Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … NASCAR’s Daunting Reality Ahead, Precedents And Race Dates

Did You Notice?… Most people, be it fans, drivers, Twitterbots, whomever seem to agree Sunday’s 500 was one of the best in years. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is on cloud nine, running on no sleep, acting 20 years old again and willing to talk to anyone within earshot – even your dog. NASCAR executives couldn’t have dreamed up a better story, and the buzz has lasted long into the week during a time when sports is slow. Momentum! Excitement! The stock car slump is over!

Hold on just a sec.

Did You Notice?… Sunday’s race delivered the worst Daytona 500 TV Rating in history. Fact: more people watched the Walking Dead on AMC, an hour-long show about zombies, than stayed awake to watch the race we’ve already built a wing for in the Hall of Fame. It was a 44 percent decline from last year’s promising Nielsen number (9.9), even though the competition for that one was as grating as nails on a chalkboard. And let’s not dwell on the point there’s still a handful of people out there who think, on this very Wednesday, that 2013 version of the 500 is the one that actually happened a few days back. Jimmie Johnson may get congratulations on two straight all the way through November at this rate…

But I digress. The reasons for poor viewership are explainable. NASCAR was up against the Olympics, a once every four-year event that eclipses any possible sport you can think of. A former boss of mine has a saying about Emmys, during an Olympic year: if you’re up for one, in another sport you might as well write the concession letter the second you get a nomination against their coverage. Don’t forget, a few years back the U.S. – Canada hockey final was held the same day as Las Vegas’ 400-mile Cup race. Your end result? Vegas had the worst audience for that event since the sport’s first national TV contract in 2001.

The ratings for the Daytona 500 were less than stellar, but there is more to the story than it appears.
The ratings for the Daytona 500 were less than stellar, but there is more to the story than it appears.

The ratings for the Daytona 500 were less than stellar, but there is more to the story than it appears.

There’s also the simple reality of fan fatigue, knocking out all the casual ones like those who would tune in for the NFL’s Super Bowl but no other games. Asking them to tune in from 12 PM on the day of the event all the way to 11:30 is just too much to ask. Others may have went to bed so they could be at work early the next day or simply lost track of when the race was going to resume. Considering the extenuating circumstances, it could have been worse. Primetime numbers were strong enough NASCAR might be wise to consider a permanent time switch.

All those excuses, however, do not take away from the stark reality that this race will remain a fantasy for millions who never get to see it. Just like the much-hyped Indy 500 of last year, which produced great racing but not enough television sets, NASCAR has to acknowledge this fact when moving forward in short-term marketing. (For those wondering, yes, the 500 will be replayed, on FOX Sports 1 at 8 PM Friday night. But I doubt, considering some still don’t even have the channel, it’s going to generate enough of an audience to make up the difference in ratings from 2013). That 5.6 number, to give you a comparison, matched the one scored in Phoenix last February. That means to hold serve, this Sunday NASCAR needs to retain every person that saw this year’s Daytona, which includes “one-time” fans who may have loved it but will go until next year without giving the sport a second thought.

That makes the next few races – both how they’re contested and the way in which they’re marketed – crucial to the sport’s 2014 success. For so many, Daytona will be nothing but a word-of-mouth success story they only wish they could have seen. If Phoenix this Sunday is single-file racing, few lead changes, and overall “bleh,” followed by a Las Vegas snoozer well… you get the picture. Suddenly, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s win, Twitter explosion and subsequent return to relevancy means little.

IndyCar, for its part, failed miserably in their efforts, never marketing effectively after such a wonderful 500 and paying the price. NASCAR would be wise to learn from those mistakes, spend a little extra money now and then hope the driving corps delivers with exceptional performances. Which reminds me…

Did You Notice?… NASCAR does such a ridiculous job shooting itself in the foot in terms of scheduling? Ironic, considering early in a season you want to put your best foot forward in order to get fans hooked, keeping them drooling through races in the middle of the year that may not get so exciting.

Instead, since losing Rockingham the sport has chosen to head to Phoenix for race two, a hit-or-miss short track that is slightly better than Fontana, its predecessor in this time slot but no guarantee of an A+ race. New pavement, from a few years back has yet to sink in and the 2013 edition was an ugly battle of track position, won by Carl Edwards but one that could easily have been taken by David Ragan had he managed to exit pit road in the first place. One hopes a year of the hot Arizona sun has made the track slick enough so passing won’t come at a premium. But that’s what we have to do: sit and hope.

Why in the world, then, would the scheduling gods choose the West Coast, a 3,000-mile trek from North Carolina shops after two weeks of Daytona Beach over a track like Bristol? By choosing Tennessee, you’re giving folks a bit of a break with shorter travel, guaranteeing yourself a great race and building momentum instead of hoping to hold it. Yes, the weather won’t be ideal. Yet last I checked, we ran in Rockingham for three decades and we never worried about weather being a huge problem. Don’t you think the reputation of the Bristol track, while taking a hit in recent years due to hotel price-gouging and too much tinkering, can stand on its own two feet? I find it hard to see too much of a difference between sitting in the stands Sunday, March 2nd and March 16th. Typically, the sun doesn’t choose to warm up 50 degrees in between; you’re stuck with colder temperatures regardless. I think people will still come.

Instead, we’re stuck during a crucial time for the sport. One of these days, one could only hope NASCAR will figure out how to break up these West Coast swings, at the right times so they’re not as impactful.

Did You Notice?… NASCAR was a bit more conservative with the caution flag during Speedweeks? Three times, we saw drivers spin out (Michael Annett, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch) without the yellow being thrown. Busch’s spin was especially noteworthy, considering it lasted from the exit of Turn 4 down half the length of the tri-oval only for officials to turn the other way.

I think that’s fine, as long as the sport realizes the 2014 precedent it’s now set. Should, say Earnhardt loop it at Bristol, out of harm’s way and the whole field keeps going, fans will cry foul if a yellow is thrown. And rightfully so. Yes, Mr. Busch may have gone overboard, ranting so badly on the radio it’s a wonder Jimmy Spencer didn’t drive down from Pennsylvania to punch him when all was said and done. But he’s right in that NASCAR, in recent years, has thrown the yellow if someone so much as came too close to the outside wall. This whole “keep the flag in the pouch” thing is new for them.

Ditto when it comes to “debris,” which was conspicuously absent throughout most of Speedweeks. The Truck Series had no cautions for it, nor did the Cup Series. The Nationwide Series had two, both of which were legitimate. In those races, there were long green-flag runs at times officials simply let play out. It’s a refreshing change; the question now is if they stick to it.

Did You Notice?… Quick hits before we take off…

– I’ve seen a lot of talk over Austin Dillon’s “strong” ninth-place finish. Um, I wouldn’t call causing two wrecks and being involved in a third an incredible comeback performance. How do you think rookie rival Kyle Larson feels about being hit in the back bumper and spun out? Or teammate Ryan Newman, who’s often a restrictor plate pinball for being turned into the outside wall?

I’m not saying Dillon isn’t allowed to make mistakes; after all, he’s a rookie, a great personality and has potential. But to call his run Sunday “solid” is ridiculous. In all honesty, it was a top-10 finish that, with all the wreckage caused he didn’t deserve.

BOWLES: A Sitdown With One Of NASCAR’s Top 2014 Rookie Candidates

– James Finch and HScott Motorsports were thrilled with Bobby Labonte’s 15th-place finish Sunday, his best performance in Cup since the Daytona 500 last year. Just don’t expect it to translate into a full-time ride driving the team’s second car. According to team sources, the 2000 Cup champ, who turns 50 this year, has been signed for a fairly limited schedule, the four plate races (Daytona and Talladega) as well as two more TBD events in the No. 52. More sponsorship could beef up the program, but there’s no major deals on the table for Labonte as of now.

– 2013 Rookie of the Year candidate Timmy Hill said at Daytona he’s secured a Cup ride that will run beginning in a week and a half at Las Vegas. The 20-year-old wouldn’t say which team, only that it wasn’t a part of the No. 32 operation he drove for last year. New ownership, with Archie St. Hilaire partnering with Frank Stoddard, caused them to turn away from Hill’s youth at GO FAS Racing and to veteran Travis Kvapil beginning at Phoenix this weekend. The reason? With the back of the field more competitive this year, in the form of 44-47 teams getting to the track each weekend, they felt an experienced driver would leave them in better position to stay up in owner points for those all-important provisional qualifying spots.

Morgan Shepherd, after failing to make the Daytona 500 at age 72, has been entered at Phoenix in Joe Nemechek’s No. 87 Toyota. Should he make it, Shepherd would be the oldest Cup driver ever, but I find it sad his career has developed into some sort of sideshow. Yes, it’s impressive to race at this age but he hasn’t scored a top-10 finish in Cup since 1997. If Terry Labonte can finally find the courage to hang it up, at age 57 you’d think Shepherd would soon be able to do the same.

Connect with Tom!

Contact Tom Bowles

About the author

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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