ABC gives NASCAR a "Heidi Game" moment and a dose of reality

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It has always been NASCAR's dream to be as big as the NFL, but when ABC cut away from Sunday's telecast with 34 laps to go at Phoenix so it could show America's Funniest Home Videos, it became NASCAR's version of the infamous "Heidi Game."

Sure, ABC warned viewers beforehand that it ws switching the telecast over to ESPN2, and the move only affected viewers in the Eastern and Central Time Zones, but in these tough economic times, it can't be assumed that everyone has ESPN2. Moreover, what does the switch really say about how NASCAR's own television partner views The Chase?

Apparently, not much.

The switch was made to align ABC's Sunday night television lineup, which includes the highly-rated Desperate Housewives. In doing so, it created Desperate NASCAR Fans in the Eastern half of the U.S., including NASCAR's home base of North Carolina.

Winning team owner Rick Hendrick was unaware of the switch when, in the post-race media conference, he was asked what the switch says about NASCAR's championship playoffs?

"It doesn't say very much," Hendrick said. "I didn't know that. That's where my mother is [North Carolina]. I'm glad my phone went dead at the end of the race."

For those who don't remember, the "Heidi Game" involved an NBC telecast of a game between the New York Jets at the Oakland Raiders, when both teams were playing in the American Football League on Nov. 17, 1968.

NBC officials decided to end the telecast with 65 seconds left to broadcast an airing of Heidi, a new made-for-TV version of the children's classic. The Jets were leading 32-29 at the time and NBC, figuring the game was over, switched to Heidi. However, the Raiders came back to score 14 points in the final 65 seconds to win 43-32. Only fans in the Pacific Time Zone saw Oakland's fabled comeback.

The angry reaction to the Heidi Game resulted in the AFL and NFL, and most other sports leagues, demanding that networks televise all games to their conclusion. NFL contracts with the networks now require games to be shown in a team's market area to the conclusion, regardless of the score.

Apparently, that's not the case in NASCAR, which is supposed to be one of the "big sports."

Unlike the Heidi Game, Jimmie Johnson was leading at the time of the switch and went on to win the race. What fans missed were three caution flags, including one involving A.J. Allmendinger, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon on lap 307 that set up a "green-, white-, checkered flag" finish.

Kenseth and Allmendinger would settle the score after the checkered flag dropped when Kenseth turned into Allmendinger's Dodge to cause another crash after the race was over.

NASCAR's TV partner slapped the organization with a dose of reality; that in the big picture the sport doesn't compare to America's Funniest Home Videos and Desperate Housewives in terms of ratings and advertising dollars. But it's absolutely ludicrous to think that a TV network would pull the plug during a telecast of a playoff game.

The Chase was designed to be NASCAR's version of a playoff. but ABC relegated it to nothing more than an exhibition. So instead of seeing Johnson win the race and virtually assure himself of an historic "Three-peat" with a third championship in a row, ABC viewers saw home videos of someone getting a shot to the groin.

After all, nothing says comedy more than a grown man writhing in pain after a youngster smacks him right between the legs. That was a similar pain that many in NASCAR felt after the plug was pulled and the telecast was moved to ESPN2.

"Yeah, I knew about it," said driver Kurt Busch after finishing second to Johnson. "I guess that means I wasn't close enough to him."

Third-place finisher Jamie McMurray was just as incredulous about the decision to make the switch.

"It seems a little odd to me, as big as NASCAR is and as many people as watch the sport," McMurray said. "I can't imagine being a race fan and being on the East Coast and trying to watch this and then going to that [America's Funniest Home Videos]. I mean, maybe if the President was going to talk, maybe if something big had happened, but I can't believe that America's Funniest Home Videos would take priority over us. I mean, I like the show, but I'd rather watch the race."

In Johnson's mind, all was not lost, as it was for viewers in half the country during the 1968 "Heidi Game" but it didn't put NASCAR in high regard.

"I thought it went dark and nobody could watch it," Johnson said. "So the fact that it was on another television channel was better. It's still somewhat on a prime channel, of course, on ABC, but to go to America's Funniest Home Videos, that one hurts. I thought we have a lot of characters. Why do we need that show?"

For NASCAR fans, there was nothing funny about it.