The kicker doesn’t have the quarterback carry the winning field goal over the goalpost, does he? And of course, this need for teamwork also brought about the ugly side of plate racing: wrecks. 21 cars piled into the biggest one when Paul Menard hit DiBenedetto the wrong way. Seven days earlier, he was the victim and now he was sitting there the goat.

That’s plate racing, a 30-year experiment to slow speeds but which also did its fair share of damage. I’m talking sheet metal, mostly. But we can’t forget the 2009 Talladega wreck where Carl Edwards nearly sailed into the grandstands. Four years later, Kyle Larson came close in an Xfinity race that left over a dozen fans hurt.

Those types of close calls were supposed to stop with plates. After all, Bobby Allison’s near climb into the grandstands brought them about in the first place back in 1987. But these big wrecks still kept the risk intact. Drivers still got hurt. Excitement came with a cost.

The hope is without the plates, NASCAR can create the same type of excitement without having those near death experiences. There’s only one thing we know for certain; the love-hate, risky relationship with plate racing has finally reached its 30-year conclusion.

Did You Notice? … Both wins in Daytona for the Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck series were won by drivers who “bought” their way into rides? Austin Hill won his first NGOTS race with defending champion Hattori Racing Enterprises despite one top-five finish in 51 career starts. The next day, Michael Annett earned his first Xfinity win after 229 starts and over a decade’s worth of competition.

Both drivers, to be fair, were humble in their accomplishments. They were quick to credit their crew chiefs which may have the most to do with their quick transformation. Scott Zipadelli has pulled off miracles on a limited budget at HRE; keep in mind it’s not just Moffitt who had success with the program (see: Ryan Truex).

Annett and owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. were raving about the addition of crew chief Travis Mack off the scrap heap. Mack was the crew chief for an ill-fated pairing at Leavine Family Racing that ended mid-2018. He took the fall for high sponsorship and racing expectations Kasey Kahne never met before retiring altogether by the end of the year.

But the fact remains in these filler series the big winners also got there through a bigger corporate paycheck. There’s no way Hill earns his opportunity without bringing more money than defending champion Moffitt; Annett didn’t even make the playoffs last year with a team that won the series championship. Typically, you don’t get another chance with that track record unless your pockets are lined with cash.

It marks a crossroads for NASCAR as the faces of its development series threaten to become these types of opportunities. Drivers bringing sponsorship or family money still have to wheel the car to Victory Lane. They still have their own unique personalities and in some cases are as hard-working, if not more so, than those without access to cash.

But will a blue-collar fan base, itself born out of starting from the ground up, buy into these fresh faces? One of the ways in which fans latch onto someone is if you feel a connection to the driver themselves. Can they feel a connection with a driver like Angela Ruch who, after her top-10 NGOTS finish, made it clear her “husband is loaded” and they sold some real estate to make this happen? Silver spoons and moonshining don’t, at first glance, appear to go hand in hand.

NASCAR is trying hard to win back its core fan base while expanding its demographic at the same time. There’s no question the diversity Ruch represents along with Hill and Annett’s fresh faces give the sport a new look. But perhaps it’s a good thing #WinItForJD became the enduring moment of a complicated Daytona Speedweeks.

That’s far more feel-good for a sport rebuilding itself, I feel, than the guys with money capitalizing on a second, third, fourth chance others haven’t been lucky enough to get.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…

  • Overnight ratings for the 2019 Daytona 500 were up eight percent. Yes, a 5.5 is far below the 10.0 this race received as recently as six years ago. But you gotta start somewhere, right? People easily forget the sport’s Most Popular Driver, Earnhardt Jr., retired at the end of 2017. A ratings drop of 15 percent was expected the following year, according to several sources both within NASCAR television and the sport itself. Why wouldn’t there be when you lose your biggest draw? So watch the ratings over the course of the year. If 2019 goes well, you may see 2018 as a baseline from which the sport can work on growing its audience back over the long run.
  • Barstool Sports made its way to Daytona in a major move for the sport to court a sagging millennial fan base. I thought it was interesting Corey Lajoie was the major face of their branding there (in more ways than one). Here’s a guy who hasn’t cracked the top 10 in 58 career Cup starts as perhaps the first driver a potential NASCAR fan sees. But the clips, including one where he makes fun of his underdog role, were highly effective. I’m told sponsor Old Spice had signed on for another race long before an early wreck took Lajoie right out of contention.
  • The downside of the Barstool connection: a focus on the carnage of Daytona’s Big One. If a millennial’s looking to watch for the wrecks, well, let’s not forget these are the type that used to seriously injure, even kill someone. And as it is, most of the sport’s intermediate tracks didn’t even have a single spin during their race, let alone that type of eye-popping wreck. Seven of 36 races had one single-car spin or less that caused caution flags; the Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway had two minor incidents. That’s the type of quick-hit hook that may not translate into long-term viewership.
  • I’ve never heard so many people so uncertain as to what’s going to happen this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It’s a bit unnerving to see even the best mechanics in the business throwing their hands up and going, “I don’t know.” So it’s a very interesting three days ahead; expect a wild swing one way or the other.

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11 thoughts on “Did You Notice?: How Buy-A-Ride NASCAR Wins Are Perceived?”

  1. Interesting, to me, that one thing common in football, soccer and racing is complaints (or necessity) of money in the development of young football quarterbacks, young soccer players, and young racers. A lot of development of young quarterbacks and young soccer players is related to who has access, among other things, to travel teams and to tutoring camps; money from at least middle- to upper-middle income parents allows such participation by kids, while kids of lower income parents often can only afford playing pickup games on sandlots and front yards. Similarly, it seems unless one has access to money, either from parents or some good-willed person, a youngster’s opportunity for racing is essentially limited to video games or to other surrogates.

    • Same thing can be said about running for political office (contributions) or getting the best jobs (best universities). Sure there are exceptions but the scale is heavily tilted to those who have the most to start with.

  2. I’m not ready to celebrate the death of the restrictor plate. That change may just be a tapered spacer in restrictor plate’s clothing.

    This just in… money has been buying rides in racing since Ben Hur. It irks me too but the whole “haves” and “have nots” deal is, unfortunately, the way it is.

    As for wrecks keeping viewers engaged, let’s see how this tapered spacer works out.

    I have no idea what people have been doing to gamble on NASCAR races and legitimately be paid off in the past, but with NASCAR’s announcement last week that stake holders can’t gamble on the races (which I thought was already the case), makes me wonder if NASCAR isn’t putting it’s chips on embracing gamblers to claw their way back into relevance.
    Has something changed this year with respect to how one can gamble on races? I watched the 500 over a friends and he was telling me how is brother never watched a race but was paying very close attention because he bet money on a 5 driver team that he picked . I know that building fantasy teams has been around for a while, but is the part where you get paid off like a regular bet new?

    • Bill B – haves/have nots is the way of the world. i don’t understand how someone could bet on a race, as there’s so many things that impact the winner, who’s wrecked, how has bad pit stops, penalties. i use to play in a fantasy league thing years and years ago, paid out at end of year based on your standings. i think pay out was $250. that draft kings that’s advertised, i thought paid out once or twice a season. but i did notice everytime racehub was on they were doing a fantasy league thing.

      my thought on spacers, just a horse of a different color, so it’s still a plate, or pseudo-plate. see how many are whiped out when the end of stage is near or end of race or weather is in the area.

      here’s my bet for the weekend…..i bet that a car will win a race with a male driver.

      :)

      • LOL that’s a safe bet Janice.

        My bet for the weekend (as you and a few others pointed out yesterday) is, rain.
        Get ready to re-watch The 500 or last year’s Atlanta race. Just think, if they would rerun a pre-2000 race, we wouldn’t mind rain delays as much.

        • Bill B – actually our forecast is slightly improving for sunday. showers on saturday night and right now a 10-20% of rain on sunday in hampton. we’ve had a lot of rain in past 2 days here in atlanta. even thunder and lightening. crazy!

  3. It might be the name of the game, but it sure stinks to see a driver get the seat bought out from under him by someone else. I’m not sure if it’s sad or satisfying when the buy-a-ride guy doesn’t run as well as the one that got tossed to the curb.

    • The only time I liked buy-a-ride was when Aric Almirola brought his Smithfield sponsorship to SHR and bumped Danica out of the #10 car.

  4. I think the Barstool promotion at the 500 was a “home run”. Even if it was just money talking, their website and personalities all said glowing things about NASCAR and the fan experience at the race. The average Barstool reader is the type of new fan NASCAR’s been courting for a while. You also had the added bonus of the NFL throwing them out of the Super Bowl creating some extra buzz.

  5. Maybe the viewer numbers were influenced by the telecast of the event running into prime time. It had to delay programs the viewers really wanted to watch.

  6. It turns out the overnight ratings were a bit overdone and in fact, the final Daytona 500 ratings were flat vs 2018 and total viewership down slightly. Given that last year’s race had competition from the Winter Olympics, you almost have to consider this year’s ratings a decline relatively speaking.

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