Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: NASCAR Short Takes After a Short Break

Yes, shamefully I took a weekend off. As I reprioritize my life, a chance to gather with all four of my siblings – the five of us haven’t been together since 2007 – outweighed even a chance to visit one of my two home tracks. As things worked out I was off airport duty early enough on Sunday (May 15) I was able to get home in time to catch the race after all.

It felt kind of odd just watching a race rather than scribbling down notes and doing a few hours of pre-race prep work. Yeah, it felt odd but it didn’t feel bad at all. To the delight of my foes and the consternation of the fans who have stuck with me over the years, I’m going to be taking some more weekends off this year.

But in the meantime, I do have some random thoughts on happenings within NASCAR and I’ll share them with you here.

The tension across the nation is almost palpable. With days remaining before the Winston… er, the All-Star Race or whatever it’s called these days, which driver who hasn’t earned his way into the event is going to be voted into the race? Well, for the truly clueless amongst you out there it’s going to be Dale Earnhardt Jr. About the only chance there is Earnhardt isn’t going to race Saturday night is if these fringe lunatics are correct and the world is going to end Saturday evening at 6 p.m.

We can debate whether a driver who hasn’t won a points-paying Cup event in 104 races deserves to be considered an “All-Star,” but Junior remains the Most Popular Driver in the sport.

It’s sad when the biggest reaction from the fans after a race has to do with a commercial break. With 22 laps left to run, FOX cut to commercial and with no fanfare, the break was featured in the side-by-side format IndyCar fans have enjoyed for years. As the advertising aired, fans were able to keep an eye on what was going on back on track, even whilst “watching” the commercials. The experiment was green-lighted by sponsors Sprint, FedEx and Pizza Hut and resulted in almost universal positive approval from the fanbase.

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In fact, they might even have been enjoying the broadcast more for those few moments than they did for the rest of the race because Darrell Waltrip’s incessant yapping (his love soliloquy to the No. 17 was particularly galling this week; but of course, he has an insatiable need to remind us he used to race and hasn’t always been a TV broadcaster taken leave of his senses). Kudos to FOX for the experiment. Keep it up.

On a similar note, on Tuesday ESPN announced they will broadcast the 10 Chase races in a format they call “NASCAR-Nonstop.” It’s basically the same side-by-side coverage IndyCar fans have enjoyed since 2005. Oddly enough, especially given the “non-stop” nomenclature the format will only be implemented for the second half of those 10 races. Early in the event, when the network is presumably trying to hold onto viewers’ interest it will be business as usual.

Is it possible that the networks and NASCAR are finally getting the message that one of the reasons Cup racing ratings are down (and in fact, interest in the sport is in heavy decline) is the abysmal coverage fans have had to endure. The constant barrage of commercials makes it difficult for even a seasoned fan to follow the tempo and trends of the race, much less a neophyte sampling the sport for the first time.

Also on the TV front, concerning our dear friend of aural bombast Mr. DW, rumors are rampant that Waltrip is campaigning to have booth mate Larry McReynolds put out to pasture. Who would Darrell like to see replace Larry Mac as his partner in crime? None other than Michael Waltrip, his brother. Yeah, that’s just what we need, a team owner with a vested interest in his organization, sponsors and Toyota’s success self-promoting his team. That would lead to a fascinating weekly contest between the Waltrips to see which could expend the maximum amount of words to convey the least amount of information, while working in sponsor shills and endless self-promotion along the way.

The biggest promoter of the scheme is probably MRN radio, where fans are increasingly turning in to get some actual information on the race with their TV’s muted to avoid what FOX alleges is race coverage.

Now, some thoughts on the race at Dover. Yes, one of the biggest stories this weekend was a very sparse crowd on hand. I’ve been accused of not mentioning empty seats at Dover because it’s one of my home tracks, but yeah, I’d say the crowd on hand Sunday was just flat-out embarrassing. I’ve been to Dover races run on Monday after being rained out on Sunday that drew more fans.

Why? I have some points to make. Traffic entering and leaving the Dover facility is terrible. They’ve never even attempted to correct the traffic issue and I know plenty of fans who took one trip to Dover and swore they’d never go back. As you reap, so shall you sow. The simple expedient of working with the state to waive tolls at the on-ramp back north for a few hours after the race would work wonders.

The official crowd was estimated at 82,000. Here’s something I just found out. You know those big banners they hang over entire sections of seats or even entire grandstands to make it less obvious how pitiful the size of the crowd is? The tracks count those seats as “sold” because the sponsor whose logo is featured gave them some bucks for that area. Finally, if you live in the Philly metro area you know how since a week ago Action News had been predicting that last weekend and in fact this entire week was going to be a washout with heavy rains, thunderstorms and massive flooding.

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Action News Weather-Witch Cecily Tynan all but wrung her hands bloody talking about the upcoming climatic disaster that would have made Noah head back to the ark. It’s part of her duties as the Anti-Christ. So what happened? At least in these parts, there wasn’t a drop of rain from 10 a.m. Saturday until around 9 p.m. Sunday night. In fact for large parts of the day it was sunny, warm and pleasant to the point I had the bike out a few times.

For the last decade, Dover has always counted on race day “walk-up” ticket sales to fill a lot of seats. But if you watched WPVI Friday, you’d have wanted a rowboat roped to your roof before heading to Dover Saturday or Sunday. It would be great to actually see Tynan attend a stock car event someday… tied on to Kyle Busch’s front bumper.

Another point about Dover. I’ve heard a lot of folks call the race “boring.” Again, I had a different perspective this weekend watching as a fan rather than a writer. Yes, Jimmie Johnson’s domination early in the race lulled me half to sleep. But then Carl Edwards emerged as a contender. It appeared to me that while Johnson was better in the short run, Edwards’s No. 99 car came on later in the run on worn tires. I saw the two of them battle several times side-by-side as the advantage shifted. Then Clint Bowyer stormed up to join the party.

Near the end, with 35 laps left to go I still felt confident that the drivers who stopped for four tires were going to be able to run down the guys who took two tires, or in the case of Mark Martin, no tires. Thirty-five laps is 35 miles. It would appear that the tires Goodyear bought to the track this weekend combined with the completely unexpected sunny and warm weather conditions just threw everyone for a loop there at the end. With three dominant drivers threatening to lap the rest of the field all afternoon I can understand why all those crew chiefs gambled on two tires.

I feel a little like Charlie Brown here, but I didn’t think it was such a bad little race. No, it didn’t have the theatrics of the last lap of the Nationwide race but quite frankly the end of Saturday’s race scared me; I felt Bowyer’s car was going to clear pit wall and badly injure a lot of crew members. As it is, one of Bowyer’s own crew guys got hit by a spring and had to be hospitalized overnight.

I’ll add for a second straight week, Edwards showed a lot of class after that race stopping to check on Joey Logano rather than doing his now traditional backflip and dash into the grandstands. I guess some people (and FOX executives) would have preferred to see Edwards and Logano throwing fists, but not every race is going to end with fireworks.

I’ve been following auto racing since I was five years old. To put that in perspective, back in 1964 consumers could still hit the local agency and lay down the coin for a four speed, positraction, dual quad 409 or the brand new Pontiac GTO with three deuces that signaled the street wars were on in Detroit.

Back then, when the month of May rolled around sports coverage centered on Indy for the entire month. Nowadays, well not so much. After the disastrous CART/IRL war finally ended with both sides bloodied and dazed, even the victor had to bow to reality and shorten up the once month long carnival of speed that was the old Indy 500.

I’m a creature of habit. I’ll still seek out news about what’s going on Indy this month. Certainly, I’ll tune in to watch the race. I don’t think I’ve missed an Indy 500 since back in the days Andretti, Unser and Foyt were battling with my favorite Mark Donohue. I still get excited watching the balloon launch prior to the race and the three-wide field coming to the green flag. It’s just sad to see how what was once considered one of the crown jewel of sports, not just auto racing, has lost its luster.

Speaking of Indy, attendance at last year’s Brickyard 400 was terrible. My guess is after the Goodyear tire debacle of 2008 the track is still trying to woo back long time supporters who felt they were owed a refund for enduring that joke of a race. The Formula 1 tire mess at Indy was about as bad and ended up with that event being canceled going forward.

Now, almost two months in advance of this year’s rendition of the 400, Indy track officials have taken the unprecedented step of admitting that ticket sales are lagging compared to last year and this year’s crowd might be even more pitiful.

It sounds like they are trying to soften the blow of the criticism they will doubtless receive after the race by admitting they knew the bad news was coming all along. If I were a shareholder of the Speedway, I’d be demanding that retired SMI promoter Humpy Wheeler be hired to hype the 500 and 400 back to some semblance of respectability.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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