Something remarkable happened a couple weeks ago during the Bristol Cup race. As such, I feel compelled to remark upon it since I am able.
Tyler Reddick finished fourth that evening. Chris Buescher finished eighth. Ryan Preece finished ninth, his best Cup finish to date this year. Michael McDowell left Bristol with a solid top-10 finish as well. But you might not have known that, because if any of those drivers were shown on TV during the race broadcast, it was either by accident or I missed it. None of those four drivers were among the 16 drivers who started at Bristol that evening eligible to mathematically advance into NASCAR’s all-singing, all-dancing playoffs.
The hilarity continued at Las Vegas Sunday evening. Matt DiBenedetto actually finished second. Had he won, there would have been wailing and gnashing of teeth inside the NBC trailer on site. They have prepared a script for the rest of the season that only focuses on the playoff contenders, as if the other 30 or so drivers also running out there have ceased to exist.
The Law of Conservation of Matter says those drivers couldn’t have simply just disappeared. 5-foot-10, 180-pound men can’t do that even if they learn to wiggle their noses like Samantha on Bewitched and plant their hands jauntily on their hips. Even if they could, what of the very loud 3,400-pound masses of metal and chromium steel they were piloting at the time they went missing? Well, OK, I guess there isn’t much chrome left on Cup cars these days, but I will say this: If you’ve never spent a hot summer Saturday afternoon using a can of DuPont No. 7 chrome polish to return the front bumper of your Mach One to a mirror-like sheen, you probably wasted your adolescence. When last seen, those fast, loud cars Preece et al were driving were liberally festooned with sponsorship decals. We’ll get back to that shortly.
After Bristol, four more drivers are in great danger of becoming invisible as well. Ryan Blaney, DiBenedetto, William Byron and Cole Custer failed to earn enough points to advance to the next round of the playoffs. If the process hasn’t started already, we need to do a rush job to get those four drivers faces printed on “MISSING” milk cartons. You won’t be seeing much of them going forward during NASCAR’s playoff TV broadcasts even if they do happen to run toward the front like DiBenedetto did Sunday. For the record, non-playoff contenders Blaney (finished seventh), Erik Jones (finished eighth) and Buescher (finished ninth) also managed largely unheralded top-10 results Sunday.
Their chances of a non-playoff driver winning a race are greatly hindered by NASCAR’s edict that all drivers who are still playoff eligible get to start ahead of those drivers no longer in contention for the title and to pick their pit stalls before the “also-rans” as well. In the absence of real qualifying sessions where a driver’s skill and sheer desire can earn him a starting spot up front, that’s how it’s done. Handing those drivers the prime starting spots and pit stalls seems like another instance of NASCAR giving to the rich and taking from the poor. So what you’re saying is the best 12 drivers and teams currently in the sport perhaps couldn’t pass the teams and drivers that are typically running slower this season if forced to start from the rear? Gotcha. I’m beginning to form a notion on why there’s so little on-track passing in Cup racing this year. It can be done. I’ve seen it happen with my very own two eyes. Kyle Busch was forced to start at the rear of that Bristol race and finished second after having led 159 laps. Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night …
So in a roundabout way, what I’ve been saying is that NBC doesn’t show the drivers and cars that aren’t part of the championship chase, the playoffs or whatever they want to call it these days (and amusingly enough, whether the ‘P’ in playoffs is capitalized if that’s the term that’s used).
In fact, the Wood Brothers No. 21 team has until late this week to let DiBenedetto know if he’ll be back with the team next season. One might assume his strong performance Sunday earned him a second season with the storied team.
What’s at stake here is drivers’ careers and the continued existence of some of the sport’s smaller teams. If you’ve been shopping at this five and dime a while reading my columns, we’ve talked about Joyce Julius and her magic numbers before. How does a sponsor decide whether the marketing dollars they spent on backing a NASCAR team that weekend was well spent or wasted?
Well, Ms. Joyce and her associates watch each race second by second. (Likely in super-slow-mo videotape.) They look at how long each sponsor’s logos are shown “clearly and in focus.” They add together those seconds and they turn into minutes in some instances. Whatever the total is for each team and sponsor, they then compare that to what the network that presented the race charged per minute for regular ads during the broadcast.
Let’s say a driver ran up front and he got three full minutes of broadcast time with his sponsor’s logo shown clearly and in focus. That sponsor paid the team $200,000 to run those decals for that event. The network would have charged $100,000 (to keep the numbers easy, though entirely fictional) a minute to buy ads during the broadcast, so three minutes of ads would have cost the sponsor $300,000. The sponsor got a good value for his marketing money spent on racing that weekend. Of course, the next weekend his driver Ralph D. Squirrel might crash out on the first lap and that luckless sponsor could have his logos shown clearly and in focus for only five seconds. At the same ad and sponsorship rate, that’s a disaster.
A driver’s best bet is to run better than expected up toward the front where he becomes an integral part of the story of the unfolding event. Or should be. I forget how many years ago it’s been, but Pepsi was the big sponsor of that year’s Firecracker 400. TNT (remember those guys?) had the broadcast that night. And they weren’t going to show any of the Coca-Cola sponsored drivers even if they took the lead or rolled the length of the front straightaway upside down and in flames. It was equal parts enraging and amusing to watch. (If it helps you to place what year it was, that was the same night KFC debuted their ad featuring granddad and grandson arguing over which side order to get with their chicken: mac and cheese or mashed taters with gravy. And it appeared like the two were seconds away from fists flying, so heated was the debate. Dad, that merry prankster, had gone ahead and picked up both sides but wanted them to fight a while longer before springing the surprise. Bastard. Pepsi, as it turns out, owns KFC and Taco Hell, so they were splurging that race.) That damn KFC ad ran at least a dozen times during that race.
But the most remarkable part of the disappearing drivers mystery involves one James “Jimmie” Johnson. Johnson was made for TV sports. If he hadn’t been born the networks would have had to create him. Young (back then), good-looking and talented, Johnson once won races so routinely another victory barely raised a bushy eyebrow. What was that song George Harrison wrote? “All Those Years Ago” …
After seven titles and 83 wins, Johnson certainly earned his right to be part of the discussion during race broadcasts on various networks. But some broadcasters laid it on a bit thick, all but singing love sonnets to Johnson as the cameras seemed hypnotized by the image of the No. 48 car rolling around lap after lap. It was Jimmie Johnson’s world. The rest of us just lived here.
But apparently even immortality is only fleeting these days. The start of the 2020 season (which now seems a very, very, long time ago) started off with the expected tributes to Johnson, who had announced that this year would be his last full-time season in the Cup Series. But as the winless streak lengthened to once unimaginable lengths, the summer heated up and the West Coast burned down, Johnson was featured less and less during race broadcasts. With the arguable exceptions of Dover and Martinsville, Johnson rarely seemed to have a dog in the hunt at this year’s races. In this “what have you done for me lately?” era it’s always best to accept the “lovely parting gifts” when they’re offered rather than to hang on hoping there will be cake and ice cream later.
And during the Bristol race we’re discussing here, Johnson had to wreck another driver on lap 30 to have his car shown on TV. My how the mighty have fallen. If Johnson can become invisible any other driver can as well. Gather ye rosebuds while you may …
Author’s Note: Since we’re talking about the business side of racing, soda pops and treats, there was some surprising news on the NHRA front this week. Longtime title sponsor Coca-Cola decided they were leaving the sport. Coke has been using drag racing to promote their Mello Yello brand for years. Yet they decided to exit immediately despite a title sponsor contract that runs through 2023. The NHRA alleges Coke stiffed them on a $2.86 million sponsorship check that was due in May. The NHRA sued Coke this week. Over the years I’ve found there’s no situation, personal, professional or corporate, so bad that it can’t be made worse by taking the matter to court.
Into the fray strode one Marcus Lemonis. NASCAR fans know him as the fellow who owns Camping World, the sponsor of the truck series. (Right now it’s marketed under Gander Mountain, but it goes back to Camping World next year). In a highly public Twitter message, Lemonis told the NHRA to contact him personally. He’d be interested in discussing sponsoring their racing series. Presumably in addition to the Truck Series, not instead of it. But you never can tell.
Did NASCAR recently add a new hire from IndyCar to the control tower? You’ll recall that IndyCar got some praise from purists but a lot more flak from fans for letting this year’s Indy 500 end under caution. I’m wondering why the red flag wasn’t thrown at Vegas Sunday night after the final wreck and the race ended with a green/white/checkered. Had the red flag been thrown, drivers who had lost a ton of positions when the caution flew at an awkward time would have had some laps to get some of those spots back. (How many it’s tough to say. NBCSN’s scoring pylon displayed conflicting information, but it would have been four or five laps.) And I’d argue it would have been a safer finish as well. With a GWC finish, a driver is going to go for it. I may not make it by cleanly. I probably won’t make it by without causing a big wreck, but it’s now or never.
Back in the day, some NASCAR races were allowed to end under caution too. Perhaps the most notable case was the 1998 Daytona 500, where the caution flew just as Dale Earnhardt passed Bobby Labonte en route to his first Daytona 500 win after a long series of mis-happenstances for Earnhardt on February afternoons at Daytona. There was no way Earnhardt wasn’t going to get that win in the kickoff to NASCAR’s much ballyhooed 50th Anniversary season.