Tom Bowles
Thursday April 9th, 2009

Critics are trying to figure out why NASCAR ratings are down 15 percent from last season. The biggest drop in viewership since the sport's gargantuan TV contract in 2001 is significant enough to raise eyebrows.

But don't despair, race fans. I've figured out the crux of the problem. And to think, it all boils down to one lesson:

Without risk, there is no reward.

Sounds so simple ... and it is. Racing has always had a sense of extremism that draws you in -- three-wide going into the turn in a space meant for two, or two cars swapping paint and battling side-by-side for the lead. The more risk a driver takes on, the more the adrenaline pumps for everyone involved.

Right now, though, the racing we see is of the single-file parade variety -- not the action-packed battles that defined NASCAR's growth. Through seven events this year, the sport is averaging a shade under 16 lead changes per race. Compare that to the average of 23 lead changes in 2001, and you can see why millions of fans are yearning for the old days.

So, why are drivers not taking more chances? Simple. There's just no reason to. And here's why:

In past years, the title chase came down to two drivers -- three if we were lucky. That's important, because the points race is based on consistency, a matter of which drivers finish near the front more often rather than which ones wind up winning the most. If you need any proof, think about this: Just twice in the last 10 years has the points leader also wound up with the most victories (Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson did it in 2001 and 2007, respectively).

The points system, designed in 1975, was rubber-stamped by the France family at a time when teams weren't necessarily showing up to every race. NASCAR believed a points system based on consistency would force drivers to show up every week, creating a season-long battle for the championship in which everyone competed.

But consistency is a far different word than competition, and the system Bill Jr. left behind values finishing the race over going that extra mile to win. The difference between first and second can be as little as 15 points; the difference between third and 43rd is 132. Do the math, and you'll see why settling for a top-five result is far easier than going for broke and paying the consequences. Every finish counts, especially for the drivers contending for the series title.

Such conservatism spawned the Chase to begin with. After Matt Kenseth rode a one-win season to a championship in 2003, the sport believed a 10-race playoff with the same points system would force drivers to be aggressive in order to win the title. But the aggression NASCAR seeks in the last 10 races now gets balanced out by the conservatism of the first 26. With 12 playoff spots available -- roughly 25 percent of a 43-car field -- that puts a whole lot more drivers in contention for the season title. And if the way to make the playoffs is to ensure you finish races -- not win them -- you've got a bunch more people unwilling to take chances, focusing instead on positioning themselves for the top 12.

When side-by-side action is replaced by single-file strategy, there's a problem.

"We're not in the points racing business," SMI track owner Bruton Smith said at Texas last weekend. "That's what we don't need."

Along those same lines, the top-35 rule -- locking the first 35 cars in owner points into the starting lineup -- has also led the back of the pack to avoid risks. There's nothing worse for a race team than failing to qualify, and cars fighting for one of these 35 spots know the disadvantage of being forced to make the race on speed. Instead of spending the weekend working on race setup, Friday practice for those outside the top 35 is all about building up enough speed for a two-lap qualifying run. If they wind up making the field, they'll have just two hours of practice Saturday to dial in -- if they're lucky -- while their closest competition has an extra day.

With points for these drivers critically important, they can't risk making a mistake that knocks them out of the race and costs them a locked-in qualifying spot. So drivers in cars ranked 33rd, 34th and 35th in the owner standings do what they have to do to compete -- play it safe. Why make that extra push for 23rd when 24th is plenty good enough to put you in the field the next week? Why take a chance on passing that lapped car in traffic when keeping your nose clean ensures there will be no "qualifying" five days later?

Like the points system, the top-35 rule was designed to reward those who come to the track every week. Instead, it's rewarding mediocrity by giving too many people a free ride into the starting lineup and encouraging them to race conservatively to stay there.

With even the biggest teams scaling back, there's more of an emphasis than ever to make sure race cars come back in one piece. Some of the unsponsored teams have only three or four cars in their stable, making the price tag for an overaggressive move a loss of 25 percent of their fleet.

As these teams try to achieve the best finish possible, then, they do so in the most conservative manner. It would be one thing if the purses were skewed in favor of giving drivers more money for each position earned. But payouts are so subjective these days, you can actually make less for finishing higher. Case in point: At Texas, eighth-place finisher Kurt Busch actually made $25,604 less than the ninth-place Jeff Burton.

Yeah, I know that doesn't make any sense. But it happens, forcing drivers to care less about how high they finish and more about simply finishing in one piece.

With all this conservatism already on display, it comes to a head when drivers use the new CoT. Drivers continue to struggle to find a handle on this race car, whose dreaded "aero push" behind another car scrubs off speed and makes it virtually impossible to run side-by-side. Even when a car is good enough to pass, the lack of grip through the turns makes it nearly impossible to stay that way for long, forcing one of the two cars to back off -- or else everybody wrecks.

How do we fix this? Increase the incentive to compete for a victory. NASCAR thought it had a solution in 2007, adding 10 points for each regular-season win to every Chase-eligible driver's total entering the playoffs. But that's lower than the gap between a first- and second-place finish -- not enough of a reward to justify the risk.

Instead, drivers are content to simply pile up the points and play it safe. Risk-taking has become a thing of the past. Unless something is done to address it, the sport's growth spurt will quickly become a thing of the past as well.

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