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Examining a decade's worth of growth in NASCAR
Change is inevitable – except from a vending machine.
— Robert C. Gallagher
These days, longtime fans, analysts and anyone with a NASCAR license is drawn into constant debate about the “good old days.” With well-documented, often-rehashed concerns surrounding everything from attendance to ratings to competition. Social media brings us a 24/7 argument of whether we’re heading in the wrong direction, with a constant refrain from the sky-is-falling crowd that “Things were better when …”
But were they? People tend to romanticize, not harp on past experiences; how would your life be if you focused on everything that went wrong? NASCAR throws statistics out virtually every week about statistical records — parity to the point that every 500-miler is suddenly the best race that there ever was. In a world of extremes, there has to be some middle ground that leads to truth… right?
Let’s investigate. On the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Day it seems fair to take a moment and pull off a simple comparison. How much has NASCAR really changed in a decade? Consider…
Eight races into 2001 … Dale Jarrett was leading the points, followed by Jeff Gordon, Sterling Marlin, Johnny Benson Jr., Steve Park, Rusty Wallace, Bobby Hamilton, Ricky Rudd, Bill Elliott and Elliott Sadler.
Eight races into 2011 … only one of those 10 drivers still runs in the series full-time (Gordon). Jarrett and Wallace are ESPN analysts, Elliott and Park run part-time when they can find rides while Marlin, Benson and Rudd are retired. Sadler is trying to simply survive in the Nationwide Series, while Bobby Hamilton? Cancer victim, before he even turned 50 years old.
Eight races into 2001 ... Carl Edwards wasn’t yet 22 years of age, dropping out of Missouri, substitute teaching and hoping for a shot at a dream. Jimmie Johnson was in his second year full-time in the Busch Series, winless and hoping for someone to give him a better shot. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in his second year of Cup competition, fighting through the devastation of losing his father. Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch were unproven Cup rookies, Kyle Busch was a promising 15-year-old under the watchful eye of Jack Roush, while Ryan Newman was an ARCA and Busch Series driver and Matt Kenseth was fighting off a sophomore slump in the Cup Series. Juan Pablo Montoya was a rookie — in Formula One. Clint Bowyer? I don’t think anyone knew that 21-year old’s name outside of Kansas. Combined, they had a total of five Cup Series victories to their credit.
Eight races into 2011 … those 10 drivers would make the Chase if the season ended right now.
Eight races into 2001 … two of the top-10 drivers in points were under 30.
Eight races into 2011 … that number stands at one (Kyle Busch). Shocking considering the “young gun” movement, right?
Eight races into 2001 … the sport was still grappling with the death of Dale Earnhardt two-and-a-half months earlier. Another driver was behind the wheel of that car, with a different color and number, but for millions their love for the sport died the second the No. 3 went head-on into the Turn 4 wall. Even worse, there was no replacement on the grid for the Intimidator – just an empty hole that everyone expected would take time to fill.
Eight races into 2011 … the sport is still grappling with the death of Dale Earnhardt. That same replacement stays behind the wheel, finally emerged from a legend’s shadow but, fair or not, he will never adequately fill those shoes. New fans have appeared, many of whom know stories but have never seen a No. 3 on-track, except for the occasional Dale Jr. sentimental moment and a kid named Austin Dillon. Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart try their best, but there is still no replacement for the Intimidator – just an empty hole in the garage in terms of leadership, charisma an candor.
We’re still waiting for it to be filled.
Eight races into 2001 … the races had been won by five drivers and five organizations: Yates Racing (Dale Jarrett – three times), the Wood Brothers in a sentimental upset (Elliott Sadler at Bristol), Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (Michael Waltrip at Daytona and Steve Park at Rockingham), Hendrick Motorsports (Jeff Gordon), and Richard Childress Racing (Harvick, in just his second start replacing Earnhardt at Atlanta).
Eight races into 2011 … the races have been won by seven drivers and five organizations: Roush Fenway Racing (Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth), the Wood Brothers in a sentimental upset (Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500), Hendrick Motorsports (Gordon, Jimmie Johnson), Joe Gibbs Racing (Kyle Busch – Bristol), and Richard Childress Racing (Harvick, the only driver to have won twice). Yates Racing and Dale Earnhardt, Inc. are no longer standalone teams, dissolved with mergers upon mergers to the point they’re run by other teams.
Eight races into 2001 … only one four-car team existed (Roush Racing). Hendrick Motorsports was at three cars, along with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. while the rest? No one had more than two. In the most recent race (Martinsville), a total of 24 different owners fielded cars; 11 different owners finished inside the top-15 spots.
Eight races into 2011 … only 24 different owners all season have fielded a car (25 max, depending on how you count blurred lines and satellite teams). Three teams have at least four cars (Hendrick, Roush and Childress) while Joe Gibbs Racing has three. If you mix in Richard Petty Motorsports with Roush and Stewart-Haas with Hendrick – teams that “information share” along with getting chassis and engines from Big Brother – you can say four teams are in control of 19 cars on the circuit, nearly half a 43-car field each week. In the most recent race at Talladega, eight different owners finished inside the top 15. Only 11 different organizations (eight if you count those engine/chassis tie-ins) are represented inside the top 28 of driver and owner points.
Eight races into 2001 … the series was averaging 22 lead changes a race with an average margin of victory of 0.598 seconds. Keep in mind that back then, there were no green-white-checker finishes, “overtime” races or double-file restarts.
Eight races into 2011 … the series is averaging 39 lead changes a race, but is armed with a margin of victory of 1.58 seconds. That number includes a tie for the closest margin ever at the stripe — .002 seconds between Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer at Talladega.
Eight races into 2001 … start-and-parking would make race fans scratch their head and say, “What’s that?” There was not a single instance during that portion of the year where any car pulled in early for financial reasons.
Eight races into 2011 … an average of four cars on the 43-car grid pull in early each week. At the sport’s most recent race – Talladega – where forced parity makes everyone a contender, three cars pulled in within five laps to collect a total of $237,061.
Eight races into 2001 … every event was experiencing double-digit ratings growth in the first year of the FOX/NBC television package. The sport was averaging a record 6.9 in the Nielsens, with an overnight high of 8.4 for that year’s Daytona 500.
Eight races into 2011 … the Daytona 500 pulled an overnight high of 8.2. Through eight races, FOX is averaging a 4.9, a 29 percent decrease from its first year covering the sport.
Eight races into 2001 … the FOX announcing team consisted of Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds in the booth with Jeff Hammond and Chris Myers in the Hollywood Hotel. Pit road coverage was provided by Steve Byrnes, Matt Yocum, Dick Berggren and Jeanne Zelasko.
Eight races into 2011 … pretty much everything has remained the same, for better or worse. Only Zelasko is gone, replaced by Krista Voda. It’s one of the longest-tenured groups of on-air broadcasting in professional sports.
Eight races into 2001 … Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch were battling hard for rookie of the year honors. Casey Atwood, Jason Leffler and Ron Hornaday were also in that class, each of whom would go on to impact one of NASCAR’s top three series in their own way.
Eight races into 2011 … Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne isn’t eligible to win the award under NASCAR’s new rules. Andy Lally and Brian Keselowski, both of whom have yet to crack the top 15 in any race, are busy battling out for the award while trying to scrape up enough money so each can finish the season.
Eight races into 2001 … the sport was averaging about eight cautions a race. Sixteen of those yellow flags were for debris or oil on the racetrack; that averaged out to about two per race.
Eight races into 2011 … the sport is averaging about eight cautions a race. Seventeen of those yellow flags were for debris or oil on the racetrack; that averages out to about two per race.
See? Some things never change… as for the rest, I’ll leave it up to you to be the judge. Certainly, in some ways the sport is better off, but there’s no denying the NASCAR of today has become dramatically different than it was just 10 years ago. The key for the sport, and for fans is whether they’re willing to embrace change or through their longing for nostalgia, outright reject it. You certainly can’t go back, but is there enough excitement remaining for fans to move forward?