How NASCAR can capitalize on a potential NFL lockout
NASCAR could benefit from NFL Lockout, but on-track product needs to improve
The Sprint Cup puts too much focus on entire season instead of individual races
Danica Patrick could become a big draw for Nationwide Series
Half the nation woke up Wednesday to some combination of snow, ice, sleet, or a wind chill so cold two winter coats wouldn't cut it. Outside my Northeast window, I see snow mounds piled higher than my 5-foot-6 frame, a car ready to be shoveled out for the tenth time this season and temperatures hovering right around freezing. At this point, I really don't care if Punxsutawney Phil says we'll have an early Spring, because unless it comes tomorrow, virtually everyone east of the Rocky Mountains isn't happy.
There is, of course, one exception to the rule -- the lone state in the union that's avoided wintry precipitation through it all. I present to you the forecast for the start of Daytona Beach Speedweeks on Friday, Feb. 11, NASCAR's Super Bowl that's got Mother Nature on its side for once:
Sunny, 68 degrees, zero percent chance of precipitation.
Don't be jealous! That's Florida weather even the NFL Super Bowl can't claim, with Dallas buried in snow and ice closing the airport and hampering travel. If Daytona's new president, Joey Chitwood III, can't get fans in the stands with that weather (and I have heard through the grapevine ticket sales are up) then stock car racing might as well sign its obituary before the season starts.
Of course, sunny skies and perfect weather don't guarantee an upswing season for a sport that's been on a downhill slide. But at this point, I'd take the worst Daytona 500 in history over Snowmageddon XXV coverage on my television, and I bet half of America would, too.
Does a potential NFL lockout open the door for NASCAR, and if so, what does NASCAR need to do to capitalize? Or does it matter at all?
-- Gus, Hillsvale, Nova Scotia
On the biggest week of the NFL, makes sense to start with a football question related to NASCAR. Based on the latest news, it's a near certainty NFL owners will lock out players as soon as a March 3 deadline passes that ends the current collective bargaining agreement. How long the impasse will last is unknown, with some prognosticators claiming the battle could cost the league half its season.
Certainly, if the NFL lockout lasts just a few short months, ending before the start of their training camp midsummer NASCAR has nothing to gain. If anything, it'll lose a bit as the negotiations dominate the headlines during a time football should be out of the limelight. It's a weird short-term boost, as angry but interested pigskin supporters will want to know whether both sides can work it out.
But if the lockout lasts 'til Fall, sure, NASCAR could come out a winner as sports fans will suddenly have one less option on Sundays. Privately, I've heard rumblings Daytona officials are crossing their fingers for it, ready to ramp up advertising dollars and go all out to win fans back through an opportunity they might not get again for decades. The sanctioning body had already moved its Chase races back to a 2 p.m. start in 2011, recognizing the disaster of competing with the NFL for the 1 p.m. start times and trying to establish its own window for people to tune in. That's perfect in the case of no NFL, as sports fans are creatures of habit. At some point during the afternoon, whether it's in the 1-4 or 4-7 time frame, they'll search around for something else to occupy their time when the cold weather kicks in and mowing the lawn or doing the "honey-do" list is no longer an option.
The problem is for NASCAR to capitalize, it must improve the on-track product and give people who might have never followed the sport a reason to tune in. Why? Keep in mind at the height of NASCAR's success in 2005, the start of the NFL season didn't matter because ratings were still holding solid around a Nielsen 4.0 (compared to the 2.3-2.8 being pulled in these days at the start of the playoffs). If drivers race around single-file, waiting for the last 20 laps like they're driving on the highway, disenfranchised football fans will have a better chance of turning on the Food network instead.
The key will be for the sport to be proactive: if the racing is still struggling and the lockout remains, will the powers that be make a major handling change to the cars pre-playoffs to make the racing more competitive? Will Sprint be willing to throw an extra $1 million dollar bonus for anyone who wins three of four races in September? They'll need to get creative, making news in the void of the NFL for people to switch the channel and check them out for more than a few short minutes. Here's hoping the marketing department has some ideas in the can ...
It seems that NASCAR's re-emphasis on consistency and season standings (and de-emphasis on week-to-week wins) is squarely designed to benefit the NASCAR stakeholder that most directly benefits NASCAR financially -- Sprint. Doesn't Sprint want focus maintained on the Sprint Cup championship and not on the individual race winners? Sprint doesn't want anything to fuel Jamie McMurray's suggestion that his year was better than many Chase participants. NASCAR whiffed at a chance to spice up the weekly races to maximize the relevance of the season championship. We'll see if the decision was a wise one.
-- Mike, Knoxville, TN
Mike, you raise a great point I don't think anyone's talking about. There were rumors back a few years ago Sprint was going to bail on its NASCAR contract during the Nextel merger, and those have since died down (the $750 million contract runs through 2013). Still, the sport wants to bend over backwards to keep them happy, and something it's done which previous sponsor Winston didn't was put a special focus on the title, failing to support old programs like Winston's No Bull 5 (offering $1 million bonuses for winning specific races) in favor of a Chase system where Sprint is front and center for nearly the final third of the season.
You could make the argument that despite declining ratings, Sprint doesn't need the early-season doldrums -- or the Chase for that matter -- to be fixed, because the mere at-track exposure, both on television and with fans in attendance, makes the investment worthwhile in the boardroom. Eliminating those final 10 races would take away that focus, making business executives jittery in a shaky economy about their bottom line. You remove the key maneuver that helped define their NASCAR entrance in 2004, and there's a risk involved -- a risk they're likely unwilling to take.
I think the same line of thinking could also apply to Nationwide and why they fought tooth and nail for Cup drivers to still be eligible to run for their "AAA" championship. When you see business booming and your advertising is built around Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch, of course your bottom line is going to take a short-term hit. The move may have been good for the long-term future of the sport, but what business wants to take a seven-figure loss in the name of "doing the right thing" when it doesn't have a 20-year contract to see the fruits of its labor? (Nationwide's runs through 2014, although depending on whom you listen to there's an out clause after 2012).
In the second case, NASCAR bucked Nationwide's requests, but you wonder if Sprint demanded "Keep the Chase" in private meetings, whether the sport would risk a much bigger investment ($75 million per compared to less than one-third of that for Nationwide) with any potential replacement sponsor offering significantly less, considering the recent downturn.
After reading the numerous e-mails and your responses, I am left thinking that NASCAR is trying to solve the wrong problem. Long races = boring races (unless someone crashes, and the point system encourages drivers to really avoid crashes in the middle of the race). Since the excitement is at the end of the race ... run four 100-mile qualifying races of 11 cars each, pit road is closed on yellow flags, top three in each heat advance to a 200-mile race with 12 cars. Drivers get five point for first, three for second, one for third in the qualifying, twice that in the finals. Five races to the checkered, five races for points ... more racing time wise ... (for more ad dollars ...) nice big gaps between heats for ads ...
Very different I know ... but it seems to me (a non-race fan) that the All-Star short races generate more excitement that the long, almost endurance races.
Thanks for reading.
-- Mike Riddle, Charlotte
Interesting thoughts, but I think we're making this whole issue too complicated. Since you're not a race fan, I'll tell you why the old All-Star Races were compelling: aggression, from the drop of the green to the checkered flag. There's nothing but money and pride on the line, not points, so drivers will take risks they otherwise wouldn't have taken in a regular season race.
That's the intensity that's been lost over this focus for the championship, 500 miles of pacing yourself instead of remembering what put fans in the stands for racing in the first place: drivers going all-out, on the ragged edge, by setting speed records and pulling daring maneuvers for the win. To do that again you need to remove the consequences of a DNF for drivers looking to win a title, something we've never had since the modern point system was established from 1975-2010. The new point system, where a 43rd-place finish is harder to recover from than in the old system (see last week's mailbag for more) means the problem won't go away.
I am a NASCAR outsider. After reading your mailbag, it would seem most race fans would like the easiest points system: whoever wins the most races wins the championship. If there is a tie, a tiebreaker could be most Top 5, or Top 10 finishes. This would be simpler, and take points out of the equation. You could then throw points and Chases in the trash.
The only problem with this is if I would were a hardcore NASCAR fan, I would want the last race to be the most important. So why don't they have the last race with only the best 10 drivers of the season using the scoring system above? Make the 36th race in Daytona without restrictor plates, and that would create incredible interest! I have read where some fans would not like this because it lessens the beginning 35 races, but shouldn't the last race be more important from the first? Do you like either of the two suggestions?
-- Steve Mercer, Dover, DE
I wouldn't hold the last race at Daytona, Steve, but how about Bristol? It's good, ol' short track racing that brought this sport from the ashes of southern Moonshining and into the national consciousness. Ten drivers, all-out, at Bristol for some sort of season-ending prize sounds great to me.
I don't think it should be for the title, though. Making it solely about the most wins is too unbalanced, as battles for ninth and tenth place suddenly lose their meaning in a sport where the focus on fans has always been spread around a field of 43. How about 10 bonus points for winning instead of three under this system? And more of a gap in points between a top-5 finisher and someone in the top 10? NASCAR needs to increase the risk/reward up front for making moves during and at the end of the race, because pride and money isn't enough for drivers to always take them.
I agree that the new points system and Chase eligibility criteria are an improvement. However, I believe the changes only really impact the top half of the grid. I have always had a problem with the top 35 qualifying rule and can this be an issue at some point with the new points system.
When comparing the F1 points system and lower tier teams to the NASCAR qualifying system and lower tier teams/field fillers, there are different and very distinct reasons for being on the track. In F1, points are limited to only the top finishers. Lower tier teams both know and understand that they do not realistically have a chance to win races and that points are relatively meaningless when it comes to racing the rest of the season. The F1 lower tier teams are on the track in order to improve for the following race or the following season. These teams know when to call it a day and get off the track.
The lower tier NASCAR teams are either racing for money as a start and park car or trying to desperately make it through the season by scoring points that most people don't care about. NASCAR should do away with the top 35 qualifying system. A better system would be to guarantee a starting spot to any team that can show it could run every single race. Teams that run the entire season are entitled to a spot each weekend. Full-time commitments from teams will make the new points more relevant since the focus will be on winning or improving and not just getting paid. My .02
-- Stan Chang
In responses from people in and outside the sport, the number one NASCAR criticism with the 2011 changes is, "Why didn't you fix the top 35?" Not only is the sport suffering from a dearth of new teams, but also lack of funding for the bottom tier means it's a virtual certainty one of those 35 positions will go to a "start-and-park" car by April or May of this year. Already last season, Robby Gordon and TRG Motorsports' No. 71 were using the comfort of their "locked in" spot in the standings to bring a skeleton crew to the track, minimize practice laps and then pull in after the first 100 laps with no worries about missing the event. It's an automatic cash cow for them, but does nothing to increase the quality of racing for fans.
Personally, I liked the old provisional system from the mid-1990s: top 38, four spots available to top-level drivers/owners who failed to qualify and a past champion's provisional if needed. There's no reason a rookie like Steven Wallace, who hasn't even qualified for a Sprint Cup event, should be locked into NASCAR's Super Bowl of Racing, the Daytona 500, which he is in RWI's new No. 77 outfit that "bought" top-35 owner points from Roger Penske. Could you imagine if Green Bay, since prognosticators thought they were the best NFC team in August, simply got "locked in" to the Super Bowl last summer? This top 35 rule is one of the silliest the sport has on the books today.
I'm a Danica fan, one of many, hoping she is going to have a great year. Your statement on the Nationwide Series though, "In a way, the long-term health of this series now depends on the success or failure of Danica Patrick," is a little overboard, Tom! Danica would have had a lot more success last year, including a MOST likely Top 10 or better finish if drivers like James Buescher could just handle being beat by a good woman driver. But we all saw perfectly what he did at Auto Club Speedway. He should have been black flagged for the flagrant violation of wrecking Danica with 10 laps to go! Hopefully there's going to be payback for James in the near future!
-- Steve Bell, Puyallup, WA
Man, by the sounds of this e-mail you might be the one to pay him back. James, watch out if any fan down in Daytona introduces himself as "Steve." I would just turn and run.
In all seriousness, though, just like Golf needs Tiger Woods to succeed, NASCAR's second-tier division could use a huge boost from Danica. There's no other rookies in the series this year, so who else can you promote who raises ratings with every Top 10 finish? Sure, I'm excited about Aric Almirola and Elliott Sadler rebuilding their careers, but both are Cup retreads. Right now, Danica has the largest swath of fan support among young drivers with good rides looking to move up. RPM's new millionaire owner playboy, Andrew Murstein, came out and said he'd love to put Danica in a Cup car for 2012, but to do that she must perform in Nationwide. Doing so is a win/win for everyone.
Is it just me, or is Brian France really that aloof? If not, his arrogance is insulting. This guy seemingly believes he and his crew can do no wrong, no matter what the fans or media say. He continues his disconnect with the fan base with yet another round of changes to the Chase. This time instead of addressing real issues like races that are too long or plummeting TV ratings, he has decided to implement a system that still does nothing to address the obvious problems of the sport. I can't think of a time I was less excited about an upcoming season. This sport is beginning to feel cheap with all of the poor attempts to "trick"out its postseason.
-- Ryan Eustis, New Orleans
Too many e-mails like that one after Wednesday's announcement. Hasn't Ryan seen the weather down in Daytona Beach? That's sure to be a fix all... um... moving on.
Time to close with our "out of left field" e-mail of the week...
What exactly is the ARCA Series and what does it mean that Milka Duno had a strong test there in December? I follow young, up and coming drivers and Milka caught my attention a few years ago. Is this a sign of better things to come for her in 2011? Please give me your thoughts on this young lady's progress. Thanks for any light you can shed.
-- Randy Lee Mayes, Bradford, PA
Oh, boy. For Milka, the ARCA Series -- think NASCAR single-A ball - means "last resort" after going so slow during races, IndyCar was ready to kick her out by the end of last season. And after seeing her results over on the open-wheel side (no top-10 finishes, one catfight with Danica in 43 starts) I would turn and run if I were an ARCA driver. Last year, she lasted six of 80 laps in a Doug Stringer Toyota before wrecking in her stock car debut, and don't expect 2011 to be any different.
Enjoy the Super Bowl, and I'll be here when y'all start paying attention to NASCAR for real next week! Nice to have Speedweeks and February finally here.
Last Week's Trivia Answer: A lot of people thought Richard Petty holds the record for consecutive Daytona 500 starts. Sure, NASCAR's King holds a lot of records, but this one's a rare exception: a 1965 boycott by Petty's factory-backed Plymouth brand left him out of that year's 500, leaving his best streak at 27 (1966-92). Instead, this honor goes to Wisconsin's Dave Marcis, the man with the wing-tipped shoes, who winged his way to 32 straight 500s from 1968-99.
Jim from Eau Claire, Wisc., got it first and has an explanation for the special footwear: "Someone had told him in his younger days that to keep his feet cool in the car he should wear shoes made of leather, and the only leather shoes he had were his wingtips."
Often with a budget smaller than one race for most teams today, the owner of the old independent No. 71 team would slug it out with the big guns week in, week out scoring 127 top-10s in 711 starts, including a 1982 Richmond victory in self-managed equipment.
This Week's Trivia Question: Who is the only driver in NASCAR history to sweep both the pole and the race at the Daytona 500... twice?
Tweet of the Week: "-20 this morning in Denver, but it's a dry cold so it's supposed to be ok lol"
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