Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … FOX Finds The NASCAR Diamond And The “Hidden” Chaser

*Did You Notice?…* The difference between FOX, TNT, and ESPN when negotiating their NASCAR TV deals? FOX, according to multiple reports, is almost finished on an extension that will keep them broadcasting most of the Sprint Cup season’s first half for years to come. As a part of that, sources are claiming the cost of doing business will go up after 2014 — a likely, albeit surprising rights fee increase that’s eyebrow-raising when you consider the recent drop in NASCAR popularity, both on and off the racetrack. Just this week, Dover registered a 2.2 Nielsen rating, with just 3.581 million viewers that keeps the Chase on track for its lowest audience since the format’s 2004 debut.

Expect to see Darrell Waltrip, Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds calling the shots for years to come as FOX is in final negotiations to extend its NASCAR deal well beyond the 2014 season.

So what gives? Turns out that with FOX, timing really is everything, and they know _when_ to make the most bang for their buck. The first half of the NASCAR schedule they covet still includes the Daytona 500, whose 8.0 rating in 2012 remains competitive with events like the NCAA Final Four (9.0), NBA Finals (10.1 average) and the World Series (10.0) for the title of “second-biggest” national sports event behind college and professional football. You just don’t get very many television programs anymore watched by nearly 14 million people; FOX can charge significantly more for ads that Sunday, based on past history and make more in one event than perhaps TNT makes over the course of its six-race schedule combined. (In all, that network’s NASCAR coverage attracts an audience of less than 30 million. FOX gets that within the first three weeks.)

But it’s not just one race that has Rupert Murdoch’s moneymen staying optimistic; it’s a ratings pattern that, in general has stabilized more than people give it credit for. Under this FOX contract, the current Nielsen numbers are down 14 percent from their peak of 5.7, a high water mark set way back in 2008. However, when you look at the past four seasons you see a set of final statistics that have pretty much settled in: 5.1, 4.8, 5.0, and then this year’s 4.9 tuning into FOX’s coverage. With that type of line graph, it’s hard to argue the sport is “dying on the vine;” on the contrary, it’s a sign that any type of long-term investment will be met with stability. Considering the growing stick ‘n’ ball sports (basketball, college basketball) for spring are signed to long-term deals, there’s no real athletic programming available for FOX which would deliver the same type of audience.

But that scenario is why NASCAR, in the same breath as FOX, is admitting TNT and ESPN haven’t yet started negotiating on a new contract. Of course they haven’t! ESPN is to the point more people watch you sneeze on the bus than their racing coverage. Sportscenter, after Monday Night Football’s replacement referee debacle a few weeks ago had an audience that outdrew NASCAR’s _best race on the network_ this season, even though the program ran _from midnight until 1:30 in the morning._ TNT, which would like to have more races is asking for them out of virtual necessity. With such a small audience paying attention, in the midst of the sport’s “summer doldrums” they need more marquis events, like the Brickyard 400, to make covering the upper echelon of the sport worth their while. Both crews are tired of fighting the NFL, the baseball playoffs, college football and more for their main audience’s attention down the stretch. NASCAR has faded quicker than Lady Gaga in the second half of the season the past few years – and they know it.

It’s here where NASCAR has to hope another network swoops in and drives up the asking price, like NBC Sports Network or even CBS. But if they don’t, then jacking up the rights fee isn’t going to be as easy as it was with FOX. ESPN’s portion has consistently lost a large chunk of its audience, the first three races of the Chase dropping from six million viewers in ’08 to nearly half that while TNT has consistently been the lowest-rated out of the three network partners. The current schedule doesn’t work well for Turner, whose coverage of the NBA Conference Finals wraps up mere days before NASCAR is scheduled to begin. So expect there to be more hardball played, some haranguing over dollar amounts and Daytona Beach officials getting a taste of their own hardcore medicine at the bargaining table. FOX may wave the white flag early, but that’s only half the battle, buying the best-looking pie at the shop instead of the one that’s been sitting there three straight days.

Yes, the sport got the easiest of the three TV deals done. But that doesn’t make the other two any less difficult, because those networks have the blame – and NASCAR’s unpopular Chase – all figured out.

Brad Keselowski will be taking time off from being “number 1” in the Nationwide Series to focus on where it really counts for him — Sprint Cup.

*Did You Notice?…* How Brad Keselowski is pursuing a different path? While Carl Edwards last season had no problem focusing on both the Nationwide and Cup Series, Keselowski is dropping plans to race in NASCAR’s second-tier division – at least for now. The championship leader will no longer race the Nationwide event at Kansas, handing the opportunity instead to Ryan Blaney while focusing on winning the big bucks – and the biggest trophy – over in Sprint Cup.

Clearly, after the first three races and the way the No. 2 car has performed, Keselowski smells an opening. As we’ve seen with Jimmie Johnson’s challengers through the years, it’s rare they’ve been able to put up the same type of consistent success in the Chase over a 2, 3, or 4-year period. With a transition to Ford in 2013, and the possible struggles it could entail, it’s clear Keselowski has a great chance at the title _now._ So why do anything to distract from that focus? Edwards had an A+ fitness regimen and routine that left him capable of attacking both series without a problem. Keselowski, while plenty healthy, is a notch below that level of athletic preparation… and what if there’s a wreck where, God forbid, he gets hurt?

It’s clear the driver of the No. 2 car wants to look back at this Chase and know he gave it 110 percent, with no regrets. Yes, running both series was the right choice for Edwards, who never lost momentum en route to a tie for the title. But for Keselowski? I think this decision is the right one, too.

*Did You Notice?…* Plenty of quick hits as NASCAR makes a quick turnaround to Talladega:

– People will say the move to take Ryan Newman’s current crew – including crew chief Tony Gibson – and moving them to Danica Patrick’s No. 10 is another kowtow to NASCAR’s “first woman.” But for Newman, it’s a welcome opportunity for change. In a special Tuesday press conference, where his 2013 sponsorship was announced (Quicken Loans will back his car for 18 races next season, not nine) Newman wasn’t exactly in tears over the possibility of losing his current group. That’s because the expectations of returning to championship contention at Stewart-Haas have never materialized. Newman left Penske Racing, in part because he felt the then-No. 12 car had slipped to a clear No. 2 in the pecking order, incapable of contending for wins and titles while Kurt Busch was slaying the competition left and right. And what do we take from his first four years at SHR? He’s a clear No. 2 in the pecking order, while teammate Stewart has one title (2011) and had more victories last Chase (five) than Newman has in his entire SHR career (three).

Let’s do a quick comparison of Newman in his last four years at SHR versus his last four years at Penske:

*Penske:* 2 of 4 Chase appearances, 13.5 average finish in final point standings. Best championship performance: 6th.

*SHR:* 2 of 4 Chase appearances, 12.3 average finish in final point standings. Best championship performance: 9th.

*Penske:* 2 wins, 19 top 5s, 46 top 10s, 16 poles.

*SHR:* 3 wins, 22 top 5s, 57 top 10s, 6 poles.

So, other than a few more top-10 finishes a transition to SHR for Newman has been little more than a lateral move. No wonder why he was looking around in free agency… so Danica? Eat your heart out with Tony; a change could be good for both (as in Danica’s case, her Cup starts indicate there’s nowhere to go but up.)

– When are we going to talk about Clint Bowyer as one of the sport’s best drivers? Here he is, in season one driving for Michael Waltrip Racing, an organization that had never made the Chase, with a team _that didn’t even exist in 2011_ and he’s sitting fourth in points, ready to pounce if the top three have trouble at Talladega. Two victories, seven top 5s and 18 top 10s have all matched career highs – and there’s seven races still to go. Sure, Martin Truex, Jr. brought the program’s signature car into the Chase but it took him a good three years to do it. Could Bowyer be credited more than even Mark Martin with turning this program around?

P.S. Bowyer’s won the last two Fall races at ‘Dega. So if you’re looking for someone to shake things up…

– Since when did the Truck Series tilt clearly in favor of the “young guns?” The top 5 in the current standings — Ty Dillon, James Buescher, Timothy Peters, Joey Coulter and Parker Kligerman — are all 32 or younger with their entire NASCAR future still ahead of them. The closest “veteran” Truck Series driver is Matt Crafton in sixth while the former Cup-experienced trio of Johnny Sauter, Todd Bodine and Ron Hornaday, Jr. all sit outside the top 10. It’s clear there’s a youth movement going on at the sport’s lower levels – the question mark is whether there’s the owners and the money above them to give these drivers a chance at reaching the Sprint Cup level anytime soon.

– If Jeff Gordon had any luck this season, you’d have to wonder just how close he’d be to taking this title. In five of the last six races, the DuPont Chevy has finished inside the top 3 and it would have been six-for-six, in all likelihood without that Chicagoland stuck throttle. If Gordon keeps that up, ending the season with 11 top-5 finishes in the last 12 events it’s clear (if it isn’t already) this point system just punishes a poor finish far too much. Even with seven straight victories at this point, JG can’t get back in the title hunt without some serious help.

*Connect with Tom!*

“Contact Tom Bowles”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14345/

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