If you’re old enough that you hear the term “anticipation” and you still think Carly Simon and not catsup the lead up to Sunday’s ROVAL race probably had you whistling that old hit single. As I noted last week there was a whole lot of hype leading up to the Cup series first race on the mongrelized road course type track at Charlotte.
Because NASCAR (and the track owners) so rarely try something so radically different as this experiment, nobody knew quite what to expect. There was a lot of conjecture there’d be a lot of wrecks and the fans would be left perched on the edge of their seats either at the track or at home on the couch. There was a lot of concern given the narrowness of the track there wouldn’t be much passing or side-by-side racing. Both assumptions turned out to be correct.
It was clear from the moment that the teams unloaded at Charlotte this weekend a lot of drivers, I’d say it’s fair to say the majority of them, were very uptight about what was about to transpire. I found it highly unusual more than a few drivers admitted they were “terrified” of the upcoming race. “Terrified”, not “Concerned” or “Nervous.” There was a general consensus that there’d be a big wreck on the first lap of the race (which turned out not to be the case) and it would be the first of many. I think what had so many drivers wound up like balsa wood toy planes was not the race itself. Any race car driver who is realistic knows as little as they like it they’re going to have a bad race occasionally. That might be their own fault or it might be due to happenstance beyond their control. But the wild card in the deck was the fact the ROVAL race was the final event of a playoff segment and four drivers were going to be eliminated from title contention based on how they finished Sunday. (Yes, if they’d run a little better in the first two races of the segment there would have been less pressure but like most of us, drivers are better at applying themselves to the task at hand than at going back and changing what’s happened in the past.)
Looked at as a whole, the ROVAL race was not a rousing success. There was very little passing and practically no tight-quarter side-by-side racing. (Unless you want to count guys just running heedlessly into one another.) In the latter part of the race it certainly appeared that fuel mileage was going to be the deciding factor in who hauled home the hardware. Fans in general don’t typically think much of fuel mileage races. (Unless of course their favorite driver is the beneficiary.) This is a sport based on MPH not MPG at its roots. As far as the points there was mass confusion amongst not only the fans but the drivers. Those “Points as they run now” updates are all but worthless when you consider there’s some drivers who certainly have enough gas to finish the race with the added benefit of having fresher tires, others who may be a lap or two short on fuel unless they get a timely caution, and others who are going to need divine intervention to make it to the end of the race without stopping. For anyone who joined the race around 4 PM ET after their local NFL football game you saw everything you needed to see. After unexpectedly docile, dare I say somewhat boring “racing” near terminal levels of brain fade swept through the field causing like a contagion causing the 43 best drivers in the world to suddenly do inexplicably stupid things you’d have expected out of a first year quarter midget driver.
It’s not often you’ll see the drivers running first and second wreck out simultaneously in the same corner not once but twice in a race. Brad Keselowski shouldered the blame for the big wreck that ended his day, Kyle Busch’s chances and dealt a severe blow to Larson’s hopes as well. In the second big wreck, no less a driver than seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who has in fact won 83 races (even if he hasn’t won one in over a year) made what can only be described in retrospect as a bone-headed move to wrest the lead from Martin Truex Jr. Making the blunder that much more notable is that had he settled for second place rather than making that Banzai dive into the chicane he’d have advanced to the next round of the playoffs with some points left to spare. No, the TV folks weren’t sure who had made the cut and who missed the chance immediately after the race. But I assure you that atop his pit box the No.48’s crew chief Chad Knaus knew exactly what was afoot and at stake. The No. 48 team are the masters of mathematic machinations in such situations which helps explain why Johnson is a seven-time Cup champion.
While Johnson’s elimination was one of the big takeaways after the race, I’ll admit that I am at least partially relieved Johnson was eliminated. There’s no disputing he’s a great driver but nor is there any argument he’s had a very bad season. Johnson has no wins, just two top 5 results, and a total of just 10 top 10 results this year. In what other form of auto racing or in fact any organized sport would that level of mediocrity entitle one to move on to the post-season?
Most commentators dwelt on Johnson’s sense of urgency to finally snap that winless drought as the cause of him taking leave or his senses. I’d say there’s bigger game afoot. Recall for the first time his career Johnson heads into next year without a sponsor for his team. That’s never happened to Johnson before as he and Lowes have enjoyed a long successful relationship. Would winning that race, ending the drought and making it to the next round of the playoffs have landed Johnson a new sponsor for next year? I don’t know but I sincerely doubt it would have hurt his prospects any.
I don’t mean to insinuate that Johnson’s career is drawing to a close and that elusive eighth title will forever remain unclaimed. Dale Earnhardt Sr. had a couple winless seasons and Richard Petty had a bunch of them. But realistically Johnson’s Cup racing career is closer to its end than its beginning and the fact the team is struggling to find adequate financial backing is beyond worrisome and perhaps a stunning indictment of the sport’s financial model.
In one regard at least the ROVAL experiment was a huge success. NBC’s overnight TV ratings for the event were a 1.99, roughly double last week’s Richmond ratings though I’d argue in any dispassionate analysis Richmond was actually the better race. 1.99 still isn’t stellar. The lowest rated NFL game of Week 3 I could find was the Thursday night contest between the hapless Browns and Jets. That drew an 8.2 TV rating. But before ratings can start reliably increasing, first someone has to find a way to stop the downhill skid and the ROVAL race did exactly that so I applaud them for having the nerve to try to pull it off. Right now NASCAR on TV is teetering at the edge of a very large precipice, Read on.
One is the loneliest number, and last week NASCAR on NBC’s coverage from Richmond hit a worrisome milestone. The final TV rating was a 1.0 and just 1.77 million folks tuned in to watch the race live. Most races as of late have had ratings in the 1.2-1.5 range and averaged somewhere just over 2 million viewers. (Naturally we’re not counting race coverage that is rain delayed here.) The concern has been that with ratings dropping about 17% yearly eventually NASCAR was going to have a non-rain-delayed race points (never mind playoff race) with a rating of less than 1.0 and total viewership falling below that 2.0 million mark as happened last week.
A few quick notes: the TV networks presenting NASCAR have always been resistant to scheduling races on a Saturday night like Richmond was last week claiming that Saturday night is the least watched night on TV. Oh, and of course for a few weeks now NASCAR is once up against NFL and college football, two sports that routinely beat stock car racing ratings like a cheap drum.
NASCAR has always had one disadvantage versus other televised sports in that the biggest event of the season, the Daytona 500, is the first event of the season and not the last. This year’s Daytona 500 drew a still respectable 5.3 rating with close to 18 million folks watching all or part of the event. Now almost eight long arduous months later interest in the sport has apparently cratered, playoffs be damned. (If you’re interested the other two Triple Crown races, the World 600 and the Southern 500 earned a 2.4 and 1.5 rating respectively.)
The Richmond race supposedly was the least watched (non-delayed) Cup race since at least 2000 back when the sport was still soaring and eclipsing rating records routinely.
Those 1.0 TV ratings and 2 million viewer thresholds are purely psychological barriers. Getting a 1.1 rating rather than a .98 wouldn’t be worth celebrating either. But eventually you have to think someone at FOX or NBC is going to start wondering “we’re paying how much to broadcast these races?”
If NASCAR does in fact still have 50 million fans in the US alone as they recently claimed, one has to wonder what is the definition of a fan? Why are only about two percent of NASCAR fans tuning in to the races? If you say you’re a Bob Seger fan but don’t own any of his albums, never listen to any of his music or go to his concerts are you a Bob Seger fans because you still have a faded, two-sizes-too-small Seger T-shirt you used to wear in high school? Feel like a number? I’m not a number. Damn, it I’m a man. (And a fan, even if those T-shirts don’t fit anymore.)
Rut-Roh, Rorge. The festivities at Charlotte’s ROVAL (and our senior editor is insistent I spell that in all caps though it leaves me wondering if Maple Grove up the road from me is a DRAG STRIP) didn’t get off to a smooth start Friday. Perhaps it was natural to expect given limited testing, a new road course, and new challenges aplenty that some drivers would adapt quicker than others and some hardware was going to get badly bent up, bruised and battered. We got all that and then some leaving NASCAR scratching their collective heads overnight on Friday as to what to do. They hastily ordered the tire barrier along the back straight chicane to be moved back about four feet to lessen the carnage. (Or perhaps they were just really digging all the video of the cars sent flying over those 200 pound blue “turtle” speed bumps. Need I add for the PC crowd, no actual amphibians were harmed in the course of the race? ) Either way, you know things aren’t off to a smooth start when the pace car spins out during practice. I’m not sure what happened there but I’m guessing Brett Bodine wasn’t hollering “Hoo-ray for me!” when it did.
Incidents involving the pace car are not all that uncommon in the sport. In fact, Brett Bodine’s brother Geoffrey was involved in one of the more memorable ones. During a Sportsman race at Charlotte in the early 80s, Bodine was running fifth with two laps to go when a wreck occurred. The pace car roared up onto the track as the yellow flag waved, and Bodine, who was running fifth, hit some oil from the first wreck and wiped out the Trans Am pace car.
In 1999 in practice for the ARCA race at Daytona, Joe Cooksey wound up hitting the pace car very hard. If I recall correctly, NASCAR pace car driver Elmo Langley was at the wheel. He didn’t think too highly of what transpired nor did he think much of Cooksey’s abilities as a driver or his parentage based on the comments he made after the fact.
It had to be enough to make those pace car drivers stay parked on pit road until the field slowed to a cautious pace. But sometimes even that isn’t enough. At the conclusion of the 1988 Winston Open qualifying race at Charlotte a driver by the name of Brad Noffsinger cut a tire and lost control. His car veered through the infield grass and one pit road where it hit the backup pace car, yet another Pontiac. The primary pace car driver had seen Noffsinger coming and alertly through that pace car in reverse to get out of the way leaving Noffsinger a clear path to hit his backup.
Perhaps the most infamous incident at a NASCAR race involving a non-race vehicle was during the 2012 Daytona 500 when Juan Pablo Montoya ran into a Jet-Dryer truck under caution triggering a fiery inferno that left even the TV commentators baffled as to what had happened. Most of you probably remember that pyrotechnic wreck but how many remember which driver was leading at the time? Yes, if the burning jet fuel had done more damage to the track or they’d been unable to clean it up in a reasonable amount of time (it was already well after midnight if I recall), Dave Blaney, (Ryan’s father) would have had his first and only Cup victory in that year’s Daytona 500.
It drew barely a mention during the two Charlotte races, but NASCAR made a major change to how they flag a road course race this weekend that should be a vast improvement. Under a yellow caution flag, the entire field is forced to slow to pace car speed around the full distance of the track. Those long yellow flag periods can seem interminable. A full course yellow is fine for a major incident that involves a bunch of cars and has the track mostly blocked or requires safety workers to run across the track. This week, NASCAR used the blue “local incident” flag to warn drivers there is a situation immediately ahead of them so they should slow down until they clear the issue. It might involve a piece of debris off to the side of the track or perhaps a car that left the course and got stuck well out of the racing line. Around the rest of the track racing continues unless circumstances dictate a full course yellow.
It was also nice to see NASCAR deciding for “quickie” cautions during the race. (Under a “quickie caution” all drivers can pit at once, whereas under a standard caution the lead lap cars pit one lap and the cars a lap or more down pit the next.) Long lapses under caution that eat into the laps of green flag racing are the Achilles’ heel of NASCAR road course racing. Thankfully they seem to have gotten the message.
For fans who wanted more road racing in NASCAR there in fact will be more next year. No, there won’t be a fourth Cup road course race (at least not that I know of) but starting next year at Sonoma the circuit will include the Carousel portion of the course that NASCAR hasn’t used since 1998. That will increase the length of the course from 2.0 miles to 2.5.
Back in the days when I wrote the race recaps for this site one of the categories was the “Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune.” Certainly I’d have given a nod to Darrell Wallace Jr. after this weekend. Even prior to this weekend Wallace endured two hard wrecks in testing for the event. Friday he spun no less than four times in practice and had more problems on Saturday one of which probably showed up on local FAA flight charts. No doubt he was eager to leave the ROVAL in his rearview mirror. Other than that, General Custer, how was your trip to Montana?
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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