Midterm Election Day may be in the past, but for NASCAR, the real election occurs over the next three weeks. For after the mounting criticism surrounding the Chase for most of its seven-year existence, officials must decide whether the current version is to blame for much for the attendance and ratings declines we've seen this Fall.
With commissioner and CEO Brian France publicly mulling changes, NASCAR couldn't have picked a better Chase to hold a referendum. With five of six playoff races down more than 20 percent in the Nielsens, Sunday's Talladega mayhem produced the best possible result for the sanctioning body: no serious wrecks, 87 lead changes, and a three-man battle for the championship in which Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, and Kevin Harvick left separated by only 38 points. It's easily the closest competition under the Chase format since Kurt Busch headed to Homestead with Jeff Gordon and Johnson breathing down his neck in 2004. More importantly, for the first time the unpopular four-year reign of Johnson atop the Cup series charts is in serious jeopardy, drama injected into a title race fans had begun assuming would automatically go the way of the No. 48.
With that type of setup, you'd think the ratings for Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead would experience some sort of uptick -- especially if Hamlin repeats his spring Texas performance by taking home both the win and the point lead this Sunday. It's the kind of nail-biting ending that passionate fans would seem unable to ignore.
We'll see. If the TV ratings do tick up, then it's a sliver of hope what this playoff format needs is this type of razor-thin finish every time to bring people back into the fold. And if they don't... it's a clear indictment of a format that couldn't have a better trio of stories as we hit the homestretch. After all, there's a big difference between a 10-15 percent drop in regular season ratings and a 20-25 percent dip during the playoffs, the part of the season in every other major sport where people pay attention -- not run away.
So which side will you be voting for this November? The mailbag would certainly like to know.
Northwest Territories? Wow, you know you've made it when even the Eskimos are sending you mail straight from the igloo. But your point, Steve, is one that was echoed by many fans following the race, back-and-forth competition up front seemingly farcical when the Johnson/Gordon duo rose from outside the top 20 all race to challenging for the lead in just eight laps late. It was all part of a risk/reward strategy where both the point leader, along with challenger Denny Hamlin, knew one of 'Dega's big wrecks would kill their title chances -- so why bother competing until both absolutely had to?
"I hate that I had to race like that," Hamlin said, who fought back from a lap down at one point after he tried to sandbag so much, he lost the draft of the lead pack. "Unfortunately with our points format, it's how you have to race."
Winning a title by playing not to lose -- how is that ever a good way to entice fans to watch your product? And then there's the matter of those ugly wrecks, unavoidable and costly for drivers whose lives are put on the line the second they start spinning. Per usual, a handful of NASCAR aficionados on the losing end came out and attacked the plate racing concept. "I just don't know how long we can keep coming [here]," Tony Stewart's crew chief Darian Grubb said on Sunday after they wrecked. "Where you can have a one-lap race and have the same drama you have in 188."
"I hate this place," added A.J. Allmendinger after ending his day hitting the wall upside down. "I always have and always will." Carl Edwards caused a lack of serious accidents "just plain luck," while the most damning comment came from driver Bill Elliott, who said after wrecking out on Lap 141, "I told them in there (the care center) they better be getting ready."
So why did I give the race a B+? Because for every plate-racing critic, you could find someone with a very different take on the race.
"It was just wild at the end," said Paul Menard. "Everybody was pushing the hell out of each other. It was a lot of fun."
And it's that nail-biting finish, Steve, which makes plate racing hard to argue with. Four, five-abreast racing heats up with 20 laps to go, and even though it's a type of manipulated competition the manufactured excitement creates a show where you can't look away. Those 26 leaders and 87 lead changes don't mean much to restrictor-plate detractors, yet for those desperate to see more than the typical 10 or 12 we'll get at Texas this weekend seeing cars run side-by-side, even though they can never stop doing it proves a welcome change.
Harvick, Clint Bowyer, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. were among the handful of drivers who didn't hang back, producing that hair-raising passing up front regardless of the risks combined with a number of underdog, single-car teams who usually start-and-park going the distance and running inside the top 10 due to parity rules that clearly play in their favor. As long as we have people continuing to do that, there will be plenty who tune in for the type of racing plates create -- and considering the lack of passing in other races this season, a B+ at minimum seems appropriate when you're dealing with a racetrack that produced the two most lead changes of all time for both its Cup races in 2010.
SpeedZine is talking about the weird ending to Sunday's race, where five minutes of video replay determined the outcome rather than a race to the checkered flag.
The answer, of course, is there's a difference between a likely outcome and a questionable one. Nobody knows what would have happened had Harvick and Bowyer been able to race back to the line, a side-by-side battle that could have gone either way instead of having it decided by when someone in the NASCAR tower chose to push a button. But does every ending of every race need to be manipulated so we're assured that photo finish across the line? The Indy 500 doesn't have green-white-checkered endings because the 200 laps is equivalent to sacred tradition. If someone wrecks on the last lap while two cars are running nose-to-tail for the lead, guess what? The race is over, because those are how the circumstances naturally played out.
As for replay, I know it's a long time to find the answer but it's also the same type of solution other sports apply in questionable situations. It's a computer aid to a human fault, for as long as they're employed the natural imperfection of officials ensures their calls will occasionally impact an outcome. It all adds up to coming up with no better way in which the sport could have handled this one ... but if you have a better answer, write us! I'm all ears.
Matt, I don't know what interview you're referring to but I figured that Martinsville would have been the kicker for a No. 24 team that's constantly playing second fiddle. I couldn't believe how many times in that race Gordon would let the No. 48 in line as a courtesy, only for Johnson to fight tooth-and-nail with his teammate when the circumstances switched the other way.
That expectation to bow down to the title contenders (and keep in mind, Gordon was one until last week) seemed to extend well into Talladega, where Gordon's worries over lagging back too long seemed to be ignored over the best way to latch together with the No. 48. Some heard such trepidation in "Four-Time's" voice they even suggested the "engine problem" Gordon claimed eight laps after he and Johnson teamed up to head to the front late was a made-up fantasy. I wouldn't go that far, but based on actions throughout the season and some public comments this Spring Gordon appears to be getting fed up with the reigning four-time champ. After all, no matter how much stake you own in the No. 48 team the prodigy can only beat the teacher so many times before he loses it.
The question is whether Gordon will ever stand up and do something about it. And if he's kept his on-track cool for the last five years, it's hard to believe there's going to be a change in attitude now -- especially when a Johnson title benefits him in the wallet as well as all of Hendrick Motorsports.
Add Clint Bowyer to that list, Steve. He's now won more races than anyone in the seven-race Chase playoff despite being scored dead last in the standings. Ask him if he'd take the 150 points lost at Loudon for an illegal car -- a gift that would leave the driver fifth in points -- at the cost of losing both wins off his resume and he'd take the trips to Victory Lane in a heartbeat. NASCAR drivers at heart want to run each race to win, not to finish fifth a whole bunch of times so they can collect a cool trophy at the end of the season and call themselves champion.
The popularity of McMurray's season combined with Bowyer's Chase win-total-turned-points-bust should be the clearest signs yet what fans want in a new, more aggressive points system. Once again, this November three-race sprint to the finish will tell the tale as to how far executives will go to revise the format.
So far, only a dozen drivers have visited Victory Lane through 33 races, with the championship trio heavily favored to sweep the final three. That matches 2008's total and serves as the lowest total since 11 drivers cashed in during a 34-race season in 1999. Among the 0-fers still looking for their first trip to Victory Lane in 2010: Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Edwards, and Earnhardt Jr.
How much does a dwindling list of winners have to do with NASCAR's dwindling support? Hard to tell, but during the glory years of the early 2000s, when the sport was growing at a rapid pace they averaged 18 winners over a three-year period from 2001-03, an average of one every other event. That unpredictability kept fans glued to the television with hope their favorite driver could come through.
Since the Chase, those numbers have seen a steady decline, although the change has to do more with a lack of competitive owners than a playoff format pushing consistency. Still, I feel like that's food for thought for a sport that's watching NFL ratings continue to skyrocket based on parity all across the board -- not within the top 10, 15 teams among a 43-car field that's got a huge gap between the upper and lower classes.
Harold's responding to my criticism of Earnhardt Jr. the last few weeks. Sure, Junior looked great at Martinsville, then at Talladega too in leading the most laps in an event for the first time in nearly two years. But where did he finish in both races? The answer is not inside the top-5 for either track, continuing a disturbing trend where his only runs of fifth or better for the last TWO YEARS could be counted on one hand: Loudon (fourth this September), Michigan (August 2009). That's it.
Look, you can lead all the laps you want but if you're not in contention to win on the last one, all they equate to are numbers on paper. And that ugly top-5 stat, along with a zero in the win column just isn't enough for multi-million dollar sponsors like AMP and National Guard to be satisfied with their standing three years into a five-season deal. If you're Hendrick, you have to make a change to show them you're working to improve the product, and keeping crew chief Lance McGrew would send a message you believe the status quo is acceptable.
Yes, it does NASCARCars. If Junior somehow won that race (in his hometown track) it provides a boost of mental momentum that could translate into better runs the last three events. It also gets a whole lot harder to fire a crew chief a month after ending a two-year victory drought, making Sunday the equivalent of McGrew's last stand even though he had little to no control over the outcome.
It didn't work out.
There was a lot of talk about turning Fontana into a restrictor plate track, but that's died down some and seems a near impossibility now that it's cut down to only one date. You make a good point that the best ratings come from the parity-filled events that both types create, unlike the 1.5-mile intermediates that just haven't found their rhythm with the current bunch of NASCAR cars.
Here's the problem, though: It costs far less to change the cars yet another time -- especially with just a handful of current Cup car owners to worry about -- then entice new ownership in the sport instead of fixing a whole bunch of cookie cutter ovals to make them short tracks. These places are having trouble breaking even with poor attendance and lowering ticket prices as it is; they don't have $20 million they can pull out of their coffers on a dime to make renovations, especially in this economy. I'm not saying I agree with it, but we're stuck with places like Kansas, Michigan, and others for the foreseeable future, meaning the best hope lies in a new 2013 car design that stops the troubling trends and entices side-by-side racing wherever we go.
And finally, our "out of left field" email of the week...
Umm... I hate to burst your bubble, Cami, but for Favre to make an under-the-radar, unannounced guest appearance at the race, 1,000 miles away from his game at Minnesota are one-in-a-million. Add in the flight time to and from, when Favre had to be at the Vikings facility and chances are who you saw was just someone in a Halloween costume.
"Well they say you can't complain about it if u don't vote, so I'm headed to the polls now."