NASCAR might need to go back to the future to boost ratings, interest

Publish date:

For NASCAR teams and drivers, it's summer vacation this week, but the powers that be have no such luxury. You can bet officials down in Daytona are working overtime to turn around a sport that continues to suffer a serious decline.

Chicagoland viewership decreased by over 200,000 compared to last year, with the track's estimated attendance of 67,500 fairly generous for stands that were three-quarters full. How bad has it gotten for what once was the second-largest sport in America? Among the TV programs NASCAR trailed in the ratings last week were Pawn Stars, Good Luck Charlie and Hannah Montana: Forever. Even LeBron's free agency decision scored a 7.3, just below the 7.7 for NASCAR's Super Bowl, the Daytona 500.


So how do you fix it? Brian France seemed ready to throw the kitchen sink at the problems during a press conference last week, insinuating changes were coming to both the Chase and the Sprint Cup schedule for 2011. It seemed as if he was off on a scavenger hunt, searching for genie in a bottle when the sport's already made more wishes during his seven-year tenure than when dad Bill Jr. ran it for over 25 years.

Sometimes, you make so many fixes that you forget what's even broken. Will listening to the fans help? That's where we start in this latest mailbag, a look through your eyes on how to fix NASCAR's playoffs. If there's an idea I overlooked, don't get left out; and Twitter at NASCARBowles is the way to speak out and be heard.

It is probably too complicated, but here is my solution to the Chase. Call it "4-3-2-1," a 4-stage, elimination-format championship playoff:

1) Keep it 10 races and the top 12 drivers after race 26, and the current seeding blueprint.

2) After four Chase races, eliminate the bottom four drivers. Reseed the remaining eight drivers based on Chase wins and positions. Six races left...

3) After three more Chase races, eliminate the bottom three drivers still in contention. Reseed the surviving five drivers based on Chase wins and positions, with more points for wins in the last three races. Three races left...

4) After two more Chase races, eliminate the bottom two drivers still left. Reseed the remaining three drivers, based on Chase wins and positions, again with more points for wins in the most recent two-race segment.

5) One race left. Points for the win go up again; winner doesn't necessarily take all, but there is a definite premium on winning this race. Highest Chase point total at the end wins the Silver Flag.

To win in my 4-3-2-1 format, a driver must be both consistent and clutch. Winning is rewarded appropriately, but nobody can just run away from the field unless they are truly dominant in all four stages. With the equivalent of wild card, divisional and championship rounds, the stakes get higher...and so does the interest and excitement.

-- Ross, Star, Id.

Every week, I get one of these types of complicated plans in my inbox, a "fix-all" to a playoff system that's clearly disliked. Some piggyback on NASCAR's recent idea of using more drivers in the Chase, or an elimination format like that revealed by Lars Anderson a few weeks ago. Perhaps the most popular idea is to use a different point system for the 12 drivers who make the playoffs, putting more emphasis on winning over consistency to keep more drivers in the hunt. Others still ask for a shortened Chase, five weeks instead of 10 with not as many drivers participating. I've pretty much heard everything under the sun at this point.

And you know what? I haven't found a single one I've fully embraced. To me, change for the sake of change is never a good thing. So what about this novel concept: Admit the Chase was a bold idea that just didn't work, and go back to what actually did, the old point system, installed from 1975 to 2003 during the sport's biggest period of growth.

Blasphemy you say. How could a sport ever jumpstart itself by going backwards? The reason the championship was changed in the first place was because drivers were focused on consistency over winning. Matt Kenseth, who took the title with just one victory in 2003, would once again be rewarded for his accomplishments; we'd see monotony over 36 races instead of 26.

Or would we? Kenseth's top-10-a-thon season that provoked the Chase was the first time in the modern era (1975-present) the champion had fewer than two wins. And if you're so concerned about winning being more important, then when you make the change, add another 50 points per victory. That ought to be enough to make a one-win championship virtually impossible.

My advice to Brian France would be to invoke the late, great Winston Churchill: "All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes."

Let's hope Mr. France is willing to do just that.

Jeff Gordon an underdog? I would love to see how you determined that! His place is cemented in NASCAR history. He has dominated just like the King and Earnhardt dominated in their day. No one, not even those two, stays on top forever, but Jeff and his fans can look at his career in its entirety with nothing but pride. You sure missed the mark on this one.

-- Sheppard, Bay Area, CA

Sheppard, how could you not call Jeff Gordon an underdog at this point? He's sitting in the same shop as the man who's won the last four Cup championships. He's winless this season, despite leading 772 laps, the most for anyone since Harry Gant led 1,169 en route to getting shut out in 1981. During Gordon's drought -- now at 48 races, the longest of his career -- Johnson and Mark Martin have totaled 16 victories, finishing first and second in the standings, respectively.

Sure, Gordon's driving for the best in the business right now in Rick Hendrick. But being second- or third-best on your team doesn't get you a championship. You should definitely look back on your man's career with pride, as four championships make him the best driver of the last 30 years not named Earnhardt (although Johnson's creeping up behind him there, too). It's just the days of Gordon dominating like he did in the late '90s are gone, and they're not coming back. I can see him winning another title, but at this point I'd consider it an upset if he does.

On to another NASCAR legend...

You'd think with Kasey Kahne out (and most likely Elliott Sadler too), RPM would consider consolidating to three cars (à la RCR.) With Bobby Labonte's Petty history and free agency looming, has there been any word of a possible return? Bobby doesn't have too many days left, but he probably could wheel the No. 9 or No. 43 better than most as well as mentor A.J. Allmendinger (if he stays also.)

-- Ed Mejia

Ed, I've heard a lot of fan chatter about a Labonte-Petty reunion. What I haven't heard are any tangible talks, and I don't expect them to happen anytime soon. Keep in mind these three things:

1) Labonte stayed loyal to Petty in 2008, turning down Richard Childress while committing to the No. 43 through a merger and injection of investor capital. Six months later, he was out on the street. That's bound to leave a sour taste in anyone's mouth.

2) The reason he was kicked out of Petty wasn't because there was no room. Sponsors weren't willing to jump on board, part of the reason the current Gillett-Petty merger happened in the first place. Two years later, Labonte's got a barren recent resume that includes just two top-10 finishes. Connect the dots.

3) Labonte already has experience driving the RPM Fords, driving for Yates off-shoot Hall of Fame Racing in 2009 (RPM merged with Yates this season). He struggled throughout in what he thought was junky equipment. Why go back 15 months later?

In the short-term, I can see Labonte's best bet right where he is: James Finch's No. 09 or maybe Robby Gordon's No. 7. But I don't see anywhere in Cup he can land in 2011. Whether it's fair or not, the Truck Series or retirement are his best options.

What's wrong with Scott Wimmer? Why will no one give him a multi-year contract and the chance he deserves? All anyone talks about are the same drivers over and over. Why will no sponsor back Wimmer? What has he done so wrong? Baker Curb Racing and JR Motorsports put him behind the wheel and look at what he did. He led laps, ran up front, and came home safely. I think Bill Davis Racing Really hurt his career. Please help Scott get back to where he belongs.

-- Trent Jacobson

Trent, I think you hit it right on the head. Back in the day, Wimmer took Cup rides with single-car, underfunded teams like Bill Davis Racing and Morgan-McClure, teams that didn't have the resources to be competitive. That left him with 107 starts and only one top-5 finish. That's not what you want to showcase to potential sponsors, and now at 34 he's no longer looked at as a young gun.

Why Wimmer hasn't settled into a Nationwide Series ride ala Jason Leffler is a bit of a head-scratcher, though. In 2007, he helped RCR capture the owner's championship on a limited schedule, and then won a race in 2008 before getting kicked to the curb. In five races of fill-in work this season, he's got three top-10 finishes for teams like JR Motorsports. You'd think someone would give him at least a second look with that track record, right? Perhaps Dale Jr. will come back around and offer him the Nationwide No. 88.

And while we're on that series...

I think that it's finally obvious to everyone that Danica is simply not competitive. She is just bringing in Go Daddy money for Andretti.

-- Steven, Rhode Island

Steven, the biggest thing I took from Danica's 24th-place finish Friday is she did it with half the hype. From TV to print, everyone seems to be jumping off the bandwagon and treating her like just another driver. That just adds to the pressure, as she's now put in the position of only bringing back the PR machine with impressive on-track performances. But you know what? That's how it should have been from day one.

Enjoy your Sprint Cup off week!

"Hard to believe that it's been 17 yrs ago today Davey Allison passed away. He was the sole reason I wanted to be a racecar driver."- @Regan_Smith_, remembering the 1992 Daytona 500 champ, 19-time Cup Series winner, and son of racing legend Bobby who passed away after a helicopter crash July 13, 1993.