Tom Bowles
Tuesday May 18th, 2010

After taking vacation for my brother's college graduation, I spent Monday catching up on NASCAR racing from Dover. But in every conversation, I was struck by two words that had nothing to do with the Monster Mile. From my eyes on pit road to the articles I read yesterday, all were focused on what should be sending shivers down Daytona officials' spines...

Empty seats.

Dover track management has been privately worried about attendance, but no one expected it to be this bad. Officially, the number was listed at 88,000 for an oval with a seating capacity of 140,000, although several at-track sources estimate the number to be as little as 70,000-75,000. That's selling as little as 50 percent of your seats for a race that's typically one of the best on the NASCAR calendar. Just a year-and-a-half ago, the Monster Mile produced one of the best finishes of the Car of Tomorrow era, with teammates Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards battling tooth-and-nail, side-by-side to the checkers. Sunday's race was boring, sure, but history didn't leave fans fearful they'd waste their money on a snoozer.

Considering the prime location, with a casino next door and an hour's drive to Philly, this track's typically an attractive draw on the circuit. So why'd fans give Dover the cold shoulder? Once again, we're likely to hear the same NASCAR excuse we've heard for the last few seasons: the economy. But as a local, I don't think we have been as hard hit as some of the other parts of the country. Unlike Martinsville, where the unemployment rate is well over 20 percent, Delaware's is below the national average (9.2 percent) and some of the surrounding counties remain healthy. Ticket prices were also reasonable, running as low as $55 for adults and $35 for kids.

The bottom line is there's more at work here than just a few fans saving some pennies. The Car of Tomorrow, Jimmie Johnson's dominance, the Chase and other factors have pushed fans away to spend their money somewhere else. The sport may be heading in the right direction, but this weekend was the latest sign its crisis is far from bottoming out.

At least I know a few of you are sticking around, sending me your questions and comments each week. Let's get right to 'em. As always, you can reach me at tbowles81@yahoo.com and on Twitter at NASCARBowles.

The reason Darlington was a ratings bump wasn't for any of the reasons you mention. The reason it bumped was because it's Darlington. Even a loyalist like me came out to sneak a peek at the track "too tough to tame." I couldn't give a hoot about Denny Hamlin's post-ACL surgery and heartwarming storylines.

-- Friends of Darlington, Dover, Del.

Friends is talking about Darlington ratings, just the third of 12 televised races to post an increase this year over last year. That 5 percent bump, from 4.0 to 4.2, leaves FOX's overall numbers relatively stable. At a 5.0 average compared to a 5.2 last year, they're down just four percent, making it hard to blame oft-criticized TV coverage for failing to put people in the seats.

It's worth noting that Darlington's numbers were the best of any Saturday night race this year, giving credence to how much fans appreciate the history of one of the sport's oldest tracks. Yet while more people were watching on TV, attendance at the speedway failed to sell out, a common problem that's now the focus of Daytona officials. Based on NASCAR numbers, at-track attendance is down 13.8 percent from last year, despite lower ticket prices and several initiatives aimed at winning back fans.

Highlighted by my Dover rant above, it's clear at-track competition needs to improve. While the end of races have been spectacular this season, the aggression just hasn't played out over the course of a full four-hour race. If you're spending an entire day at the track only to get riled up for the final 20 minutes, wouldn't you just go watch on TV instead? I think there needs to be more of a focus on spreading that excitement over the full distance, with monetary or points bonuses for running up front early in races. With the Chase system in place, that may be the only way you're going to keep cars from running single-file over much of a race's first half.

One other reason for lack of interest nowadays centers on the subject of my Thursday column, in which I worried about the dearth of up-and-coming talent. I guess I wasn't the only one concerned...

Get the Sprint Cup drivers out of Nationwide races. You don't see Phil and Ernie on the Nationwide tour or Federer playing in satellite tournaments. You also don't see Pujols playing in AAA games on his days off.

-- George Vann, Columbia, SC

Solid points in the midst of the worst full-time Cup invasion into the minors we've seen. Today, the sport rolled out its final Nationwide Car of Tomorrow test, with several teams trying out their new equipment at Daytona to prep for its July debut. But only 24 cars made it onto the track, with eight of them to be driven by Cup guys in just a few short months.

Where were all the other Nationwide guys? Sitting home, piling up debt keeping them from buying new cars to even compete with the Cup owners and drivers lapping them every week. Even the more competitive organizations are prepared to cut back. I received a phone call this morning confirming that Phoenix Racing's No. 1 car, one of the few "AAA" teams to win a Nationwide race with a Nationwide-only driver last year, will skip a handful of races the rest of the year while the team owner leaves his fleet up for sale.

It's a problem that's growing, one that NASCAR needs to fix before the series itself goes belly up. Here's a solution:

I have been saying for years that NASCAR needs to step up to the plate and limit the Cup drivers in Nationwide. There should be some kind of rule that says if you run full time in Sprint Cup, then you can only run a limited amount of races in the Nationwide Series. That way, teams would not have to worry about young talent getting beaten out each week by older, more experienced drivers. You are correct, NASCAR needs to act, but they won't as long as the mighty dollar is still involved. When the Frances' start losing money, then they will act.

-- Scott O'Dell, Orchard Park, NY

They're starting to lose money now, Scott. If the races for the Cup Series are pulling bad attendance, Nationwide has been downright abysmal. I think I counted 50 people in the stands for their Fontana race back in February.

I think your solution has merit, as well as another one I've heard batted around: don't issue any points to full-time Cup drivers running the series. That would effectively eliminate them from competing for the championship, shifting the focus to up-and-comers while naturally causing the others to reduce their minor league schedule.

In my world, a perfect solution would be that no Cup guy can run more than 10 races in another series. That keeps the novelty going while gradually allowing others to take center stage. But in the process, the sport is going to have to find a way to cut costs. Even a 10-race deal for a Cup driver in Nationwide costs more to run than a full-season program. It should be $2 million or $3 million max to run at the "AAA" level, not an average of $8 million to $10 million that it's become.

Finally...

I always wondered why a driver got a penalty for an illegal part. Now, if he owned the car, that is different; but since the driver only drives, how is he responsible?

-- Dee Dee Brantley, Phoenix, Ariz.

Dee Dee, NASCAR gives the penalty to both the driver and the owner so the driver doesn't get an unfair advantage in points.

Let's use the car being too low as an example, which typically carries a 50-point penalty. Certainly, the driver has nothing to do with that but it gives the car an aerodynamic edge nonetheless. Lowering it closer to the ground allows for the driver to have more grip, in theory giving him more speed and allowing him to gain more positions during the race. Those positions earn him more points, so without issuing the driver a penalty the competitive advantage he had over others in the field would be allowed to stand.

In this case, it's all about racing being a team sport with individual drivers. You can only win the race if your entire crew, from the tire changer to the crew chief, does things right. When there's a mistake, everybody takes the hit.

"Here is a fun fact, Dale Jr. Doesn't heli [copter] out the track no more, thought that was cool and responsible in this economy." - @scottspeed. Too bad the cost-cutting move didn't give Junior a boost at the Monster Mile; he ran 30th, 10 laps off the pace.

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