Did You Notice? … How quickly NASCAR pulled a role reversal on possible Sprint Cup rule changes? This time last month, we were speculating why they pulled back from testing a reduction of downforce at the All-Star Race. Turns out behind the scenes, owners and others afraid of spending money earned the edge over increasing the quality of competition.
“I think we’re still developing what the 2016 package could be,” NASCAR Vice President Steve O’Donnell said in an article to NBC Sports. “It could very well be the 2015 package. To go down a path that we felt still potentially needed testing, we didn’t think was the right thing to do. From the owner standpoint, we certainly have to manage what we’re looking at for ’15 or ’16 and manage constantly putting new rules in front of them. So that’s where we’re at today.”
What has shifted within the sport, causing Tuesday’s long-winded announcement that puts the “scrapped All-Star test” on the track at Kentucky in a matter of weeks? Let’s investigate.
1) A television ratings debacle. NASCAR has had double-digit declines in three straight races. Some of those overnights are so low, they’ve set the wrong kinds of records since their TV contract went national in 2001. Sports like golf are beating regular season NASCAR races, a sucker punch to a series that likes to claim it’s the second-most popular sport to the NFL. Unfortunately, 20+ million people watching the NBA Finals these days, as opposed to just 3.5 million catching Sunday’s race at Michigan for FOX Sports 1, tells the real story.
Increases in NBA viewership, along with NHL and the Stanley Cup may have made some bigwigs down in Daytona Beach a little nervous. The first year of a new 10-year contract should be showing the same type of increases; instead, racing’s popularity is wilting. NASCAR even lost out to the Indy 500 in the ratings, one of the few times that’s happened in the last decade.
2) Driver’s Council. The sport’s mysterious meeting with the Driver’s Council, held at Dover, seemed to turn the tide in favor of the wheelmen. As purses shrink, a result of declining attendance, drivers will be some of the first to see their salaries cut (it is a business for them, too). But there does seem to be some purity in their arguments for more competitive cars. No one wants to see a sport they’ve spent their life building up fall apart in the form of a single-file, aerodynamic mess.
There are also a limited number of Cup-ready drivers ready to man these cars (see my next DYN point below for more.) Should all of them decide to strike, the closest NASCAR has been to a union, the list of replacements are few and far between. It’s an embarrassment to the sport, who has a list of Fortune 500 companies that would drop their support in the face of such negative publicity, simply has to avoid.
That means the owners, in the form of their Race Team Alliance (RTA) seem to have less power than who they employ right now. As this dynamic develops, what other major sports have had for years score one for the players (err, drivers) early on.
3) NBC, NBC, NBC. Guess who happens to be starting their NASCAR coverage in July? NBC Sports, who has been marketing the heck out of the sport. (In their defense, $4.4 billion over 10 years should have them buying billboards on every corner). The Daytona race, held on Sunday night over July 4th weekend, should bring in big numbers on NBC. After that, coverage switches to NBC Sports Network as the series heads straight to… Kentucky. What better way to put your best foot forward than by going from one of the sport’s most exciting tracks to one where you have an unpredictable list of rule changes?
Of course, this trio of reasons does nothing to tell us whether the fixes will actually work. The list of changes includes a chopped spoiler (from 6″ to 3.5″), a wider splitter extension panel (by 25″) and less of a splitter overhang (1 3/4″ less). All of these will make the cars harder to drive, reducing downforce although they’ll be balanced by a Goodyear tire that supposedly has “better grip.”
“We feel like we’ve got a great deal of confidence in this package,” O’Donnell said Tuesday. “The teams have some data on this package, and we wouldn’t implement it if we didn’t feel confident.”
Of course, those emotions can change at a moment’s notice. Just look at the past 30 days. But in announcing the changes, O’Donnell mentioned a point that was striking, a sign of how much the sport is looking to cater at this point to an audience that has started walking away in frustration after a dull start to 2015.
“I think ultimately that’s up to the fans,” he said when asked if the Kentucky changes, currently a one-race deal, would be implemented for more races in the future. “We’ve been very, very vigilant in talking about tighter racing. I think we’ve achieved that in terms of 1st to 43rd. You see that those teams are closer than ever, but we certainly want to see more lead changes on the racetrack. We’ll evaluate not only that, but a number of different factors coming out of Kentucky and see what we can learn and potentially what we can implement down the road.”
In other words, if the fans like it? These rules will stay in place. If you guys walk away? NASCAR’s willing to throw the kitchen sink at it, owners be damned. The big question, and one we don’t have answered yet, is whether they’re willing to fund some of these changes out of their own pocket. Can a team like BK Racing survive a few million in wind tunnel tests? Can they survive 3-4 tweaks to race cars that are already years old? That’s the next question, one NASCAR needs to answer if they’re going to keep churning out a full field.
Did You Notice? … NASCAR’s aging group of stars? In an era when major athletes are barely the legal drinking age, 20-somethings dominating the sporting landscape, the Cup Series group of title contenders, is, well… older. Take a look at the 16 current drivers who qualify for this year’s Chase, along with their age by the time the series hits Homestead this November…
Kevin Harvick – 39
Martin Truex, Jr. – 35
Joey Logano – 25
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – 41
Jimmie Johnson – 40
Brad Keselowski – 31
Jamie McMurray – 39
Matt Kenseth – 43
Kasey Kahne – 35
Jeff Gordon – 44
Kurt Busch – 37
Paul Menard – 35
Denny Hamlin – 35
Carl Edwards – 36
Aric Almirola – 31
Ryan Newman – 37
AVERAGE AGE: 36.4
NASCAR talks so often about attracting its key demographic: 18-to-34 year-old fans. Well, it’s kind of hard to bring that age group to the table when you don’t have a set of drivers they can relate to. Just Logano, Keselowski, and Almirola are 18-to-34 out of this group; Logano is the only 20-something. That’s a far cry from early last decade, the sport’s period of explosive growth when Earnhardt, the Most Popular Driver led a group of “young guns” like Kenseth, Edwards and several others who connected immediately with their generation.
At some point, drivers like Kyle Larson, Cole Whitt and Austin Dillon are supposed to make the same connection. That’s hard to do, though, when you’re not even in position to make the postseason. Successful drivers attract successful fan bases; for the sport to evolve, these younger faces need to mix in with the old. Remember Gordon vs. Dale Earnhardt, Sr.? That generational rivalry, in NASCAR these days, simply doesn’t exist.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off…
– If new rules make these cars harder to drive, watch out for comebacks from Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Both are struggling veterans whose raw talent has a chance to shine when we’re starting from scratch. Bring skill back into the equation, not an engineering wind tunnel, and I expect both in Victory Lane before the Chase.
– Much will be made about fans supporting the XFINITY standalone race at Chicagoland. It’s a great chance to see young, developing talent without Cup driver interference: Austin Dillon is the only Cup full-timer running. But in a series badly in need of exposure, why place the race in the worst time slot possible (late Saturday night) at one of the series’ worst 1.5-mile ovals? Whether it’s Ryan Newman or Ryan Reed, no one’s going to watch if all they see is a single-file procession down the straightaway.