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Did You Notice? … NASCAR's Safe Zone, Small Market Blues And Quick Hits

*Did You Notice?…* NASCAR, and Goodyear don't understand the price of \"playing it safe?\" For the answer, we turn to one of the NBA's most \"beloved\" champions, the San Antonio Spurs, who the sport's commissioner once called a team that could do no wrong. Led by a player with a squeaky clean resume, Tim Duncan (and David Robinson before that) there once seemed a time where \"sin\" was not a word anyone on the 12-man roster had in their vocabulary. Every one was considered a model citizen; the biggest controversy in the local paper concerned who lost an after practice game of H-O-R-S-E. It's that type of bonding that will put you over the top, executives figured, and they were right. <div style=\"float:right; width:250px; margin: 20px; border: black solid 1px; padding: 3px;\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/7973.jpg\" width=\"250\" height=\"351\"/><p style=\"margin: 3px; text-align: left; font-weight:bold;\">NASCAR President Mike Helton's message to drivers this season? \"Be positive, 100% of the time.\" But is being 100% devoid of conflict and controversy what people are really looking for?</p></div> There was only one problem with this juggernaut of a franchise; no one, outside of the city of San Antonio wanted to give them the time of day. It seemed NBA fans, for all their hype about wanting positivity couldn't be more uninterested when it actually happened. The \"good guys\" were the \"boring guys,\" in the eyes of too many and a story like LeBron James redeeming himself, down in Miami or the rivalries created by Kobe Bryant ended up attracting more popularity. The act of overcoming adversity, the drama of bad turned good put more people in front of the couch. How does this theory apply to the here and now? Tire compounds, especially the last two Goodyear have brought to the table are designed to \"play it safe.\" They're in the business to bore, focused on not falling off and without the type of catastrophic, on-track wear-and-tear we're used to. Goodyear, by doing that feels that fans, even if there's less of them will have more trust in their tires off the racetrack and buy them based on reliability. But isn't loyalty towards a product maintained in NASCAR no matter what happens in the races themselves? I didn't see people buy less Tide, back in the day because Cal Wells' No. 32 car crashed all the time. You've got to believe any reasonable person understands a tire is going to blow, at times under race conditions. So which is better: a softer compound that is riskier, one you have to manage but attracts more passing (and fans?) Or the \"goody two shoes\" type of compound, rock hard that never falls off and is one you can run for 200 laps, without fail. The \"San Antonio Spurs\" compound, if you will. The same thing can apply with the drivers, in the wake of Denny Hamlin's fine who are expected to be more politically correct than Barack Obama in front of a child. You'll hear what they're programmed to say, they'll hide what their first reaction tells them to do and the end result is, well, a bunch of robotic responses. Will that attract more fans, less drama and more positivity to the point we're watching _Sesame Street_ instead of sports? Or do people need the emotion and raw, human reaction of what's happening to keep them entertained? For the answer, we look to what was hyped at Phoenix just a few weeks ago. It wasn't all the drivers saying how nice the Gen-6 car was handling. It was the anger felt by both Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon, last November and if their personal vendetta was going to heat up again. With a \"San Antonio Spurs\" mentality, playing it safe there was nothing to market – nothing for the fans to hang their hat on emotionally. Just something to think about as we head to a Bristol where, other than Gordon-Bowyer we're not necessarily looking for any fireworks so far in 2013. Everything is tame, seemingly as NASCAR wants it. They're \"playing it safe;\" that'll certainly collect you a check. But does that limit the amount, if any the sport can grow? *Did You Notice?…* There’s an intriguing trend going on within NASCAR’s Nielsen numbers? Let me explain; television ratings are measured in what’s basically a two-step process. Step one is the overnights, measured from the metered markets like New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia. These are major cities, where the feedback is instant and you're not waiting, say for some mailed in envelope straight from a farm. Step two, or the final ratings numbers come in later and take all 210 media markets, even the smallest of rural towns into account. The sport of stock car racing has always depended on that \"second round;\" with so many fans, based in the south living away from major metropolitan areas a half-point bump in the ratings was almost a given. But one of the interesting surprises in 2013 is it just hasn't been happening; in fact, the small market numbers even _hurt_ the total for the biggest race of all, this year's Daytona 500. Bumps at Phoenix and Las Vegas, while positive were also significantly smaller than expected. So what gives? It looks like the \"new fan base\" giving the sport a try, at least within the first few weeks have their roots walking the city streets. That makes sense, considering the most criticism you hear surrounding a newcomer like Danica Patrick comes from the \"good ol' boy\" southern sector who don't think she's the woman that will break in effectively. Patrick, for all the criticism sent her way has the capacity to bring in casual fans. A guy from New York City, used to the more sophisticated open-wheel series and who maybe saw a commercial with her in it will be quick to take a glance at the sport. The danger there, of course, is that those fans lose interest after the first few weeks, move elsewhere and then NASCAR has lost a strong connection with its roots. Could that be exactly what's happening? *Did You Notice?…* Some quick hits before we take off… - Fans contact me all the time complaining about some of the sponsor \"gimmicks\" that permeate the sport. The latest one, this week surrounding Michael Waltrip Racing's new \"social media girls\":http://www.twitter.com/MWRGirls/ whose primary responsibility, besides looking pretty is to give fans a behind-the-scenes look at a race weekend. (This venture now pairs with Christmas Abbott, the good-looking female CrossFit trainer turned pit crew member for Clint Bowyer. Looks like Waltrip, if he can't be the sideshow is determined to make one. But I digress.) Fans, to say the least were unimpressed by what they claim was little more than an off-track, unnecessary publicity stunt. While you're at it, why don't you add me to that \"over the top\" category; do we really need something like that to draw people in? In theory, the number of vocal complaints I've gotten would lean towards a resounding \"no.\" Except, as I tell people all the time it's one thing to complain… another to actually act on those complaints. As it stands, already these girls have over 1,900 girls on Twitter and keep growing. The more that number inflates, the more people will copycat the concept so don't be surprised to see \"PenskeGirls\" show up in the near future. - As Michael McDowell told me Tuesday, an extra $100,000 is no longer enough to run a race the distance on bare bones funding. His estimate? $150,000. I mention this figure because I remember a conversation, distinctly with Kevin Buckler of TRG Motorsports three years ago in which his race-by-race cost of doing business was roughly half that. So for the small teams, in three years your expenses have doubled? That's a business model which should concern anyone, let alone a sport struggling for sponsorship. \"BOWLES: 1-ON-1 WITH MICHAEL McDOWELL\":http://www.frontstretch.com/tbowles/42560/ *Connect with Tom!* <a href=\"http://www.twitter.com/NASCARBowles\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/6502.jpg\"></a><br> \"Contact Tom Bowles\":http://www.frontstretch.com/contact/14345/ Read More »

Side-by-side – Bruton Smith threw bad money after good by grinding the top of the race surface at Bristol

In the Summer of 2007, Bruton Smith spent a truck load of money to put truck loads of new surface onto the race track at Bristol Motor Speedway. Not only was a new surface put in place but variable banking that allowed drivers to, say it with me, RUN SIDE-BY-SIDE competitively on a half mile race track. Unheard of in the modern era of NASCAR, fans were allowed to see people on the outside at Bristol actually make passes and advance their position. Better yet, they were able to pass people without having to at least shove them out of the way or at worst, wreck them to get by. Races were filled with two and three wide racing throughout the pack for laps on end without detriment to one lane or the other. Somehow, that irritated or bored fans to a point that more than a third of them stopped coming to see the races there. As a result, Bruton Smith ground down the banking at the top of the track and attempted to return the single grove bump, dump and wreck racing back to the facility. Thanks to Smith at least trying to bring the old parade back to town, the track was nearly sold out last August for the Night Race at Bristol. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your perspective, the drivers figured out that they could make the top groove work and the race ended up being a two groove race still. While the race was fantastic from start to finish and the ending was edge of the seat theater, the number of cautions was limited and almost know cars were wrecked. As a result, the jury is still out on whether the fans will like the new surface more than the altered surface before the grinding. From where I sit, which was near the top of the grandstands in turn two last Summer, there is nothing more enjoyable that watching cars racing side-by-side with first one and then the other gaining slight advantages each lap. The great thing about Richmond is that a driver can get to the inside of another competitor but has to struggle to complete the pass because they can't use the whole race track. That never ending battle to gain the inches necessary to eventually complete the pass is why Richmond is still one of the best race tracks anywhere. When Bruton Smith added the progressive banking to Bristol, he put the track on the same plane as Richmond and the racing became fantastic from the front to the back and everywhere in between. With the ground top of the track, the surface at Bristol is offering enough grip up top to give drivers an advantage running up there, but going to the bottom won't give the drivers enough of an advantage to make a pass so the race is going to lend itself to a single groove, it will just be around the top now instead of the bottom. Close racing and passing are the two things that make for great races. With the varying degrees of banking the “old†new Bristol had allowed drivers to run on all three lanes around the track and make passes in any of them. The drivers could pass someone on the top at one point in a run then on the bottom another part and finally in the middle at yet another point. However the drivers were running, and wherever they were running, they put on a fantastic race and did it all without tearing up a bunch of race cars. And that is the rub right there. Based on the statement made by fans with their wallets and their keyboards, they don't want to see racing at Bristol, they want to see wrecking. If what you want to see is cars destroyed for no reason, then the “new†new Bristol is more for you than the old one. I'll stick with cars running in three lanes on a half mile race track with any of them having a chance to win. Read More »

Five Points to Ponder: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly Of NASCAR Parity

After a two-race swing, far away from home the Sprint Cup Series leaves the golden hues of the western states behind and returns to its more noted environments this week. The upcoming race at Bristol, one of NASCAR's most popular ovals will be the second since the latest tinkering of the track, its first run with the Gen-6 car. Concerns like aero push should fall by the wayside, replaced with the beating and banging that many hope for may, in fact, actually happen. But as we tackle Five Points To Ponder this Tuesday, wrapping up Las Vegas while beginning to look ahead, one enduring theme of 2013 shines through: predictions on the health of this car are tricky business. *ONE: Bristol Might Be Tame* <div style=\"float:right; width:275px; margin: 20px; border: black solid 1px; padding: 3px;\"> <img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/11826.jpg\" width=\"275\" height=\"183\"/><p style=\"margin: 3px; text-align: left; font-weight:bold;\">Will this \"new\" Bristol, in its first race under the daylight with \"grounded\" pavement produce the type of event fans are looking for?</p></div> Yes, the newest \"repave\" has left half-a-groove less, at least for drivers to navigate Bristol's high banks. That's led to a high level of anticipation for Sunday; the August event, sprinkled with wrecks gave a glimpse of how Thunder Valley used to strike. But with the drivers and crew chiefs still figuring out what makes the Gen-6 car tick, it would not be surprising if there were long green flag runs at Bristol Sunday. That doesn’t mean that the race will be lame or that nothing will happen, but many might use a good portion to simply \"learn how\" with this chassis and what to adjust. Throw in the notion that the drivers are still working with the latest changes and there’s potential for some good ol’ follow the leader conservatism. A second reason why some drivers may be hesitant to stick their proverbial noses into any messy situations is that teams are still building these cars. Roush may be a rich organization, but even it has to be stung by losing five chassis before the second race of the year. Remember, too that some of the small teams, like Front Row Motorsports, Phil Parsons Racing and others are facing cash flow parts problems of a different sort, either through tearing up equipment or simple lack of availability. Those issues, as the season progresses seem to be lessening but that doesn’t mean organizations have the full complement of autos in their arsenals yet. *TWO: More, Please* The use of the thermo-cam at the Las Vegas race was tasty. It offered a different way of looking at the cars and also gave some insight about an aspect of competition that is often mentioned but hard to describe: temperatures. FOX should not be shy about using this device in the future, the latest twist towards a surprising new theme for them this season: creativity. With the incorporation of the gyro-cam and now this one, there has finally been some innovation with regards to the race broadcast. One of the things that has made the television coverage stale (and there’s many), has been the lack of change. The most information that seems to be given are lap times, but how about 10-lap averages? Or how about showing how drivers choose different lines and how they make up or lose time? It’s the information age and it’s time to start inundating viewers with it; the thermo-cam is a move towards this idea. *THREE: Winners* Chevrolet, Ford and now Toyota have all won races this year. That’s not bad, three for three. With Dodge no longer running, there’s no chance to go four for four. Oh well. It has, however, been good to see that one organization and manufacturer has not gone out and won all the races. Had that occurred, there’s a good chance that someone would be complaining that one make has an inherent advantage due to its body style. For right now, that can be ignored. But for those who thought that the Gen-6 might bring some parity… p'shaw. One look at the Las Vegas results shows that the top organizations are right where they want to be. The highest ranking small team finished 20th, with Kurt Busch driving for Furniture Row – though that’s pretty much a Childress car. So how about Austin Dillon driving for Finch at 21st? That works, but shows how far the gap is. You'd think a new set of rules will make things closer, but instead, the opposite is true: the guys writing the biggest checks with the best opportunity to develop equipment will get ahead of the curve. *FOUR: Tires* Not the tire talk already. Um, yup. The race at Phoenix showed some issues with the Goodyears. But the race at Las Vegas shows that NASCAR's only rubber supplier still has some fiddling to do. When taking on four proves to have no advantage over someone who took two, then something is clearly not working. <div style=\"float:right; width:200px; margin:20px; padding-left:20px;\"> <object classid=\"clsid:d27cdb6e-ae6d-11cf-96b8-444553540000\" codebase=\"http://fpdownload.macromedia.com/pub/shockwave/cabs/flash/swflash.cab#version=7,0,0,0\" width=\"160\" height=\"200\" align=\"middle\"> <param name=\"allowScriptAccess\" value=\"sameDomain\" /> <param name=\"movie\" value=\"/poll/poll.swf?pollid=2134&owner=phpjabbers.com&phpurl=/poll/\" /> <param name=\"quality\" value=\"high\" /> <param name=\"bgcolor\" value=\"#ffffff\" /> ... Read More »

Going By The Numbers: New Driver, New Team, Better NASCAR Results?

Jumping from one successful team to another is always a major decision and rarely anything but a risk. While opportunity could certainly exist at the end of the rainbow, misfortune could also lurk around the corner, rearing its ugly head at all possible occasions and causing one to wish they had stayed put.<div style=\"float:right; width:275px; margin: 20px; border: black solid 1px; padding: 3px;\"> <img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/15530.jpg\" width=\"275\" height=\"184\"/><p style=\"margin: 3px; text-align: left; font-weight:bold;\">Matt Kenseth has been looking pretty racy in his new ride. Is that typical when a driver switches?</p></div> Three races into the 2013 season, I think Matt Kenseth is already fairly proud of his decision to shake things up. After a career spent at Roush Fenway Racing, ranging over a decade the 2003 NASCAR champion left the organization that gave him his first shot in favor of Joe Gibbs Racing and its No. 20 Toyota. The move wasn't exactly frowned upon, but it did cause discussion within the NASCAR ranks. After all, Kenseth wasn't struggling at Roush; in fact, his final season in the No. 17 Ford produced three wins and a seventh in the final point standings. Not a bad year. Turns out the 41-year-old is proving he has the foresight to make some fairly nice decisions. Along with last weekend's win at Las Vegas, Kenseth placed seventh at Phoenix and led 86 laps at Daytona before retiring with engine failure. It's as though a fire has been lit under this veteran, one that could threaten to smoke the rest of the competition in 2013. It's rare to see a competitor win another championship so many years after his last, but he's off to a good start. If Kenseth wants to score that title, though recent history actually isn't on his side. Since 2000, the highest points finish for a driver in a brand new ride is second, and that was literally only just accomplished – Clint Bowyer took the runner-up spot in 2012 after moving to Michael Waltrip Racing from Richard Childress Racing. In fact, the recent trend is much the opposite. Before Bowyer, ringing in one's new ride with some championship style results wasn't exactly too common. Kasey Kahne's debut season with Hendrick Motorsports saw him fourth last season, and Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman broke in the new organization with sixth- and ninth-place finishes in 2009, respectively while Mark Martin ran runner-up with Hendrick Motorsports. Kyle Busch scored 10th by 2008's end in his new Joe Gibbs Racing ride. But none of those drivers (even Martin, who ran light years behind Jimmie Johnson that year) were true contenders for the big title when it counted. The last person to finish with NASCAR's championship hardware, in their first season with a new team was Darrell Waltrip, driving for Junior Johnson in 1981. Actually, if there's anyone's season Kenseth wants his 2013 to follow, it might be Busch when he came over to Gibbs. Despite a modest showing in the points, he won eight races, finished in the top five 17 times and earned 21 top-10s. Let's go with the wins and accolades of Busch over the consistency and subsequent points finish of Bowyer. At the very least, chances are Kenseth – and Joey Logano, the other high profile defector in 2013 – will slightly improve on his 2012 season, which if you'll recall wasn't that bad to begin with. One of the only marked cases of a major step down in results after joining a new team is Kurt Busch, whose 2006 campaign with Penske Racing is one he'd probably soon forget – a win, seven top-fives and 12 top-10s after 3-9-18 in those stat categories the previous year while driving for Roush Fenway Racing. The same rings true for Jamie McMurray, who replaced Busch at Roush that year. He only managed three top-fives and seven top-10s, placing a lousy 25th in the overall standings. That's a major drop from his 12th the year before with Ganassi. A first year in the new digs is mostly thought of as a trial period, or an intro. You're not expected to go HAM on the season, but there's the expectation of major results in subsequent years. If anything, drivers want to see something better than what they had with the old organization, if they left on their own accord. Most guys haven't had a tough time besting prior results, and Matt Kenseth looks to be accomplishing more of the same, if the first three races are any indication. Heck, I'm more interested in seeing what Joey Logano can do in the No. 22 for Penske. While not a huge factor in 2012, he at least won a race. Now? No good results of which to speak of. Well, he _is_ with Penske, and if you'll recall Kurt Busch's \"meh\" results during his debut in the No. 2 a few paragraphs ago… maybe there's a trend? *Connect with Kevin!* <a href=\"http://www.twitter.com/surfwax83\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/6502.jpg\"></a><a href=\"http://facebook.com/surfwaxamerica\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/6501.jpg\"></a><br> \"Contact Kevin Rutherford\":http://www.frontstretch.com/contact/37802/ Read More »

Who's Hot / Who's Not in NASCAR: Las Vegas-Bristol Edition

With three races in the books, the NASCAR season has now kicked into high gear. The completion of an early West Coast tour, plus the running of the Great American Race has given organizations tons of Gen-6 information on a variety of track types. But for several teams, serious questions remain unanswered this season after watching their drivers struggle to maintain control throughout the day at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Intermediates make up the majority of the 36-race schedule; struggle here, and you're stuck in purgatory for up to 40 percent of the season. So where are we at? Here’s a look at whose left standing in the Sprint Cup Series, heading to Bristol and who has serious ground to make up at Thunder Valley.<div style=\"float:right; width:275px; margin: 20px; border: black solid 1px; padding: 3px;\"> <img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/15529.jpg\" width=\"275\" height=\"178\"/><p style=\"margin: 3px; text-align: left; font-weight:bold;\">Matt Kenseth burned it up at Las Vegas, earning him the top spot in Who's Hot/Who's Not.</p></div> *HOT* Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday dear <b>Matt Kenseth</b>! Now you’re on top of <b>Who’s Hot and Who’s Not</b>! Winning in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 means that Matt Kenseth has recorded his first victory with Joe Gibbs Racing and made some history in the process, joining a select group of drivers to accomplish a rare birthday feat. The 41-year-old now sits alongside the legendary Cale Yarborough and JGR teammate Kyle Busch as the only Sprint Cup drivers to visit Victory Lane on the anniversary of their big day. Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff gambled on a fuel-only stop that propelled the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota to the lead during yellow flag pit stops with roughly 40 laps to go. Once the caution was lifted, Kenseth assumed the point and held off a tenacious charge from Kasey Kahne to claim the spoils. After the cool-down lap, Kenseth aligned his Camry facing the tri-oval wall and blew celebratory burnout smoke into the grandstands. It's a fine metaphor for how he's been smoking the competition to start 2013. Unwrapping the special first-place finish vaulted him up to seventh in the standings, a pleasant gift after Daytona 500 engine troubles left the driver in an early hole. So far this season, the newest member to the team's got 128 laps led - which paces all drivers - and has shown speed at each variety of track on the circuit. Could a second title, ten years after the first be in the offing? Earning an honorary mention is the man who nearly spoiled Kenseth’s birthday. The No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet appeared to be the dominant car at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – leading the way for a total of 114 laps – before crossing the line in second place. <b>Kasey Kahne</b> might have headed this week’s list if it weren’t for late pit road troubles that restarted the Hendrick driver sixth after the penultimate caution. Yes, he's not where he wants to be in points but the No. 5 car was a Daytona 500 contender before Kyle Busch's bumper ended those \"Super Bowl\" hopes. Kahne's also part of a Hendrick Motorsports stable that, with Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. have shown they're a step ahead with NASCAR's Gen-6. While Kenseth and Kahne raced in a league of their own, <b>Brad Keselowski</b> came home in the third position. Seeing the defending champion’s name in the HOT category has become commonplace, especially now that he’s the only driver who’s 3-for-3 on top-four finishes. The reigning champ, second in points has started off his title defense sizzling. *WARM* One more week in the desert sun turned out to be just what the doctor ordered for <b>Kyle Busch</b> after struggling in Phoenix last week. A wonky day turned out OK for Rowdy, who posted a fourth-place finish at his home venue. The Sin City native flirted with the lead early before a pit road speeding penalty left him in danger of going a lap down. From there, he quickly became one of FOX’s \"Biggest Movers,\" an upward trend that culminated in an appearance at the front of the pack with less than 60 laps remaining. Busch’s rollercoaster ways are also reflected in the manner his position in the standings has fluctuated, rising 16 spots up to 17th in points. The key for him, going forward is for both he and the team, with Toyota's motor woes to stop shooting themselves in the foot. <b>Mark Martin</b> may not make the headlines quite like his on-track opposite, Mr. Busch. At 54 years of age, he's not even running a full-time schedule. So why is he deserving of a WARM mention, despite middling finishes of 21st and 14th during NASCAR’s West Coast escapades? The 31-year veteran (yeah, he’s that old) part-timer is still just as competitive and consistent as others who were born long after Martin’s rookie season back in ‘81. Plus, he now temporarily bows out while Brian Vickers pilots the \"Lucky Dog\" at Bristol Motor Speedway next weekend – queue Martin’s inevitable freefall down the standings – making this Tuesday an appropriate time to include him. If not for poor pit strategy at Phoenix, which left the car back in traffic the results might actually be much better. *COOL* The No. 15 5-Hour Energy Toyota started the day second on the starting grid after posting speedy times during practice leading up to the main event. But for <b>Clint Bowyer,</b> it quickly became apparent the MWR machine wasn’t to his liking. Bowyer was at the forefront of a sizable group of drivers complaining about extreme loose conditions immediately after the drop of the green flag. The setup seemed so far off that it appeared the team had prepared his ride for a different speedway, reminiscent of owner \"Michael Waltrip’s infamous commercial.\":http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=po0Of1PePRM An unscheduled stop on lap 18 would prove that the sensation brought about by a self-diagnosed flat tire was actually caused by the car’s poor handling. That decision to pit under green would be a costly one, leaving Bowyer two laps down – a position he would never fully recover from – before managing a 27th-place finish. Yes, last year's runner-up is still ninth in the standings but that type of run at NASCAR's bread and butter has to concern MWR. So far this season, Bowyer is on pace to lead just 12 laps compared to 388 a year ago and hasn't been in position to run up front. ... Read More »

What Does NASCAR Want: Candid Answers Or Sponsor Whores?

Let’s build NASCAR’s perfect driver. What would he look like? What would he act like? What would he say? I envision him being something like Michael Waltrip, but with a better on-track resume. He’d climb from his car after playing follow the leader for 300 laps, or after flipping, end-over-end at Daytona or Talladega and say, “That sure was fun. I have such a blast racing these cars. I want to thank Aaron's — where you can rent or lease for only $20 — 5-Hour Energy, NAPA, Peak Antifreeze, (16 other sponsors), Sprint and most of all NASCAR.†<div style=\"float:right; width:250px; margin: 20px; border: black solid 1px; padding: 3px;\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/14928.jpg\" width=\"250\" height=\"367\"/><p style=\"margin: 3px; text-align: left; font-weight:bold;\">\"Can I say that?\" Why does Denny Hamlin have to ask himself \"that question\" during every media appearance? </p></div> Follow that up with a smile and a stupid joke and you have an interview. Now, when I said NASCAR’s perfect driver, I meant the one the sport is looking for. He might not work for the rest of us. The rest of us seem to value honesty. It’s one of our inherent flaws. Last Sunday, in a refreshing turn from the usual monotony of driver interviews, Denny Hamlin made some off-the-cuff remarks mildly criticizing the new Generation 6 car. By NASCAR's reaction, you would have thought a North Korean criticized the country’s nuclear missile program. Hamlin was fined $25,000 for stating that the car needed some work — fans at home already knew this criticism before the interview. Had Hamlin been NASCAR’s perfect driver, he would’ve immediately issued an apology, said something great about the car and the racing, and paid the fine. Lesson learned, right? Not so much. He said he wouldn’t pay. “Ultimately, I'm not OK with it,†Hamlin said. “This is the most upset and angry I've been in a really, really long time about anything … anything that relates to NASCAR. The truth is what the truth is. I don't believe in this. I'm never going to believe in it. As far as I'm concerned, I'm not going to pay the fine. If they suspend me, they suspend me. I don't care at this point.†Hamlin also said he was done talking about the racing and the car for the rest of the year. What should reporters ask you about Denny? The weather? The stock market? Housing prices? NASCAR fined Hamlin to try and protect its public image and it did more harm than good. Now, a driver that is expected to contend for a championship is going to be extra careful every time a reporter is near. Why? Simply because Hamlin climbed from his car at Phoenix after running single-file for most of the day and said what we were all thinking. He told the truth. Honesty clearly has no place in NASCAR these days. Instead, it’s \"push the product that the governing body is pushing,\" or else. Share your opinion as long as it parallels our own. Unfortunately, it’s this kind of leadership combined with an ever-changed sponsorship landscape that has drivers sounding more like robots than people. The nice thing about Hamlin’s response last Sunday was he thought about the question being asked and let us all know how he felt, and probably even held back a little. That’s become a rarity, though. A typical interview is more like: *Reporter:* Could you describe the racing out there? *Driver:* Well, the Aflac-Fastenal Ford Fusion was really fast. Jimmy Fennig did a great job setting up this car and we get great engines from Roush Fenway… (I’m not throwing Carl Edwards under the bus. It was just an example.) It’s an automated response. Much of that is the direct result of the demands of sponsors, who want drivers mentioning their brands each time they speak because they are pouring absurd amounts into the teams. They also don’t want their \"spokespeople\" saying or doing anything controversial (I’m talking about you, Kyle Busch). And on top of all that, NASCAR is policing opinions, so drivers are even more on eggshells. The end result is fans at home don’t feel they have anyone they connect with, particularly young people and new viewers looking for a new face to follow. According to the _Sports Business Journal,_ NASCAR saw a 25 percent ratings drop in the 18-to-34-year-old demographic last year. No kidding. ... Read More »

Couch Potato Tuesday: FOX's Pre-Race - Not In-Race - Coverage Concern

Hello, race fans. Welcome back to Couch Potato Tuesday, where telecasts are the name of the game. This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series were back in action at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. For Cup, it was the first intermediate race for the new Gen-6 cars. <div style=\"float:right; width:275px; margin: 20px; border: black solid 1px; padding: 3px;\"> <img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/15523.jpg\" width=\"275\" height=\"180\"/><p style=\"margin: 3px; text-align: left; font-weight:bold;\">ESPN and FOX were responsible for keeping the action in focus this week in Las Vegas. See what Phil Allaway thinks of their work in Couch Potato Tuesday.</p></div> *Sam's Town 300* Usually, we only have issues with other events cutting into _NASCAR Countdown_ during the college football season in the fall. However, March is another bad time for that due to the various tournaments for basketball. On Saturday, the regular season ACC matchup between North Carolina State and Florida State ran long by 17 minutes. Ordinarily, this infringement would just bite. We'd miss out on whatever feature ESPN had planned and some analysis from the Pit Studio. However, Saturday's Countdown was a planned 15-minute show. The Pit Studio (along with Nicole Briscoe and her analyst cohorts) was taking a planned vacation prior to heading to Bristol, Tennessee, so Allen Bestwick was due to host the show from the broadcast booth. Due to the overrunning game from Raleigh, ESPN chose to bump pre-race coverage to ESPNEWS. There, ESPN did four pre-race interviews in what could be considered a basic, bare bones edition. Generally, I liked it. Short but sweet… The race telecast was middle-of-the-road by ESPN standards. There was still a fairly high focus on the frontrunners during the event. Since Sam Hornish, Jr. led a large amount, he got a lot of airtime. I know that it's a broken record by now, but I want to see more coverage throughout the field. I think ESPN is taking the right route in regards to their coverage of Travis Pastrana in the series. Last year, they did all kinds of profiles and features on him, but now they're playing a wait and see game to watch how he develops as a racer. They're giving Pastrana coverage during the races, but not an insane amount, as if he's the only up-and-comer competing. It is a far different approach as compared to how they treated Danica Patrick during her first full season in the Nationwide Series (and how FOX is treating her now as a Sprint Cup rookie, to their own detriment). <div style=\"float:right; width:200px; margin:20px; padding-left:20px;\"> <object classid=\"clsid:d27cdb6e-ae6d-11cf-96b8-444553540000\" codebase=\"http://fpdownload.macromedia.com/pub/shockwave/cabs/flash/swflash.cab#version=7,0,0,0\" width=\"160\" height=\"350\" align=\"middle\"> <param name=\"allowScriptAccess\" value=\"sameDomain\" /> <param name=\"movie\" value=\"/poll/poll.swf?pollid=2135&owner=phpjabbers.com&phpurl=/poll/\" /> <param name=\"quality\" value=\"high\" /> <param name=\"bgcolor\" value=\"#ffffff\" /> <embed src=\"/poll/poll.swf?pollid=2135&owner=phpjabbers.com&phpurl=/poll/\" quality=\"high\" bgcolor=\"#ffffff\" width=\"160\" height=\"350\" align=\"middle\" allowScriptAccess=\"sameDomain\" type=\"application/x-shockwave-flash\" pluginspage=\"http://www.macromedia.com/go/getflashplayer\" /> </object> </div> During the race, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. showed up and spent 20 or so minutes in the booth. While he was up there, Stenhouse answered some questions on restarts and compared the Nationwide CoT to the new Gen-6 car. Otherwise, he stayed quiet. The booth had to go out of their way to involve Stenhouse in the conversation, which takes away from the race in general. I guess either the driver is introverted or he just didn't have all that much to say. One thing is for sure: Bestwick, Dale Jarrett and Andy Petree won't have to worry about Stenhouse taking over a broadcast anytime soon, like Justin Allgaier has unintentionally done in the past during ARCA telecasts on SPEED. The end of the race ran up against the end of the network's timeslot. As a result, post-race coverage was relatively light. ESPN did five quick interviews, then left the air to get to the Ohio Valley Conference Championship Game (Murray State vs. Belmont in Nashville). The telecast was OK to watch. However, just being OK is not necessarily good enough. I still want a more inclusive race broadcast. I don't need to be staring at single cars three seconds ahead of everyone else all the time. That's when other battles should be highlighted, regardless of whether those drivers are on the lead lap or not. Also, Stenhouse didn't do much in the booth, but I'm sure Zest (his sponsor for the weekend) was happy to get the random plug when he finished up there. ... Read More »

Thinkin' Out Loud: Las Vegas Race Recap

_Editor's Note: Mike Neff is writing Matt's column this week._ *The Key Moment* - On the penultimate caution of the race, Matt Kenseth took fuel only while Kasey Kahne, who appeared to have the dominant car, took two tires and had to check up exiting his pit box. As a result, Kahne restarted sixth, had to fight his way to the front and ended up without enough ability to stick on the bottom and pass Matt Kenseth. That left the driver of the No. 20, in just his third race with new team Joe Gibbs Racing taking the checkers on his birthday. *In a Nutshell* - The drivers mixed it up, from top to bottom on restarts until the tires heated up; then, it was single-file racing. There was some on-track passing, which might be a little more than we used to see, but there is still plenty of work to do with this new car. *Dramatic Moment* - Kasey Kahne got to second place with 26 laps left and was making ground in the high lane. As he came up on Kenseth, eight circuits later, everyone was holding their breath for fireworks. But as Kahne prepared to make a bid for the lead, Kenseth moved up and took the lane away. We didn't know it then… but that was all she wrote. For the remainder of the race, Kahne made every run he could, lagging back, pushing hard, driving on the apron, but none of them gave him enough of a run to pull alongside the leader. Kyle Busch made a hairy, three-wide move on a restart with 100 laps remaining to both take the lead and earn consolation prize in this category What They'll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler on Monday* *After the senseless, $25,000 fine of Denny Hamlin,* for speaking his mind about the difficulty in passing with the new car at Phoenix, almost every driver nearly threw their backs out Sunday, bending over backwards to compliment the new car. Let's not fool ourselves after freedom of speech was no longer guaranteed to earn the drivers a healthy paycheck. As Sunday showed, despite some promising moments the first few races with a new car will be a challenge until the teams figure out how to make them fast and how they'll respond to mechanical adjustments. Until then, NASCAR, please let the drivers speak their minds again. Fans have begged and pleaded for them to have a personality; instead, as soon as one emerges NASCAR makes a habit of jumping down their throat. Hamlin was the latest case in point. *Goodyear is back to the rock hard tires again.* Kasey Kahne kept his left sides on for the last 106 laps of the race; Kenseth won with right sides 42 laps older than his closest competition. We heard talk of the fuel mileage card being played before the fourth caution of the race Sunday; why? It's because teams can keep tires on forever. Phoenix was headed in the right direction, despite what most fans thought with tires wearing out and actually giving a benefit to those who took four tires versus two or none. This weekend, with a track that has lost some grip thanks to the harsh heat of the Vegas environment, Goodyear could have gone softer and made conservation key; that would have helped cause a dropoff in speed, leading to more passing over those long, green-flag runs. Instead? They opted for the Flintstones again, throwing NASCAR back into the stone age unnecessarily… With all that said, despite much criticism over NASCAR's Gen-6 car *the moments of brilliance we saw gave us hope. On lap 148, Martin Truex, Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton and David Reutimann went four-wide at a 1.5-mile oval.* The car can obviously do some passing when someone is obviously faster than the car in front of you; now, if we can just get to happen when the car is only _slightly_ faster. *We all know that NASCAR is embracing Social Media.* Well, that's great and all… but do we really need to shove sponsorship into that mess? During the beginning of the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas, our friends at FOX showed the Kobalt Tools Social Media Command Center. Seriously?!?!?! How about the Kobalt Tools community aid center? Or the Kobalt Tools center to assist unemployed craftsmen? It would go a lot further for a sponsor to spend some money on helping people instead of enabling the ability to Tweet. There's no question this new car is a work in progress, but one thing is still never mentioned which would make the biggest difference of all. *The problem with cars behind other cars, in the Sprint Cup Series is they don't get enough air to the nose.* That is primarily because there is no air coming from underneath the car in front. My solution would be to raise the nose of these cars so they can't get closer to the ground than three or four inches. You do that and the entire \"aero loose\" principle disappears like magic. One more note on the Gen-6: *The cars are really fast.* That's right; race cars should be fast. That's the point. Some folks are suggesting that we slow the cars down to make the racing a little better. Just a thought… isn't that was we do with the restrictor plates? Yes, having throttle response would help but if you slow these cars down to 170, they're going to go flat out every lap and we'll be watching high-speed parades where cars can't get away from each other. *Week three of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season and it's the third week of hearing how tough it is to get on Pit Road.* Note to FOX broadcasters: it is always hard to slow a car down from 190 to 50, or 120 to 50 when you're going from \"as fast as you can\" to near school zone speeds. Let's just acknowledge slowing down a 3,300-pound stock car really fast is a bitch and just move on. *Three races in, each manufacturer involved in the sport has won.* NASCAR loves to trumpet parity and, at least in Victory Lane this year, mission accomplished for Ford, Chevy, and Toyota. *Pit road penalties set back some of the front runners during the race… but we don't have the evidence as to why.* That gaping hole in the process, for fans and even other teams needs to change, ASAP. We have the technology to show little balloons above the cars and display telemetry for how fast cars are traveling. So let's get into the 21st century and use GPS technology, enforcing the speed from one end of the pit road to the other with data visible to all teams. This voodoo science of timing loops and average speed is getting old. *Sam Hornish, Jr. put his Nationwide ride in Victory Lane ahead of Kyle Busch on Saturday.* Guess they should cancel the press release that announced Busch won every single race he entered in 2013. Yes, there's no question Busch will win his fair share, now that he's back in Nationwide with the support of dominant Joe Gibbs Racing. But 100 percent Cup drivers, all the time in that series? Absolutely not going to happen. *Caution flags were all but non-existent during the first half of the race.* Just a suggestion to NASCAR officials, though; make sure the cars actually wreck before throwing the yellow rag. Marcos Ambrose got all kinds of sideways in turn four trying to make it to pit road, saved the car and kept on going. But NASCAR threw the yellow, taking advantage to bunch up the cars because Ambrose _almost_ spun. C'mon, folks; let's be a little more judicious than that. *As long as Michael Waltrip is in the booth, there is hope for every person in the world who can speak some form of English to be a race announcer.* *Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune* *Ryan Newman* started the season with a fifth-place finish at Daytona. That seems like eons ago. One week after a _Talladega Nights_ fire scene at Phoenix - running from his crashed vehicle he strapped in Sunday and missed a shift. A blown engine now leaves him with two DNFs in three races, a reminder of no contract for 2014 and hopefully no extra Vegas gambling debt. ... Read More »

Silence! NASCAR's Unspoken Cry To Opinionated Drivers Needs To Stop

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.†It’s a mantra that was repeated on the school playground, a lesson taught to us by our parents, and a phrase we have to repeat inwardly to ourselves when the boss is in an especially critical mood on a Monday morning. It is, however, a foreign concept to NASCAR—a lesson that Denny Hamlin learned the hard way. After making what NASCAR called a disparaging—or, what most of it would call it, honest—statement about the Gen 6 racecar, it was announced that Hamlin had been fined $25,000. Though Hamlin stated on Twitter that he would appeal, NASCAR never balked at the prospect of shutting up the drivers when they say something negative. It wasn’t but a couple of weeks ago that Keselowski was called to the NASCAR hauler for comments that, too, were made with an honest assessment of NASCAR’s product, though this was about their business model rather than the product of the on-track racing. Still, for some reason, NASCAR is bearing their teeth to any driver who dares gives negative feedback. The worst part, however, is that it seems to be working. Not only were drivers cordial in expressing their opinions about the new car following the checkered flag yesterday in Las Vegas. From the way it sounded, they were simply delighted in the way it drove! It’s never been better! In their mandatory post-race press conferences for the top three drivers, Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski were about two seconds from doing rock-paper-scissors to determine who had to answer the question “How did the car drive today?†Now, to be fair, the race really wasn’t _that_ bad. I felt like it was a decent race considering the kind of “show†intermediate tracks usually put up. While there wasn’t a ton of passing, it looked like the faster cars generally _could_ pass and tire wear played more of a roll than they had in a while. Still, though, clean air and track position was the most important aspect of the race, which has been a complaint with the car for a long time. Why can’t the drivers talk about that? Why shouldn’t they? Here’s what I’m concerned about. Right now, NASCAR has a little bit of breathing room because drivers and their crews are still learning the ins and outs of the new car. That can be the excuse for a good while. They can silence the drivers for a good while and fans will probably believe that to be that problem. But what happens afterwards? This car has its problems. I’m sure anyone could have guessed that it wouldn’t be perfect and that there would be an adjustment period. But after a while, people are going to get sick of waiting around for some of the little quirks and mannerisms to fix itself. Who better, then, to give the feedback on areas of improvement than the ones who are behind the wheel every weekend? I know NASCAR’s preference would be that the drivers deliver this feedback behind closed doors and not to the media. That’s not realistic, though, either. First of all, NASCAR wouldn’t have its reach, appeal, or popularity without the media. Also, who is right there in the drivers’ face first thing after they exit their racecar on pit road? Who do the fans turn to when they want to hear their drivers’ thoughts after a hard wreck? You can’t shut the drivers up about everything except for the rainbows and lollipops of the sport. First of all, fans are smarter than that. The drivers can get out of a single-file race at Daytona, say “What a great race!†and the fans will cry foul. Secondly, it’s completely unfair. If NASCAR is working on a solution to alleviate the issues that the sport is facing, I think the fans deserve to know about it. Simply put, this whole “don’t talk about our sport unless it’s positive†needs to stop. Like I said, fans are smart enough to see right through it and you can’t be in damage control over damage control. In other words, you can’t try and protect the image of the sport by not letting the drivers say what they feel. They are human beings and many are very opinionated. Let them do so! After all, negative feedback is only negative if you don’t listen. *Connect with Summer!* <a href=\"http://www.twitter.com/summerbedgood\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/6502.jpg\"></a><a href=\"https://www.facebook.com/summerdreyer\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/6501.jpg\"></a><br> \"Contact Summer Bedgood\":http://www.frontstretch.com/contact/28526/ Read More »