Friday, June 27, 2014

NASCAR Continues Uphill Battle

Goodbye Home Depot, thanks for the ride
Despite all the efforts to reinvigorate NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series, there are a number of signs this week that the series continues to face an uphill battle.

First, count the number of cars in Saturday night’s Kentucky race.  That’s right, only 42.  For the first time since the last race of the 2001 season, a Sprint Cup race will not have a full field of 43 vehicles.  And even that was an anomaly; the race being run on Thanksgiving weekend after 9/11 had interrupted the season and one team having already disbanded.   Prior to that it was 1997 at Talladega, when the 43rd spot was reserved for former champions and wasn’t needed.  The last time a Cup race started without a full field was Dover in 1996, 18 years ago.

The situation is partly the result of Randy Humphrey Racing taking a break, it says to improve team performance.  After finishing last at Pocono, Humphrey decided not to go to Sonoma and probably won’t be at Daytona next week.  It was masked last week by the entries of several road race ringers at Sonoma and Daytona typically attracts a few extra cars, so it might be a short term situation.  Humphrey says it’s not a matter a finances, but more a matter of getting the right people in the right places.  He hopes to return for the Brickyard 400, where several other teams will field additional cars and pretty much assures a field of 43.

NASCAR says “the current 43-car field in the Sprint Cup Series has evolved over the years, yet it’s not necessarily a magic number." I guess I’d rather see a smaller field than a couple start-and-park fillers.  Still, it’s not a good sign for the series. 

Then there were the indications this week that longtime Cup sponsor Home Depot will leave the sport at the end of the year.  The orange Home Depot car has been a fixture at Joe Gibbs Racing for 15 years and was the primary sponsor of the No. 20 car for virtually every race as recently as 2011.  But that sponsorship has been winding down in recent years, while Dollar General has increased its support. 

The move hardly comes as a surprise to JGR and shouldn’t interrupt efforts by the team to put Carl Edwards into a fourth Toyota next season.  It probably says more about the changing national economic landscape when Dollar General replaces Home Depot as the primary sponsor, but again, it doesn’t look good for the sport to lose another big brand name.  Or maybe Home Depot just got tired of losing to Lowes every year. 

Finally, ESPN announced that NASCAR Now, recently kicked off the airwaves by World Cup Soccer coverage, has been cancelled altogether.  ESPN promises “to present the race telecasts at the same high level fans expect from ESPN for the remainder of our final season,” but it seems strange the show that has aired for eight years would be cancelled just as the network gets ready to pick up its portion of the season.  

When ESPN lost out in the bidding war last year to the Fox and NBC sports cable networks, many wondered what impact it would have on future NASCAR coverage.  Despite the denials, this is just the first step.  Don’t expect to see the next Sprint Cup champion hosting SportsCenter anytime soon.

Not all the news is bad this week, however.  Caterpillar, another longtime brand name sponsor, announced it is re-upping with Ryan Newman and Richard Childress Racing.  Newman and Caterpillar are a good fit and the move should help solidify things at RCR, which has struggled much of this season. 

And TNT actually showed a slight increase in viewership of last week’s Sonoma Cup race while going up against ESPN’s World Cup coverage, although it fell in the ratings. 

But hey, more eyeballs are more eyeballs. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

NASCAR's Have and Have Nots

JJ is one of the "haves"
No need to wait until halfway through the NASCAR Sprint Cup season to judge which teams have it and which teams don’t.  Only a few do.  Most don’t. 

After 15 races it is becoming increasingly apparent who are the haves and have nots.  The ones with Hendrick cars and power have it.  Those without, don’t.  Everyone who doesn’t is fighting for second place – or more likely, fifth or sixth. 

All four Hendrick Motorsports team cars finished in the top seven Sunday at Michigan, Jimmie Johnson taking the checkers there for the first time at the track.  The team now has six wins for the season – and five straight, including three of four by Johnson.

Contrast the performance of Hendrick cars and Chevrolet engines with that of Ford’s previous lead team, Roush-Fenway Racing.  The entire Roush team was a lap behind the leader before the Michigan race was half over; on a track RFR had considered its own private playground.  Meanwhile, the Fords of Roger Penske are about the only cars capable of challenging the Hendrick boys at the moment.  None of the Toyotas scared the leaders.   

If the Chase was to start tomorrow, Jeff Gordon, Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. would enter at one-two-three.  Six of the 16 cars would be affiliated with Hendrick.  That number could easily grow with a couple of breaks.  Kasey Kahne, whose performance some have questioned this year, scored his fourth top-five finish and is now 19th in the point standings, closing in on a place in the Chase. Jamie McMurray is another spot back and also closing.  Kurt Busch, back in 26th, has a win in the bank.  We could easily have half the Chase field powered-by-Hendrick.

The dominance of the Hendrick teams has been so complete; other teams are back in the game of scrambling for points.   When the new Chase format was introduced prior to the start of the season, most figured it would take a win to make the Chase.  Not anymore.  Finish in the top 16 in points and you’re in.

Some, including Brad Keselowski, are indicating it’s simply a matter of better engine performance, saying the Penske cars have an aerodynamic advantage.  But it would be a mistake to simply write the Hendrick cars off as more powerful.  At Michigan, Johnson not only outran and outdrove competition, Chad Knaus outthought them.  Johnson thinks it’s all that and more.

“Honestly I think what's working for us is the amount of time we have together,” Johnson said.  “We've lost races together.  We've lost championships together.  And certainly we've had success.  But 69 wins and six championships out of 13 years of racing is a pretty small percentage.  Some of the losses you have are -- you got what you could that day and you went on, but a lot of those losses in there sting, and I think experience through those moments make us stronger and better. 

"Everybody knows about 2005 and the milk and cookies meeting that Rick had with us.  I think from that moment on, we were able to be more comfortable, oddly enough, in our own skin, and as a part of team 48.  Nobody is going anywhere.  We're in this thing together, and we are team 48."


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Life After NASCAR

Rallycross has run at Irwindale short track outside LA
There is life after NASCAR.  Just ask Scott Speed, Nelson Piquet Jr. and Travis Pastrana.  They all had a fling with NASCAR, with limited success.  But they’ve found new life in something called Rallycross.

Speed swept all four of his heat races and the finale in winning the gold medal in the X Games Rallycross this past weekend in Austin, driving his factory-backed Volkswagen from Andretti AutoSport.  Piquet finished third in his factory-backed Ford Fiesta.  Second place went to former X Games skate board champion Bucky Lasek, who was driving a factory-backed Subaru, while Pastrana, another Subaru driver, missed his first X Games finale.  Hyundai and Citroen also back teams.

Do you see a trend here?  There’s a lot of manufacturer interest in Rallycross. That’s because it has captured the imagination of young car buyers.  The same buyers NASCAR and IndyCar have been trying desperately to attract.

Rallycross, which boasts a number of high profile sponsors, including Red Bull’s mega dollars, pits small, production-based cars such as the ones young consumers can afford, against each other in door-to-door racing.  The cars produce 600 horsepower and can accelerate from 0-60 mph in less than two seconds.

While Rallycross, a fan friendly version of rally racing, has been around in Europe for some time, it’s only about five years old in the U.S.  A typical track is less than a mile long, similar to a road course, made up of a combination of pavement and dirt, with ramps and jumps.  It can be set up almost anywhere, on a super speedway, road course or short track.  An event usually consists of a series of short heat races and then a feature event.  Lots of action.  Reminds me of a Saturday night at your local short track.

If you haven’t watched a Rallycross race yet, either on television or in person, give it a chance.  And while IndyCar and NASCAR are being relegated to NBCSports and Fox Sports1 with increasing regularity, you can often find RallyCross on NBC and ESPN.  Maybe those running NASCAR and IndyCar should tune in.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

NASCAR’s Summer Doldrums

Johnson's dominating Dover win part of summer doldrums
NASCAR’s summer doldrums are in full swing.

I’m sorry, but watching the Dover 4000 was painful.  Okay, it was only 400 miles, but it seemed like 4,000.  Two red flag periods didn’t help.  Not even a couple of naps helped pass the time - or laps.  Every time I woke up, Jimmie Johnson was leading.  Come to think of it, the same thing happened during the Charlotte race.  But at Dover, after Kyle Busch crashed out, the race ceased to be a race.  And from a look at the number of fans in the stands, plenty of people who have been to Dover in the past stayed home this time around, despite near perfect weather. 

It’s barely June and we’re little more than a third of way through the season, but NASCAR is in the midst of its summer doldrums.  I’ve resisted the thoughts in the past, but I’m starting to come around to the idea that the NASCAR season is too long and so are some of the races.  Certainly the string of 600 miles at Charlotte, followed by 400 mile races at Dover and now Pocono, is one of the more challenging stretches of the season.  Even Michigan, which follows Pocono and has been better in recent years with increased speeds, has produced some pretty lousy televised races in the past.

There’s talk again of the NASCAR schedule undergoing a major overhaul next season when the new television contracts come into play.  Let’s hope so.  It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.  At least an opportunity that won’t come around again for another 10 years.  And if nothing is done now, the opportunity may never come around again.  Rumors include at least one more road race, perhaps midweek night races in the summer, a new track or two and a wholesales restricting of the schedule.

We’ve heard those rumors before.  Let’s hope something actually happens this time.

NASCAR also is facing a value problem.  Some say it costs too much for fans to attend races.  I say it’s more a question of value than cost.  How do you provide more value?  Provide more and better racing.  Not more miles, more racings.  In this regards NASCAR may want to consider something IndyCar started last year.

At about the same time the Dover race was drawing to a close on Sunday, the IndyCar teams were starting the second of two races held over the weekend in Detroit.  Have to admit; at first I was skeptical about the “Duals” format.  But also have to admit the two sprint races, one on Saturday and another on Sunday, with support races both days, provided a whole lot more value than one long race on Sunday.  The teams hate the dual format – especially the week after Indianapolis – because it doubles the workload, but the fans seem to be warming to it.

All three NASCAR series ran at Dover.  The trucks ran Friday afternoon with no one in the stands and only a few more watching on TV.  Why?  Run a 100-mile truck race and a 200-mile Sprint Cup sprint race on Saturday and a Nationwide 100-miler and another Sprint Cup sprint on Sunday.  Might even cut down on the number of Cup drivers who race in the Nationwide series.  And get rid of one of the Dover races altogether.  Pocono too.