If nothing else, NASCAR enters this particular Monday morning well rested. Fresh off its last Sprint Cup off weekend, the news cycle slowed to a crawl last week as most participants were busy enjoying life elsewhere, away from the cameras on some Caribbean island. Even those who stayed at home would rather relax, mowing their yards in private during this small “vacation” stretch rather than keep hyping up a sport with a schedule that features 17 straight race weekends, zigzagging participants everywhere from Phoenix to Florida in order to crown a champion. (No, in case you’re wondering… Chicagoland, which held a Nationwide Series race on Saturday simply doesn’t count. Chase Elliott, while impressive is old news, especially when winning at a track that had more concession workers than actual fans).
The end result left NASCAR on pause, during this 24/7 news cycle with troubling information that seems to announce: Code Red. The Race Team Alliance, a formation of the nine most powerful multi-car team owners has come together with no certainty as to what they want, how they’re going to get it and whether they’re on the same page with NASCAR. (Note to self: when both sides say they’ll communicate through attorneys, while putting on public smiles, that’s never a good sign). Every Cup race this summer, except for one or two, has come paired with record low Nielsen ratings, the kind that hasn’t been seen since the sport went national with its TV contract in 2001. Silly Season tidbits, once hot and heavy have stopped cold turkey while even simply getting enough cars to show up has been a problem: Kentucky rolled off with the first 42-car grid the Cup Series had seen since November 2001.
All of this stuff has diverted from the central story that once gripped the sport this Spring, signs that what fans actually tune in for – the on-track competition – had turned a proverbial corner. The new rules package, while not perfect, has led to more side-by-side racing. A new points format, emphasizing winning in order to make the Chase, has gained traction after being initially criticized. Additional rules, like engine tweaks, are coming soon in order to strengthen parity further, as NASCAR sees their hard work pay off: increased fan attendance at some tracks is a sign people are willing to spend money if the price (and product) is right.
Stats released last week appear to back up that fan perception of better competition. 19 races in, we have an average of 11.1 leaders per race, compared to 8.8 a season ago. Lead changes are up to 24.1 per event, compared to 16.6. And the margin of victory average, down to .717 seconds is the lowest since the inception of electronic timing and scoring in 1993. Sometimes, those numbers can be deceiving but anyone who’s watched the races at Bristol, Daytona (February) and Fontana to name a few can back up the claim the racing is better in 2014.
During the recent summer stretch, we’ve lost that feeling, as too many duds in the form of bad racetracks (Kansas, Kentucky) or pit strategy (Pocono, New Hampshire) have let the “off-track” news run rampant. It’s bad enough those stories are sobering, but even worse, they’re taking center stage in the middle of July, when people should be focused, in theory, on the playoffs, and who’s in contention to win one of the sport’s crown jewels, the Brickyard 400. It’s the last chance to really make a dent on the sporting landscape before NFL Training Camps, preseason, and college football once again take back the pulse of sporting America. Instead? There’s more being written about whether Chip Ganassi, Rick Hendrick, and Roger Penske can work together to give NASCAR the middle finger and nothing about if their drivers actually are going to give a crap about the next few months before the Chase.
So if you’re looking for NASCAR to fix its problems, the answer, it seems, is exceedingly simple: focus back on the product. Indianapolis, this weekend has thrown out its share of past “wild card” winners: Paul Menard and Jamie McMurray come to mind. Then, you’ve got Watkins Glen on the calendar in August, where winless Marcos Ambrose will be a heavy favorite. That would give us at least 13 different winners, out of 16 playoff slots available with heavyweights Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, and Matt Kenseth still working to add their names to that list. The road to Richmond could be a fascinating battle of desperation, knowing the financial losses incurred by missing the Chase if the on-track competition plays out right.
Then, more than any other year NASCAR must take these last ten weeks and shine. Remember the Homestead race back in 2004? Where Kurt Busch had tire failure, just missed slamming the inside wall of pit road and came back to win the championship? We need one of those finishes, nearly every week, with each round of NASCAR’s elimination format going down to the wire. Tony Stewart needs to make the playoffs, then tangle with someone, get out of the car and get right in their face. Brad Keselowski needs to stare down Hendrick Motorsports, to try getting in their heads through us media types and then back it up by using up half that No. 2 Ford sheet metal on the side of Jimmie Johnson’s car. Jeff Gordon needs to stay in the mix, a sentimental favorite going for title number five while an unexpected contender (a Ryan Newman type, perhaps?) sneaks their way in the conversation.
I write out the potential storylines because right now, the truth is NASCAR simply doesn’t have them. That’s why the other news, concerning at best, disastrous at worst, is being repeated over and over again. With ESPN taking over this weekend, in a “lame duck” year of NASCAR live coverage, that could only get worse. The sport needs to give everyone a reason to pay attention to the positive, and they can only do that by working back towards the raw excitement their races provided from February through May, leaving fans giving standing ovations and wanting more, every week for the first time in quite awhile. For a hot second, NASCAR was on to something; it’s time to get back that lovin’ feeling to stop getting on the news for all the wrong reasons.
The drivers, then in the midst of this madness appear to be the only ones in position to turn this cycle around, from Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s last year with Steve Letarte, to the quest for anyone to match Jimmie Johnson, toe-to-toe. They’ve had a week to prepare for what’s left and in theory, it’s now up to them with 17 weeks remaining in one of the most important seasons NASCAR may ever have. Can they make the racing matter once again? Or will this off weekend be one that fans will never wake up from?
We’re about to find out.