Martinsville interest wanes, Hall of Fame controversy and more
Despite the significance of Martinsville, it is one of the least watched races
It would benefit NASCAR to release the names and decisions of HOF voters
NASCAR could reconnect with fans by using cars that resemble those on the road
This weekend brings a return to one of NASCAR's most historic and exciting tracks. If you missed the rain-delayed Monday race at Martinsville this spring -- and judging by the ratings, plenty of you did -- that barnburner easily qualifies as the best finish of the season. Denny Hamlin charged from ninth to first over the final 12 laps of the race, taking the lead on a green-white-checkered finish where champions Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon nearly took each other out to cost both the victory. The resulting aftermath was filled with raw emotion, frayed tempers, and exactly the type of drama and hard racing that built the sport into the type of one-decade wonder that had the NFL looking over its shoulder.
Of course, that heart-pumping ending is one of several at the paper-clip short track in recent years, the lone remaining place on the Cup schedule that's held a race every year since the series began in 1949. Fans write every year in droves and claim if the track ever loses a date, they'll never tune into another NASCAR race again.
So why aren't they practicing what they preach? Even when Mother Nature doesn't interfere, one of the most revered tracks on the circuit sits at or near the bottom of the TV ratings chart each year. For the last three seasons, the short track has qualified as the least-watched race in the Chase, combined with attendance in recent events that has failed to fill to capacity. It's one thing if you're Michigan, where a half-filled two-mile oval still nets you 65,000 fans. But when your seating capacity is just 61,000 to begin with, just one empty seat in the hills of rural Virginia prompts the men in suits to make business decisions, not heartwarming.
It all adds up to an increasingly sad story for fans whose actions contradict their words. Five races in, the most-watched Chase event remains the much-beleaguered Auto Club Speedway, which for all its complaints of "boring" racing trailed only Talladega in postseason viewership last season. It's the type of numbers that either make you want to send Mr. Nielsen to court or raise a more intriguing question: Are a bunch of complainers causing us to miss the mark on how fans really feel?
The overwhelming amount of criticism surrounding the sport suggests we're still right in tune with what they're thinking. But for those still smarting over a wealth of negativity, if you're not watching Martinsville you're failing to indicate what changes you really want. And considering it's one of a handful of tracks on the circuit where you're all but guaranteed to get an A-level finish every time out, this is one weekend where your remote should be firmly tuned to cars going in circles, not the NFL.
On to a flurry of comments and questions this week. Per usual, firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter at @NASCARBowles are the best ways to reach me.
I caught the end of your debate with Tom Bowles on Friday afternoon. I withheld any judgment until I had the opportunity to read his article. However, after reading his article and your blog posting, I am in 100 percent agreement with you. Numbers alone do not tell the story. You have to look at what the person has done not only on the track, but off the track for the betterment and support of the sport. Each of the five selected have met that criteria. How can one argue over the five selected?
I can't understand how Tom feels that the panel "whiffed" on these selections. Truly these five will be given their time in the spotlight, their accomplishments garnishing individual attention just as the selection process was designed to do. Those that he feels were slighted will surely, in time, receive the same adulation. However, Tom himself cheapens the process by insinuating in his final paragraphs that those were selected were done on "feeling alone."
Tom, you've "whiffed" on this one this time.
-- Buddy Weber, Baltimore, Md.
Buddy, as I explained to Dave in a hard-fought, healthy debate, the way NASCAR has set up the selection process has changed the way each five-member class is perceived. Since the Hall of Fame wasn't constructed until 60 years into the sport's existence, there's 50, 60 people out there who deserve to be enshrined right now. But by limiting each class to five per year, the sport basically tells its voting system to take that initial class of 60 and narrow it down to a ranking system each year: Who were the sixth to 10th-best people (Class 2), 11th through 15th (Class 3 in 2012), etc. Isn't that what the Hall is all about, separating the best from the best? And isn't that the best part of sports, arguing who could be ranked above who until the bar is closing at 2 am?
Several people misinterpreted that article as me saying Bud Moore and Ned Jarrett should never be in the Hall of Fame. That couldn't be further from the truth, as personally I have Jarrett ranked in the third Class (2012) and Moore not far behind. Each of the 25 finalists on NASCAR's list will be honored eventually, but it's a matter of when that's fair to debate considering the Hall of Fame "ranking" system. My beef was that when you boil it down, I honestly believed neither one was one of the top 10 most influential people in NASCAR's history. Top 15, top 20 maybe ... but not top 10, and I found it hard to believe other people could think that way considering the statistics.
Also, keep in mind I'm not saying everyone with the voting panel used their heart and not their head. The difference between second-place Bobby Allison and fifth place Moore in the voting process (remember, NASCAR takes the top 5, not a certain percentage threshold like the Baseball Hall of Fame) was seven votes. Dale Inman, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip -- all people I could have been satisfied with in the second class -- finished sixth, seventh, and eighth, all within a similar striking distance of Moore. With 52 total members in the room, all it would take is a group of eight or 10 looking to make a point or acting out a personal grudge against one of the candidates to sway the process. It's as simple as that, a way to cheapen the voting process for the rest who did things the right way.
Dave makes mention of the fact I didn't specifically mention one voter in my column. For the record, sources on the ground tell me the group of 11 track owners combined with the eight NASCAR representatives had the least support for Yarborough and Waltrip, for whatever reasons. That makes sense to me, considering that Yarborough's "pay to play" special appearances wouldn't make me happy if I was a track owner, and Waltrip's negativity toward the sport at times in the broadcast booth isn't leaving the Frances smiling every week. I just can't name specific people if they won't go on the record because the sport doesn't release who voted for whom, similar to how college football's coaches poll used to protect its members.
Going forward, with such a small panel I think it benefits everyone involved for NASCAR to publicize those votes to the media. I understand why it doesn't happen, with fierce lobbying likely to ensue within such a small community if a finalist discovers one of their peers didn't give them support. But what have we been talking about all year concerning fans' anger over NASCAR keeping secrets instead of making decisions a matter of public record?
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