Race Weekend Central

NASCAR’s Long Road Ahead

2016 Daytona Speedweeks was defined by the words “drama free.” Those are not bad words, not when such negative news can dominate the headlines. Consider that last Daytona 500 eve was spent writing about one driver’s suspension for domestic violence and another’s extended hospital stay (Kurt and Kyle Busch, respectively).

Instead, what we got this year was a plethora of positive storylines. Chief among them was the closest finish in Daytona 500 history (0.010 seconds); a close second was the completion of Daytona Rising. Going through the stands Sunday was truly an impressive experience, showcasing everything from Toyota’s virtual reality booth to a jarring old vs. new display of Jeff Gordon and Chase Elliott’s No. 24. It’s likely the first and only time in my life I’d consider uttering the words “that was $400 million well spent.”

Yet all the Denny Hamlin appearances, SportsCenter stories and class displayed by photo finish loser Martin Truex, Jr. did little to move the needle of Nielsen Ratings. The sport scored an ugly 6.14 overnight  Sunday, marking a 39 percent decline from when Danica Patrick won the pole for the Daytona 500 just three short years ago. It’s a rating that, last decade would have been bested by races at Bristol or Martinsville; it’s only reasonably better than last year’s 4.4 season finale at Homestead. The cherry on top was that every single Daytona Speedweeks event, from the Sprint Unlimited to Trucks to XFINITY to the Duels suffered at least slight declines despite perfect weather and a perfect safety record (Christopher Bell’s flip notwithstanding).

Is it time to sound the alarm? Well, yes and no. There’s plenty of rational reasons to explain the early dip in viewership, the most glaring being the absence of two of NASCAR’s Most Popular stars from the grid: Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Sure, Chase Elliott is great but he’s also age 20 and hasn’t come in prepackaged with millions of fans. Gordon & Stewart combined brought us seven championships, multiple victories in big races (Stewart’s Daytona 500 0-for notwithstanding) and on-track personalities that stood out. Losing that duo is the first in a generation of drivers about to retire; as I wrote last week, hanging onto the past is dangerous. We should embrace the future.

Fans were also frustrated with the way in which the last plate race, Talladega, came to an end last fall. A last-lap caution that froze the field and gave Joey Logano the victory over Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was the result of a comedy of errors; Kevin Harvick’s seemingly intentional contact pushed some fans over the edge. Even the drivers and teams themselves made a subtle statement throughout Speedweeks as a bare minimum participated in many of the prerace practices leading up to the race. Indeed, they could have used the extra track time as so many (Earnhardt the most notable) grossly underestimated the degree handling would influence the competition.

The common theme among those in the garage was, “Why risk it when all the driver has to do is run wide open?” Truck Series rookie Cody Coughlin said as much in his postrace interview Friday night; when asked what he learned in his first Daytona race he simply shrugged shoulders and sounded bored. The problem with creating everyone equal, the end result of NASCAR’s rules is you take away the ability to feel challenged.

I do think some of that will change; racing is a copycat business and how Daytona unfolded, especially with the lack of a “Big One” in this year’s 500 will put teams on the track during practices. This mode of staying positive within NASCAR circles remains important; it’s much harder to climb back up the mountain then slide down it.

And yet, even in a race as clean as Sundays the challenges ahead were revealed for all to see. The twentysomething “changing of the guard” didn’t come to fruition; Elliott crashed and names like Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson won’t ping outside any of the sport’s hardcore fans. Clearly, Rome wasn’t built in a day but we’re still waiting for this rush of new kids to lay the groundwork. Hamlin winning is nice but he’s well-known, unlikely to win over/win back a chunk of potential fans. Known commodities don’t often produce rabid new fans if you’ve had more than a decade to discover them.

Then there’s the final laps themselves, a five-car breakaway up front led by a Toyota quintet who refused to pass each other until the white flag flew. In one sense, you can understand their position and it didn’t really matter the way the field turned into a side-by-side melee at the end. But in an individual sport the charters, more than ever highlight the desire for owners and manufacturers to glue as many cars together as possible. A sport scored on individuality must balance the increasing pressure for all multi-car teams to “get in line” and let whomever gets out of the pits first win this week.

Add in the nuances of plate racing, the fact all 40 cars are superglued to each other with little chance of mechanical failure anymore and for some it’s no longer the competition they want to see. Yet the finish for NASCAR gives hope. It’s being played on repeat everywhere and potential new fans don’t care or understand how the first 198 laps played out; they’re just obsessed with how cool the last two were. The way handling comes into play also bodes well for Atlanta and beyond as the new 2016 rules package takes hold.

As much as we don’t like to admit it, “clean” doesn’t play as well as “crisis” or “drama” in a sport fueled by personalities. The sport can use “clean” to propel itself over time, and hopefully this package will solve a lot of handling problems going forward. 101,000 fans will undoubtedly be back after an incredible experience in a new arena. But it takes time for word to spread, time for trust to be administered once again in an era where fans have been burned so many times.

Surely, Sunday’s racing offers hope certain fans will stick around. But it’s a long road ahead for NASCAR to come even relatively close to sustaining momentum in a positive direction.

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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“Froze the field and gave the victory to Logano over Jr.” Well yes…BUT Logano bested him a few times in that rodeo so I don’t think at that point it was a Christmas time Salvation Army red kettle donation to the Logano Foundation. Logano did have the lead, they gave Junior, what 3 tries? Hell no doubt, in fear of riots they wanted him to win! But when you have a car in flames and carnage on the track, enough was enough. It was not in the Earnhardt Dynasty that weekend, despite what the family and fanatics try to spin. Nobody wants to see a race they invested in end that way, but that does not mean Junior was the heir apparent. The blame should have been on Harvick. That can of worms seemed to have been put to compost pretty quickly. Interestingly enough about the Harvick deal and his impact on the “Chase”…CRICKETS!

Chase Elliott is like Goldman Sachs, just like Junior. And Rick H. is the CEO. Those two “Juniors” will continue to get good press and hyped press…just for going to the local Starbucks, regardless of what they do or not do on the track. Pure gold. Chase DID inherit a fan base, just like Ralph Jr. It is a reality and $$$$$$$.

I really don’t think the ratings reflect a cold turkey scenario of those who are Tony and Jeff fans. What nobody wants to face. from what the majority said..the race was a nap inducer. They hyped Chase, Junior, the Toyota contribution of Daytona Rising as a distraction from the same old boring garbage. The whole weekend was a homage to Chase, Junior, the vanity of Daytona Rising and its big contributor Toyota.

And racing “clean” should not mean boring, but the only reason why what happened at the end was Matt Kenseth screwed up yet again with his inability to block and Hamlin should thank his lucky stars for Harvick and Logano. NOT his team. He won because his teammate screwed up. That isn’t exactly in line with the “team argument” which is certainly valid…regarding the new uncharted charter system we all shall see this season.

Fox Mulder

“We should embrace the future.”

No, we must “Fight The Future”!

Roger Barnett

Bill France has done all this damage to NASCAR and he can pay the price. Less people going to races. Car racing is not stick and ball sports and shouldn’t be compared. Stick and ball are losing fans too. Bring NASCAR back to the way it always was. The chase is terrible and all the cars look alike. Toyota look alikes.

Tim S.

Many Stewart/Gordon/”old school” fans have indeed embraced the future. It’s just a future with a lot less NASCAR in it.


Well said, Tim S.

I take issue in particular with this statement from Tom. “hanging onto the past is dangerous. We should embrace the future.”

I’m not hanging on to the past, I am embracing my future but that future does NOT mean I have to choose another driver or drink the NASCAR kool aid.


Exactly! Belittling the “old school” fans hardly seems like a way to get them to stick around!


Brian should be getting the message but he doesn’t want to know and his toadies aren’t telling him.


Its just a matter of slowly accumulating fatigue with a sport which has seemingly lost touch with the times. Theres no one major problem, but a whole host of little ones. Its taken its toll.


A close finish does not necessarily make for a ‘good race’. To wait 3 hours to actually see some competition on the track does not make for compelling viewing. Plus, the constant hype of the “Daytona Rising” was really annoying. For starters, too many PR people coming up with cutesy names for things. Calling an entrance an ‘injector’ doesn’t make it different. And maybe I’m less impressed with the whole thing, having spent many afternoons in The Big House in Ann Arbor, MI, which seats more than Daytona. Or the nights in Bristol where the stands surround the whole track. Just because they spent ridiculous amounts of money doesn’t make it that ‘amazing’. I found myself wondering just how much money it would cost a fan to get into most of those luxe portions of the stands. Something needs to be done to aero package at plate track to make passing possible without having 10 cars lined up.


Salb-figured out years ago I you have to ask about the cost, chances are you can’t afford it. Do you really think na$car would let us, the common fan into Daytona rising? I have a friend who was st Daytona working with the catering group and drivers and sponsors were the ones that she saw in and out if Daytona rising. Jr and his group were there Friday night. She saw them about 10:45 pm Friday. She sent me text telling me she saw him.


I hate to say it but I’m not looking forward to this season. I’ve gone from fan who watched every minute of every race to a fan who watches the race if there is nothing better to do. When I DVR a race, I fast forward through the boring follow the leader parts and stop it when there is actual action on the track. You can “watch” a 500 mile race in under an hour and not miss a thing. The franchising fiasco is going to make already bad racing even worse.

Jim Bailey

Daddy why did’t you turn on the tv Sunday. Because son,racing is gone and the tv can’t find any!


I hate to beat a dead horse but NASCAR made a huge mistake when they built so many big, “follow the leader” tracks. After all the expense I have no idea how they get back to more good racing each week like they have at Bristol, Martinsville or Richmond. As a former huge fan of NASCAR for over 30 years I’ve tried to hang in there even with the boring racing but have finally given up. I’ll watch the short tracks if I’m not busy but don’t care for the rest any longer.

Bill B

In all honesty, NASCAR has made a lot of mistakes but I agree with you 100%. NASCAR has painted themselves into a corner building all those 1.5 mile tracks. If only a couple of them had been unique less than 1 mile tracks it would spice things up and make the bigger tracks bearable. I have never seen Martinsville produce a boring race, ever (although I am sure there are some that don’t like the short tracks). Darlington too and that’s over 1 mile. I would also say those cookie cutters are the main reason a lot of fans have warmed up to the road courses. A few times a year it’s cool to see something a little different if your only other choice is another 1.5 mile track.



That pretty much sums up my attitude as well. I’m not a ‘casual fan’…more of a ‘casual observer’.


The Mad Man

ZZZZzzzz Huh? There was a race Sunday? Bottle that puppy up as a cure for insomnia.It was that boring.

Tim Walgren

It’s the racing stupid, it sucks!

Don mei

Most of the race was a boring procession. I didn’t sit down to watch it until the last100 miles. Why NASCAR persists with long distance races is beyond me. Call it the 500 and change it to kilometers. More and more races have become boring processions. The chase format doesn’t help matters nor does the presence of the annoying Michael Waltrip. as an announcer. I kill the sound when he is on.

Don in CT

John J

I scanned the news articles about Boring 500 parade but really didn’t see any brave reporters willing to say that the NASCAR Emperor is naked. Cookie cutter racecars are boring and restrictor plate racing is boring but you know what, no one seems to care. As I read the Daytona 500 propaganda reports, I don’t see a lot of comments from fans for or against Denny winning or how boring the race was or wasn’t. The fans are leaving in mass both at the race track as shown by declining attendance and the continued drop in TV ratings. Mean while the owners (charter system) have joined with the NASCAR Emperor to milk more money out of the remaining race fans and soon to come new title sponsor. The fans see that the NASCAR Emperor is naked and it is ugly in more than one way. Perhaps NASCAR can get Depends to be the title sponsor, they need it with the crap they call racing today.


This whole Daytona Rising project is Nascar’s attempt to make the sport more corporate. Surely they have seen how corporate the NFL is and how well that is working for them and Nascar wants to go that way no doubtedly. Trouble is Nascar was and always has been supported most by blue collar hard working people and not the corporate types. The corporate types may have the money, but they don’t have the passion that most die hard fans have/used to have. Something they still have yet to figure out.

Its hard to get excited about a race when all they talk about is Hendrick drivers, Toyota drivers, and Jr all day. Add in promo after promo and constant commercials, it gets old quick. Now we have a new person in the booth who seems to only talk about his Hendrick buddies. I really feel for Mike Joy. He deserves better than what he has to deal with.

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