Hope springs for NASCAR brass, Daytona's strange new world; more
NASCAR saw an increase in ratings for the Bud Shoot and Daytona 500 qualifying
Despite changes, we could see the two-car pairings return at the Duels and 500
Backlash from Michael Annett's DUI, Juan Pablo Montoya and more reader mail
"That's one small step for NASCAR, one giant leap for NASCAR-kind." OK, maybe I stole that quote from Neil Armstrong, but the suits down in Daytona Beach have been begging for a shred of positive news heading into their Super Bowl. On Tuesday, they finally got it from an unlikely source: the Nielsen ratings, which showed a slight increase from 4.4 to 4.5 for the Bud Shootout, while Daytona 500 qualifying from Sunday was up 19 percent.
There are all kinds of reasons to justify these numbers, from Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the pole to the new two-car drafting weirdness to reaching a wider advertising audience during the Super Bowl (the last time Fox had the game, in 2008, Bud Shootout viewership increased by 21 percent year-over-year). Heck, it's possible even the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death may have played a role.
But do the reasons really matter right now? We're talking about a sport whose ratings suffered last year, even during the most competitive Chase in its history, posting just five true ratings increases over a 38-race schedule that often saw viewership for each event fall by well over 15 percent from the previous year. For anxious officials in the boardroom, with their TV contract entering the fifth year of an eight-year deal, NASCAR knows turning a downhill slide around in '11 isn't a hope -- it's a full-blown necessity before forced renegotiation kills the cash cow keeping it afloat.
That means if you're a boardroom executive down in Daytona Beach, for the first time you bounce off the walls, call exasperated sponsors and send every positive press release you can think of. Yes, it's only one race, one rating that could be washed out by the numbers after Sunday's main event.
But for now, there's hope, and they'll take any shred of it in a season that, at least for the next little while, can take on a decidedly positive spin.
All right, time to get your spin on the most bizarre little two-car freight train racing I've ever seen. If you didn't make the mailbag this week, don't despair. Keep trying through the best two ways you can reach me: email@example.com and @NASCARBowles on Twitter.
The Shootout Saturday night was the most exciting racing I have seen in NASCAR for years. I realize the speeds are high, but the timed movement up and down the track was fantastic. The drivers are just amazing, but I fear for injuries and pray for the safety of the drivers always.
-- Tacklebox, Hemet, Calif.
Strong words, Tacklebox, ones to be mindful of while approaching the tragic, 10-year anniversary of Earnhardt's death through this very type of plate racing. But first, let me tell you something: it's been a long time since I've seen so many strong opinions pointed both ways on NASCAR's "two-car tango" from Saturday. There was no neutrality when it came to this type of competition, one where the draft you needed to have a chance to win depended on another driver -- but only one. Call it pairs skating on the race track, Dancing with the Cars or whatever cheesy name you can think of, but it's something virtually unprecedented since NASCAR stuck restrictor plates on these cars to tone down speeds at Daytona and Talladega after Bobby Allison's near-disastrous airborne wreck in 1987.
All I can say is fast, fast.. love it.. -- @Bill_Corbett88, referencing speeds that shot up to well over 205 miles an hour
I. Absolutely. Loved. It. Really, I can't say more than that. -- @kbaskins
Running around in packs of 36 cars is no more individual than the two-car breakaways. -- @philgoodstory
Phil has a good point. The second you put these plates on the cars, it's virtually impossible to pass someone unless you've got a freight train of two, three or 30 drivers behind you pushing forward in the draft. At least in these two-car scenarios, we've seen the type of "slingshot," one-on-one style move not replicated much since the mid-1980's. Most recently it was Kevin Harvick pulling a perfectly-timed pass on Jamie McMurray heading to the checkered flag at Talladega last April. When both cars are trying, it's nearly impossible to make a permanent pass in these twosomes or even stick your nose out in front of the other guy for long. But when timed right, it is possible to eke a nose ahead on your own and turn the Daytona 500 into a last-lap dash of driver skill.
BORING!!!! -- @lugnut25js
I think the 500 will be an ugly race. -- @darenhavens
I prefer racing to pushing, but that's just me. -- @janich62
Hate it. Plain and simple. Might think twice about watching the 500. And I love NASCAR. If I had a choice, I would rather watch the NBA All-Star game than the 500 in its current format. -- @goblue4ver
And there you have the barking from the other side of the fence. Checking through the Inbox, my unofficial count was at about 40 percent for the new format, 50 percent against and maybe 10 percent in the neutral category. I remain against the new format, if only because it seems ridiculous to have an individual sport where winning the race becomes permanently dependent on having a "teammate." With 43 cars starting on Sunday, what's the 43rd guy going to do without a partner? I'll tell you what: he'll be lapped within 20 circuits, which is exactly what happened to Matt Kenseth once McMurray chose to help out Kurt Busch instead last Sunday.
You see, racing to me should be about raw speed and strategy, not helping out friends in a pinch on the track because you can. Did Aaron Rodgers go, "Aw, Jay Cutler's my friend and he got hurt. Let's spot the Bears 10 extra points in the NFC Championship Game to compensate." I don't think so. It's just a weird way to decide a race, period -- although I do like the higher speeds and it's hard to argue the way the cars glide all over the track "locked together." That part of it is fascinating to watch, like pieces of a model train set zigzagging back and forth with competing train cars at will. I'd just like them to be able to separate every now and then.
Before moving on, though, I think it's important to readdress something Tacklebox said up top: the issue of safety. Denny Hamlin, who lost the Shootout to Busch because of dipping below the yellow "out of bounds" line -- a NASCAR no-no -- was adamant that he was forced below to keep from wrecking Ryan Newman, a spin which at these 200 mph-plus speeds he claimed "would send the car into the grandstands." Partly because of that, some one-on-one wrecks (veterans like Mark Martin and Tony Stewart mistimed their bumps, sending the cars in front of them spinning at well over 200 miles an hour) plus fan complaints over the two-car system, NASCAR made the following two rule changes Sunday night to help curb the practice for the 500. See the following:
The maximum size for the air inlet for the cooling system will be 2½ inches tall by 20 inches wide.
The pressure release valve on the water system will be set at 33 pounds per square inch.
A translation in English? It makes it harder for cars to pair up, in theory, because hotter engines will increase the risk of overheating. But I think in the Duels, you'll still see a lot of drivers experiment and figure out just how far they can go with these pair ups before the engines start to implode. Remember, 35 of the 43 positions for the 500 are "locked in," so for a driver already guaranteed a spot, what does it mean to his multicar team if a motor is lost? Starting at the back of the field won't really make a difference.
The bottom line is now that these drivers have figured things out, they'll figure out a way to make it work down the stretch. More than likely, without NASCAR policing this type of "bumpdrafting" with some sort of "stop and go" penalty, the Daytona 500 will be decided based on which "friend" you can find in the last 10 laps, how fast you can go together and whether you can keep said "friend" behind you coming to the checkered flag.
It'll be a bizarre, new experience for everyone. What happens now? Well, that's anyone's guess.