Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. In the latest edition, there are some beliefs that Amy says NASCAR (and sometimes fans and media) just won’t let go of.
1. NASCAR needs to be like other sports to be successful.
This belief is one that Brian France continues to cling to, tweaking the rules and the Chase accordingly, in an attempt to attract NFL and other sports fans to NASCAR. The problem is, it’s not working. Many fans of other sports don’t care about auto racing and many probably never will, no matter what gimmicks are used to try and draw them in. Plus, the diehard race fans don’t want NASCAR to be like the stick-and-ball sports, and many choose it because it’s not like other sports. They didn’t want a “playoff” system because they knew a season-long championship worked for this sport. They didn’t need fancy graphics or special camera angles to tell the story because the racing was the story, plain and simple.
It’s understandable that NASCAR wants to have the longevity of popularity and loyalty from fans that some other spots have. But what they don’t seem to see is that they did have that. No, the numbers of fans weren’t the same as football or basketball, but fans were loyal and deeply passionate. Had the sport stayed its course in some key areas, it would likely have retained more of its old fan base, and, as it has, for generations, gotten new ones as they were brought into the fold by their parents and grandparents. In putting the casual sports fan over the longtime fan base, NASCAR made its biggest mistake, because few of the casual fans became diehards, and many of the diehards feel like the sport didn’t want them anymore.
2. Fans come to Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series races if there are Cup drivers in the field.
15 or 20 years ago, this statement may have been true as the then-Busch Series and later, the Truck Series were trying to gain an audience. But there were some key differences then. The first is that both series featured a large number of stand-alone races, and a lot of times, the Cup drivers would come to town and drive for a local owner. They’d get his car in the show, and some would have a good run. It was fun to see who might show up and race for a smaller team.
What the Cup drivers didn’t do was dominate nearly every race they entered. Some fans would like to think otherwise, that when Mark Martin was running up a record number of wins in the series, and Dale Earnhardt would come stink up a show here and there, it was the same as now when Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski are running roughshod over the series. It’s not, and here’s why. In Martin’s winningest year, 1993, he won seven of 14 starts in the Busch Series. The series raced 28 times that year, and 11 races (39%) were won by Cup regulars (Martin, Dale Earnhardt, and Michael Waltrip), with the other 17 wins staying with Busch Series drivers.
Compare that to 2013, and it’s easy to see the difference. While Martin ran half the schedule, last year Kyle Busch ran 26 of 33 races (79%) and Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano had a combined 31 NNS starts, with 30 of those in the No. 22 car. Busch won 12 races (36%), Keselowski won seven times (21%), and Logano had three victories (9%). Those three drivers alone combined for 22 wins, a whopping 67% of all races run in the series. Just five races, or 15%, were won by series regulars last season. It’s clearly not the same as the days of Martin’s success.
And a lot of fans are sick of it. If social media is an indicator of what fans are thinking, then NASCAR should be paying attention, because many, many fans are not tuning in or going to the track because they’re tired of what they feel is a race with a predetermined result. Do they want to see the Cup drivers banned from the series? No, and neither do the series regulars. What fans want is a level playing field where the Cup guys don’t have a huge advantage going in and the series regulars can beat them if they’re good enough. But that’s rarely the case because the Cup drivers garner huge sponsor deals that, for the most part, far outstrip the budgets of the NNS teams. Fans aren’t watching, and they’re not going to see the races for the Cup guys anymore.
3. A win on fuel mileage or a rain call is somehow lesser than one earned in some other way.
This one is perpetuated by fans and even some media, but it’s a cop-out. Racing isn’t simply about the best driver or the best car on any given Sunday. It’s about the best strategy, about a team putting a driver and a racecar in position to win a race. That could mean a dominating performance, it could mean keeping the car in one piece or protecting the engine while others have problems. And it could be about stretching fuel a little longer, a little better, than an opponent. A win is a win, and in NASCAR, wins don’t come cheap. Ever.
Jeff Burton used to say that his team didn’t go out to win every race, but rather to put themselves in the position to win every race. Burton knew that taking care of his equipment and racing clean and smart was important. A driver might not have the best car all day, but he can have the best calls from his crew chief which gives him the best car at the end, where perhaps he can grab a win on a green-white-checkered. Perhaps he can manage his tires better and take two on the final stop while others take four. Maybe his team reads the radar better and makes a winning gamble. And perhaps he can make a fuel run last more laps than the others. It doesn’t matter, because on that day, in that race, the guy who wins does it because he is able to do something that 42 others can’t. Beyond that, how he does it really isn’t important. You won’t hear a driver in victory lane lament that this is “only” a fuel mileage win, and his peers won’t respect him less because his win came on a better call when the rains came. Nobody else should either.
4. Every race has to have a close finish
No, it doesn’t. What every race needs to have is the finish it’s supposed to have. In other words, a race unaltered by NASCAR or anybody else. It’s easy to understand NASCAR’s thinking on a late debris caution where the leader is running away by five seconds and there’s little passing. Someone, somewhere, got the mistaken impression that every race had to be decided by inches, but that’s unrealistic.
There was a time in NASCAR’s history when many races had a single car on the lead lap at the end. A good one might have three or four. And that was okay. Fans didn’t complain about it all the time (or if they did, there was no social media to splash it all over, so it didn’t get viral). Neither did drivers. It simply was what it was.
Now, many casual fans don’t understand that not every finish is going to be a fender-banging door-to-door battle and disparage the race as boring when that’s not the ending. NASCAR has made it worse, not better, by throwing debris cautions where the debris is not shown on TV cameras and where teams aren’t reporting it on the radio. Manipulation of races isn’t the answer. Fans have to understand the reality of the sport.
5. The racing was better “back in the day.”
Well, sometimes it was, that’s true. But sometimes it wasn’t. There were some great finishes, some great stories of amazing feats (not all of them exactly NASCAR legal), and some clunkers, too, like the aforementioned races with one guy on the lead lap. It wasn’t perfect by any means. There were some good races and some not-so-good races in any era of the sport. It’s like that in every sport, a universal truth.
What was better, then? Why do race fans and media wax nostalgic all the time? Well, the cars were stock cars in a day when car culture was still strong in America. Many people today don’t have the same love affair with cars in general as folks once did. Many see cars as simply utilitarian, a way to get from point A to point B via the fastest route the GPS can muster. They don’t just enjoy the drive, don’t love their cars.
In those days, the France family ruled the sport with what was, if anything, more of an iron fist than today. But the drivers, to a point, were respected. Fans were respected. It was still about the money, but it didn’t seem so greedy.
It was also easier to relate to the drivers because they seemed more like the guy next door than a corporate shill. Fans could relate to them better than they can relate to the millionaire drivers today. While not every driver back then came up with no money or help, and not every driver today had a silver spoon, they are two different breeds. The blue-collar drivers of the old days were, perhaps, easier to warm up to. Fans were forgiving of mistakes and even of creative engineering (and if you think it goes on now, do some reading on what was going on then! Chad Knaus had nothing on those guys) because these were regular guys who they looked up to.
So, while there were many reasons that NASCAR’s golden years were different, maybe better, the racing alone isn’t the reason why.