While most of the NASCAR world is focused on the present -- namely the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship and the ongoing drama involving the head of Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- three recent news items about the future of the sport also are worthy of attention. Here is a quick look at announcements that could have a significant impact on NASCAR in the coming years.
1. Changes are coming in qualifying and testing. NASCAR continues to try to party like it's 1999, back when the sport's popularity was soaring, and it seemed like the good times would never end. We're already anticipating the arrival in 2013 of new cars that will more closely resemble their showroom cousins -- an attempt to return to the days when there was at least a little bit of "stock" in stock car racing, instead of the generically identical vehicles of today.
Now, in another nod to the past, NASCAR is reviving rules and regulations of both qualifying and testing that were in place less than a decade ago. The biggest change is in qualifying, which will no longer be bound by the rule implemented in 2005 that guarantees a spot in any race for drivers ranked in the top 35 of the owners points standings.
Instead, qualifying will return to a version of the old format, where the top 36 positions in the field go to the fastest 36 drivers in qualifying. Then, there will be six provisional spots at the back of the field based on the owners points standings, and one position -- if needed -- for a past champion (hello, Bobby Labonte).
This is intended to make qualifying somewhat relevant again. Sure, it is still unlikely that Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart will ever be in danger of missing a race, because of the generous provisional allotments. But at least this forces teams to give some sort of attention to qualifying. Now NASCAR needs to go one step further and actually award a point in the standings to the pole winner. The number of poles a driver has won is a common statistic in the NASCAR record book, so why shouldn't the accomplishment be rewarded in the standings?
Qualifying used to be a part of the weekend show at races, often attracting several thousand fans. There was a true sense of competition that made qualifying intriguing, even if it actually was nothing more than cars taking to the track one at a time to turn a couple of laps. Now the grandstands are barren during qualifying sessions, because fans know that qualifying rarely means much. Make qualifying more important by adding a one-point incentive to win the pole, and fans might show some interest.
NASCAR also announced that it will allow teams to test again -- up to four times a year -- at sanctioned tracks. A ban on testing was implemented in 2008 near the start of the economic downtown in an effort to help teams save money. If nothing else, a return to testing might remove some of the uncertainty teams face when they arrive at the track. Uncertainty can lead to cautiousness, and cautiousness often leads to a boring race.
2. Fox Sports signs a $2.4 billion extension to televise NASCAR through 2022. NASCAR's attendance woes have been on full display for several years, and they seemingly have escalated this season. The crowds at such high-profile tracks as Bristol, Indianapolis and Talladega have been half what they were just a decade ago.
But the reality is, NASCAR's viable future depends much more heavily on television money than it does on attendance, as is the case in most sports these days. The glut of college football bowl games, for example, is largely the result of ESPN needing to fill programming hours. It doesn't matter if the stands are two-thirds empty (which many are), as long as the game draws a decent rating on television.
NASCAR certainly has taken a hit in the ratings department as well, though not as substantial as the drop in attendance. Still, Sprint Cup races regularly attract more viewers than most non-playoff sports other than football. The ratings evidently have been strong enough that Fox has agreed to pay an increase of 36 percent over its current deal to broadcast the first 13 races of the season, including the Daytona 500. Beginning in 2015, Fox will pay approximately $300 million per year to televise barely one-third of the NASCAR schedule. That averages out to more than $23 million per race. No track is making anywhere close to that in ticket sales.
This, in turn, will affect negotiations for the television rights to the rest of NASCAR's schedule, which currently is held through 2014 by ESPN and Turner Broadcasting. The deal with Fox has shown that despite its current problems, NASCAR can still get an increase in rights fees. That gives NASCAR some leverage in negotiations with ESPN and Turner. In addition, there are rumblings that the new NBC Sports Channel is possibly interested in pursuing Sprint Cup events, which could result in a bidding war. If that happens, NASCAR might soon be sitting on a mountain of cash that will help negate many of the sport's attendance issues.
3. Danica Patrick's future as a star in Go Daddy commercials may not be secure. Could this be the first sign that Danica-mania has run its course, and she could soon be heading toward Jeremy Lin territory? There is no doubt that Patrick remains one of the sport's few transcendent stars who can appeal to the non-NASCAR fan. But how long will that last if she doesn't start performing better on the track?
Granted, this is Patrick's first full season in NASCAR, so nobody should have expected a bunch of top-10 finishes from her right away (she has two). However, most people didn't expect her to be behind Mike Bliss and Brian Scott in the Nationwide standings, and only two points ahead of Joe Nemechek, who hasn't been much of a go daddy since the 1990s.
The one thing Patrick has always had going for her is the sponsorship support of Go Daddy. When asked earlier this year about Patrick's move to NASCAR, Sam Hornish Jr. said, "The biggest advantage she has is she has a sponsor who is probably not going to leave to go anywhere else. So they're going to afford her the time and give her the best resources to move forward."
Now comes reports that Go Daddy is in the process of hiring a new advertising agency that would be allowed to drop Patrick from any future commercials. We might know her status with the new firm depending upon whether she appears in Go Daddy's annual Super Bowl ads. Patrick has starred in 10 Super Bowl spots, which amazingly is more than any other athlete, including Michael Jordan. If Go Daddy goes in a different direction, then it might be a sign that Patrick's clout with the company is slipping, and that her future in the sport might not be quite as secure as originally thought.