Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? A Driver’s Confidence Crisis, Monster Meltdown & Indy’s Question Mark

Did You Notice? There’s no place that signifies NASCAR’s turn from crashes to consistent green-flag racing than the Monster Mile? I studied the last 10 years at Dover and found a fascinating transformation. A track that once chewed up cars and spit them out has instead become the hallmark of the “debris caution” era:

Cars Involved
Debris/Other Yellows
Percent Overall Cautions

This trend is right in line with the last few races, which have shown an increasingly smaller number of wrecks. In Dover’s case, though, the culprit can be traced to another element we don’t often mention when it comes to “conservative” green-flag competition: the tires.

A change in the compound over the past few seasons has made it nearly impossible to run side-by-side or to have cars on the edge of control handling-wise and it also limits the falloff over the course of a run. That parity in speed makes it next to impossible to pass, creating the type of “hold your position” racing fans hate.

What does that take away from a track like Dover? Unpredictability. For years, fans have been able to look at this race and know that, at any moment, a car could be chewed up through faulty Goodyears or a bad entrance into turn 3. Now, the wrecks have been minimized and the racing has been forced into a type of single-file parade you’d expect at a larger intermediate track. No wonder why the speedway has seen a sharp decline in attendance the last few years.

Note: How crazy has this change in cautions been in 2012? At this time last year, we had five out of 12 events with double-digit yellow flags. This season, we’ve seen just one, this year’s rain-delayed Daytona 500 (which barely makes the cut at 10). But here’s the most fascinating statistic; excluding restrictor-plate races, the number of yellows we do have called for “competition, debris, rain or fluid on the track” is an astounding 51% (26 of 51).

If you take out the short tracks of Bristol and Martinsville, that number jumps to 67% (26 of 39). Compare that to this year’s Indianapolis 500, a race that had eight cautions for 39 laps – and zero for “debris” or “oil on the track.”

Did You Notice? IndyCar’s long-term momentum from the 500 could be halted sooner than you think? Some might point to the 2012 ratings, down 5% from last year to a 4.1 in the Nielsens (for comparison’s sake, the Daytona 500 pulled a 7.7). But I’m not exactly surprised at the shrinking viewership despite Sunday’s fantastic finish.

See also
A Last-Lap Thriller for the Ages: 2012 Indy 500 Race Recap

The 500 itself was not marketed well this year with limited coverage and commercials outside the little-engine-that-could NBC Sports Network. Without Danica Patrick, there were a limited number of big names in the field (like it or not) and a smaller number of American favorites for the country to rally behind. Plus, with only 33 cars qualifying, the once-exciting Bump Day turned into a mere formality.

No, the real boost, in theory, should come from after Indy, when a number of casual fans were turned on by the most lead changes in 500 history and Takuma Sato’s last-lap desperation moment that fell short. Dario Franchitti, for all his familiarity in open-wheel circles, has the type of personality that could transcend, a la Helio Castroneves and his Dancing With The Stars performance. But what will fans find if they click on the TV and turn to Belle Isle this Sunday?

Road course racing. Single-file strategy and lots of it, with cars bottlenecked and having to plan out their passes. Three-wide racing? You’re lucky to get two wide on this narrow course, 180 degrees different than the type of competition fans were subjected to. It’s not bad, just different – not exactly the type of “hook you” event fans just introduced to the sport would be expecting.

The next opportunity IndyCar will have to showcase its oval package is at Texas June 9 and then they won’t be at a similar type of 1.5-mile-or-larger speedway until Fontana for the season finale on Sept. 15. In all, less than 40% of the season will be run on ovals, a focus on road and street courses that showcases diversity but also limits the type of exciting competition we just saw.

Certainly, safety remains a concern in the wake of Dan Wheldon’s tragic crash in Las Vegas. But there’s something to build on with this package, and plenty of big tracks to choose from once built for Indy cars in the late 1990s. (Michigan? Homestead? Even an eventual return to Vegas?)

The bottom line is even though the road racing has been solid, the key to growing this series on television is going to be on the oval tracks. Sure, the attendance might suffer in the short term – some of the street courses draw large in-person crowds – but show any fan that Indy race on Sunday, give them a discount to their local track and they’ll be intrigued enough to consider showing up.

Did You Notice? The way Kasey Kahne held his composure, even in the worst of times? I say that not only to praise him but also compare to another NASCAR driver in the midst of his Dr. Phil crisis, AJ Allmendinger. Like Kahne, the ‘Dinger has flashed speed through much of this 2012 season, running second at Martinsville and scoring four top-five starts in 12 races – including a pole at Kansas.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: A Rollercoaster Ride to Redemption for Kasey Kahne

But all too often, a series of hard-luck circumstances have taken over; engine problems in that same Kansas race, a series of wrecks (Daytona, Phoenix, Darlington) and even a broken left-front hub, at Charlotte which left him frustrated and an ever-prototypical “unavailable for comment.”

Now ‘Dinger is the type of guy who wears his emotions on his sleeve, an asset when you’re cashing in on top fives every week (or headed to the bar on a Friday night – this guy is one of the most outgoing, fun-loving NASCAR drivers on the circuit). But when you put him in a slump, one of the worst of his career, in which his back is increasingly against the wall in top-tier equipment? I present the following “official” quote:

“Something happened with the left-front hub; I’m not sure exactly what happened there. We were never good from the start; we just weren’t good, very fast this weekend. It’s disappointing to have something else break every weekend. We weren’t very good anyway.”

Ugh. Can I have a little cheese with that hidden whine (for the record, one of our staffers observed ‘Dinger, post-hub failure and can pin the personality that forced out those words). I say that because this man is despondent headed to one of his best tracks, Dover, a place the No. 22 Dodge should have confidence: their team won last fall here with Kurt Busch.

‘Dinger, in his last four starts there has qualified no worse than eighth, collected two top-10 finishes and led 152 laps. It should be a place where confidence, perhaps an upset win should be an expected result.

But here’s where Kahne and Allmendinger differ. The former, during his time of need, had the support of about a half-dozen crewmembers picking him up. They’re close friends, from crew chief Kenny Francis to mechanics in the shop that have stood by him for nearly a decade, confidantes outside the corporate atmosphere of HMS.

Then, you had a hands-on car owner in Rick Hendrick challenging him, combined with support from at least two teammates that truly want to be engaged in Kahne’s success: Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

Where is that web of support at Penske for ‘Dinger? Do you see his 75-year-old owner, an open-wheel guy, coming in every Tuesday, putting his arm around AJ and going, “It’ll be OK?” No, because in the end, what was a dream for the driver was a last-minute option for the owner. No one, from the shop sweeper to sponsor Shell/Pennzoil, had planned a long-term investment here; it was up to the driver to prove his worth, all by himself.

Now, the man’s stuck on an island, watching the dream crumble and there’s no one internally to turn to. So the frustration builds, an ugly cycle, and before you know it? Public comments start alienating a crew of strangers who have just been through the ringer with Kurt Busch.

It’s an ugly snowball, rolling down the mountain, and I worry without a confidence-building run this weekend (remember, June 2011 is where Brad Keselowski took off) there’s no one to stop the pink slip from getting written this November.

Did You Notice? Quick hits before we take off:

  • Our Brett Poirier had an amazing comparison I’d like you all to see regarding Kahne and Jeff Gordon. I’ll summarize: Kahne’s little run towards the top started with an innocent seventh-place run in Fort Worth in mid-April. What position did Gordon finish in at Charlotte? Seventh. What I’ll add to that is Hendrick’s unlimited resources, which can now be focused on Gordon during the summer months with two drivers solidly in the Chase and a third (Kahne) well on his way. With a top-20 points position all you need, including wins, don’t be surprised if Gordon isn’t out of the running for the postseason quite yet. After all, we all thought (me included) Kahne was dead in the water.
  • What’s up with Stewart-Haas Racing? No need to go inside the numbers; bottom line is it’s nothing the Chase can’t fix. Remember, this slump they’re in was nothing compared to last sluggish summer before ripping off five wins in ten races. The major goal here is to make sure Ryan Newman doesn’t miss it; as long as they pick up a second win for the No. 39 (Loudon, anyone?) the “meaningless” regular season for those already holding a Chase bid makes their struggles a moot point.
  • NASCAR’s economic problem is scheduled to reach epidemic proportions once again at Dover, which it usually does; for whatever reason, it’s a market even major teams have trouble acquiring sponsorship for. At least seven, perhaps up to nine teams won’t go the distance on the Cup side while the number of Nationwide cars without enough funding could reach 14. Fourteen! That’s one-third of the field; even if you’re in the “I don’t care” camp when it comes to start-and-parking, that’s hard to ignore from a competitive standpoint.
  • Overnight numbers for Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 were up 2% from a 4.0 to a 4.1. A total of 5.06 million households were listed as viewing the race, more than expected after heavy criticism over the competition. But here’s one theory I have; after an exciting Indy 500, wouldn’t you want to keep watching racing to see if the 600 would be just as good? Just like with the bad numbers at Indy, sometimes it takes a while for the audience to catch up to the excitement – or lack thereof.
  • One-hundred forty thousand in Charlotte? We haven’t brought up attendance that much this year, but I have to differ with NASCAR’s assessment. Much of the turn 2/backstretch seating was empty this weekend, with a giant American flag covering about 50% of possible spaces. Are they counting that on the list? Look, these issues are well-documented and it’s clear stock car racing isn’t the only sport having problems (many baseball teams have reported a decline in attendance this year). But all we ask for is honesty; if 80,000 seats were sold, then why not report that as the number? It’s still more than almost any NFL team gets for a single game. I just don’t see why this type of gross exaggeration, to the point the numbers are laughable if you look at them, has to continue.

About the author

Tom Bowles
 | Website

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside 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. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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