NASCAR Race Weekend Central

e4 Burning Questions: A Look Back on the Pro Invitational Series

Was the Pro Invitational Series a Success?

The NASCAR Pro Invitational Series will hold its final scheduled race this Saturday. On a date where NASCAR was originally planning on holding the first night race in Martinsville Speedway history, it will instead be sanctioning its first race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, albeit a virtual version, in almost 25 years.

Ultimately, the series has achieved its goals. There was at least something on for FOX to broadcast this spring. However, looking back on these past six races really brings a lot of what-ifs when it comes to its overall success.

It’s fine to have fun when broadcasting a race. It’s fast racecars going around in circles, not the ballet. But broadcasting races need to have at least some level of seriousness and professionalism, and often, FOX lost sight of that in its broadcasts.

All you’re telling people when cutting to Clint Bowyer joking about wrecking somebody or Larry McReynolds eating ice cream in the FOX studio is that this is a circus that nobody is taking seriously, so why should the viewer? No wonder Dover International Speedway only had 900,000 viewers.

There wasn’t really any long-term thought put into this series. Mike Joy constantly stressing to the viewer that, “There’s no points on the line!” can be easily translated as, “There’s no point to these races!” If this series had points, as The Circuit Journal has calculated, Timmy Hill would be entering this final race with an 11-point lead on William Byron. Maybe FOX could have spent the week previewing the championship battle, “all of it leading to this!” and all of the other promos it could have ran on social media. But no, Byron isn’t even entered for this race, because the series doesn’t matter.

Rules constantly changed and were tinkered with. NASCAR and FOX are so obviously experimenting with this top 10 inversion for the start of the race, which is fine, but the very same week they introduced that they introduced the rule that the top three finishers the previous week must start in the back. So now you’re confusing the viewer even more with two inversions in a race?

The field size has always been just pure politics. Who is in, who is out, who isn’t locked in, who the network wants in. The biggest fiasco was the race at Bristol Motor Speedway, which saw caution after caution, almost entirely due to drivers not taking thing seriously due to have two quick repair resets. Instead of doing some critical thinking (more cars wrecking at the start of the race means less wrecks during the race), FOX decided it just couldn’t have 30 cars at Richmond Raceway a couple of weeks later.

It took Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulling a power play for FOX to change its mind on that and finally go with no quick fixes for that race. And Richmond ended up being easily the best race of the series. It has since followed up with having quick fixes in every race after Richmond, because FOX is FOX and has no clue what it is doing. And don’t get me started on the tiny broadcast windows FOX gave itself due to having 20-minute pre-race shows. You’re telling me socially distanced horse racing is a better draw in ratings than virtual NASCAR racing? Get out of here with that.

What should FOX/NASCAR have done with the series?

It’s very easy to understand what NASCAR and FOX should have done: just following IndyCar and NBC’s lead. That series was great because it felt like the races mattered because NBC didn’t treat it like a clown show, at least before Santino Ferrucci decided to be an annoying little Santino Ferrucci and NBC sided with him for whatever dumb reason.

There should have been no resets at all. Wreck your racecar? Have a hardware issue? Tough luck, that’s racing. Fields should have been 40 cars, with full-time Cup drivers getting first dibs and the rest of the positions on the grid being determined by qualifying races. Points should have been a thing from day one, because then you’re actually building to something instead of just running seven straight exhibitions.

Finally, can we get some more varied racetracks? Did Texas Motor Speedway really need a week to itself? It’s cool that North Wilkesboro is coming back, but there should have been a race at Rockingham Speedway, a 200-lapper at Lucas Oil Raceway, maybe even a fresh road course race at Road America. Not retread Cup tracks like Texas or Dover.

All in all, the series was a success in spite of itself. It could have and should have been so much more than it has ended up being. Due to incompetence, instead of turning this into a regular thing, the series is going to go out with a whimper and will e forgotten about in a few years’ time. I just feel bad for Hill, because he really should have come out of this with so much more momentum and attention than what he’s actually going to get.

What in the world will happen at North Wilkesboro Speedway?

All that being said, there is a race this weekend. At North Wilkesboro. Which is pretty damn cool.

We’re looking at a .625-mile short track. Of the drivers in the field, only two (Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte) have any real-life Cup experience on this oval. 14-degree banking makes this North Carolina track rather flat in the turns, but the unique part of this venue is just how hilly it is. The backstretch goes slightly uphill, while the frontstretch goes slightly downhill.

This is going to be a very unusual race. The North Wilkesboro build on iRacing has not been released to the public; the track was scanned in the fall after a clean-up and campaign by Earnhardt, and it said to be released at some point next month. So this is a track where really the only way a driver could get any kind of track time would be to hop on NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, the precursor to iRacing, and turn some laps on a modded-in North Wilkesboro in an old 2003-era Cup car. Not very ideal.

The favorite is probably going to end up being Hill. He’s been very good in this series at all different kinds of ovals, and he’s just a really adaptable driver on this service. Gordon has had the most success of any driver in the field at this racetrack, but that was 25 years ago, and an in-studio FOX driver really can’t be trusted to win.

Is Richard Petty Motorsports being sold?

Last week, Richard Petty Motorsports majority owner and steward of the Petty kingdom Andrew Murstein held a first quarter earning call for his company, Medallion Financial Corporation.

There, Murstein said, “And NASCAR, we’ll keep our options open if we can get a nice offer to sell it, we’d certainly entertain that,” which is, um, not a great thing to say. Murstein also said that RPM has been break-even or profitable the last couple of seasons. It better be at this point; it’s based in the old Richard Childress Racing truck shop and has the No. 43 charter, which is one of the oldest and therefore most valuable in the sport.

To be fair to Murstein, he later clarified that he’s not really interested in selling.

On the outside looking in, however, RPM doesn’t seem like a well-run organization. Since Medallion bought the team in late 2010, it’s made some very questionable decisions. The highlights include keeping Drew Blickensderfer on-and-off as a Cup crew chief for six years. You know, the guy who couldn’t make the playoffs with Matt Kenseth after winning the first two races of that season, and has had just six non-Daytona International Speedway or -Talladega Superspeedway top-five finishes since leaving Kenseth?

It hired Brian Scott as a driver one year. Remember that guy? How about Sam Hornish Jr. starting his lone season off like crap, so it swapped out Blickensderfer for Kevin “Bono” Manion, who was so in-demand it plucked him from Tommy Baldwin Racing? Anybody remember how Aric Almirola dragged it to a good season in 2017 despite breaking his back, and how the team rewarded Almirola’s sponsor Smithfield by informing it that Bubba Wallace would be the new driver? And how offended it got when Smithfield responded by saying it was leaving the team, which Smithfield then responded to with one of the most infamous press releases of all time?

So no, Murstein really shouldn’t be given the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure a lot of owners would consider an offer if, say, Jeff Bezos were to walk into its shop one day and offer it a billion to sell. Maybe not Roger Penske, but just about every other owner would at least think about it. But it would never say something like that publicly and unprompted. Why? Because it understands that just saying it brings rumors and gossip. It makes it harder to sign and maintain talent, both at the racetrack and in the shop. It brings morale down, which is already pretty damn low to begin with thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but why should employees stay motivated if the boss is trying to merge or get out?

And to be clear, absolutely none of this is Wallace’s fault. RPM finally found a great crew chief for him in Jerry Baxter, and through the first four races, his average finish is seven positions higher than last year. I’m just hoping the steward of Petty’s kingdom doesn’t ruin a good thing with his words.

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