Saturday , October 25 2014
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The Calm Before The Storm

The Calm Before The Storm

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).

Following Brad Keselowski's win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway more than a week ago, the NASCAR news cycle has gone virtually silent. Credit: CIA

Following Brad Keselowski’s win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway more than a week ago, the NASCAR news cycle has gone virtually silent. (Credit: CIA)

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.

About Tom Bowles

Tom Bowles
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

10 comments

  1. I would be curious to know how many of the leaders/lead changes are during green flag pit stops or in the laps immediately following the restarts after debris cautions.

  2. I’d be curious to know who they ask about the fan perceptions to develop their stats. I can tell you my opinion isn’t that high. I was hopeful that things were going to be better since the early season racing was decent with Goodyear bringing a tire that wore out. What a thought! But as you pointed out, the races since Charlotte have been a bore and really not worth watching in their entirety – except for the road course which was at least interesting.

    Focus on the chase? Well, I’d really rather not, but unfortunately we are stuck with Brainless bad idea. Consider the tracks that are in the chase – Chicago, NH, Dover, Kansas, Charlotte – not one of those tracks has put on a decent race (at least not on TV) and I can vouch from personal experience about the racing at Charlotte and Dover – if there was a place to lie down, you could easily take a nap during the majority of both of them, so why should the fans expect that it will be excitement for the chase?

  3. Nothing being said about how high dollar sponsors control what happens on the track. “Don’t get into a heated conflict or you might offend some politically correct sponsor that is paying 20 million or more to see their sponsored car plastered with their name”. These high 20 million plus sponsors pay the way and support the teams and control what happens on the track and off the track.

  4. too bad the off weekend is followed by what could be the worst track/race of the season, short of a “debris” caution with about 3 to go & a GWC finish this should shape up to be the most boring weekend of the season. Yet, it will also probably be one of the highest rated weekends, that is what doesn’t make sense to me.

  5. If Nascar manages to bore the fans early in the season, no amount of ‘chasing’ is going to revive their interest. Personally, I find I’m dreading the enevitable hype of the stupid ‘chase’, where one win makes you a champ? Really? If I wanted this format I would watch football.

  6. Enjoyed the article as usual.
    Got me thinking.
    hmmm.

    “Stats released last week appear to back up that fan perception of better competition”.

    Looks like only the network execs and Nascar marketing guys care about those “stats.” Numbers tell one story but my eyes and brain tell another. Stats aren’t putting butts in seats or on couches. The product may be marginally better, but not by much. The only Nascar advertising I’ve seen is on Nascar programming. This year, by a looooong shot, I’ve watched the least amount of Nascar since I can remember (that’d be since wide world of sports and then the bob jenkins days.) Stats can’t cover for what our eyes actually see… the product isn’t great or even consistent, ticket prices are for ‘A’ level destination entertainment, the sponsoring body is seen as a joke and the TV coverage is abysmal and getting worse. At the rate they are going and if the trend and stats play out, there can be marginal racing with a great finish for every race from now until the end of the season but the result will be the same. No one will be watching.

  7. Ohio Kart Racer

    At least Bowles doesn’t appear to be drinking the NASCAR/BF Koolaid like some of the other so called reporters on this site!! Thanks tom for telling it like it is and pointing out the lack of people at the Nationwide race this past weekend. I think they put more fans in the stands at our little, local dirt track on Saturday night !!

  8. Any group (or person) that can smack BF down a couple of rungs on the ladder can only help the sport. Having one dictator with a bunch of yes men making decisions unchecked is rarely a good thing.

  9. Very good article. As the kids would say, you “keep it real”.

    This Nascar/RTA issue is what to watch out for.

  10. I believe you over focus on the Chase. I just want to see an entertaining race each week. The Chase is a contrived gimmick unlikely to result in a legitimate champion. I rarely give it a passing thought let alone pay close attention. I suspect that the Chase is of much more interest to those that cover racing than to those that watch it. I also doubt that the Chase, or anything that was, or will be done with it, has much effect on declining interest.