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2011's 13 Tough Questions and the Politically Incorrect Answers

In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.

Article originally published in 2011 Athlon Sports Racing annual

1. What’s to blame for NASCAR’s sagging television ratings and attendance?

A confluence of events. No one action could account for such a dramatic dip in interest, both at the track and on television.
The continued economic downswing certainly has hurt attendance figures, despite track operators slashing ticket prices and promoters pulling out all the stops. Three- and four-night minimums at hotels where rates are already jacked up 100 percent or more continue to keep fans away. Factor in gas or airfare as well as food and drinks and a souvenir for little Timmy, and suddenly the ticket to get in the gate is the least of the expense — particularly for the largely blue-collar diehard who can blow an entire mortgage payment on a three-day getaway to the track.

A continued refusal on the sanctioning body’s part to acknowledge the NFL’s Sunday superiority doesn’t help, either. As ol’ DW stated on the matter, if there’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room, run away from it. Since NASCAR has shown it has no qualms with shucking tradition, maybe moving away from Sunday afternoons should be considered.

Outside factors aren’t the only issue, though. During NASCAR’s ascension in the public consciousness in the early part of the decade, speedway magnates International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. built monstrous temples for the racing pilgrims, the idea being that 1.5- and 2-mile tracks would not only seat more, but also facilitate both stock cars and open wheel machines. Aerodynamics, and its effects on the fendered set, weren’t considered. What resulted was a shift from beating and banging (a major stock car draw) to aero-sensitive parades. And with the economy (and SMI’s and ISC’s portfolios) a mess, there will be no capital projects to rein in the speedways in favor of popular half- or three-quarter-mile bullrings.

At the same time, a cancerous greed grew from within the sport. The more attention NASCAR garnered, the more it wanted. With that attention came sponsorship and television dollars. Billions of them.

A new generation of driver was molded to attract the funding teams needed to outspend, and thus outperform, the competition. The sanctioning body was no different. It neutered the rough and tumble aspect of the sport — an aspect that drew so many fans initially — to bring in more corporate suits to the garage, the boardroom, and the suites.

Left was a sport that answered to corporate America. Clean. P.C. Friendly. Safe. As is so often the case, NASCAR realized only when it was too late that it had strayed down the wrong path, that it had alienated and disenfranchised its true base.

It’s trying to bring back those unique traits, but as the wise racing scribe Ed Hinton noted last season, “Greed is never retrogressive.”

2. Are tweaks to the Chase format needed to bring interest back into NASCAR’s playoffs?

An unequivocal “no.” NASCAR CEO Brian France’s fascination with “Game 7 moments” continues to drive talk of change to a 10-race playoff format that has never found true acceptance in NASCAR fandom. In fact, the only change many fans desire is a return to the classic points system — but that’s not going to happen.

Instead, France’s vision hints at an expanded Chase field with points resets throughout the 10-week run that encourage (read: engineer) a paper-thin title battle each season.

What France fails to realize is that the 12-driver Chase format, sans points resets, etc., sets the stage for a thrilling playoff drive. But just as in any sport, the proverbial walk-off home run can never be guaranteed, regardless of how much a ruling body attempts to manipulate the system to allow for it.

Worse, with each tweak to the championship format — the expected change would make three in eight years — the championship (not the champion) loses a bit more legitimacy. After all, how can anyone take a title format seriously when the governing body makes multiple changes not with the worthiness of the championship in mind, but with television ratings and ad revenue as the sole guiding factor?

There are a few modifications that would be welcome, such as a bonus for the “regular season” champion or more points awarded for race wins. But what’s truly needed is a revamped schedule that takes the circuit to the most exciting and electrifying venues NASCAR has to offer in the Chase. Great racing trumps a hokey plea for ratings every time.

And speaking of a revamped schedule …

3. What became of Brian France’s promised “impactful changes” to the schedule?

When Brian France suggested last July that the 2011 schedule would “have some pretty impactful changes ... that I think will be good for NASCAR fans,” the prayers of many were thought to be answered. The lumbering 36-race slate of dates was a logistical nightmare that needed some streamlining and common sense injected to re-energize and captivate a fan base that had seemed to tire of the oversaturation of cookie cutter tracks and stale Chase venues.

Instead, NASCAR gave the fans more of the same. The “impactful changes” France spoke of ultimately manifested themselves in an additional race date for Kansas Speedway at the expense of Auto Club Speedway, and Kentucky Speedway getting a date to the detriment of Atlanta, while Chicagoland Speedway was awarded the Chase’s first date. No radical realignment to freshen things up and, specifically, to give the Chase its much-needed facelift.

Auto Club Speedway was mercifully put out of its two-date misery so ISC could bring more people to its new casino just outside of the Kansas Speedway track, essentially trading one cookie cutter for another. And make no mistake; Kansas does not present thrilling enough racing to earn a second date without the casino. SMI CEO Bruton Smith bought Kentucky for one reason: to host a Cup date. As a result, a struggling Atlanta lost one stop.

Perhaps the most disappointing decision of all was to award Chicago the first Chase date. This move was made, again, not on the merits of the racing, but to maximize a slumping track’s earnings potential. Imagine kicking off the Chase with the Bristol Night Race. Imagine the hype, the attention, the crossover appeal! Instead, a track with no unique characteristics whatsoever, one that is basically a clone of the aforementioned Kansas Speedway, will host what should be one of the sport’s most important and visible dates.

The common theme this answer shares with most others in this feature is that NASCAR’s final verdict wasn’t made in the best interest of the fans or in the spirit of competitiveness. It was made with the France family’s bank account in mind. Fair enough, you may say — after all, they own the sport. True, but at what point do the short-term objectives cancel out any potential long-term gains?

4. Will the real Tony Stewart please stand up?

Last June, after the worst start of his 12-year career, pit strategy and perfect timing left Stewart with a third-place finish at Pocono. Pumped after just his second top-5 in 14 races, Smoke came to the podium steaming, his usual swagger reminiscent of childhood idol A.J. Foyt.

“I’ve seen some of the worst driving I've ever seen in my life in a professional series right here today,” he said. “So for anybody that’s looking for drama for the next couple races, start looking, ’cause I can promise I’m going to start making the highlight reel the next couple weeks. I know you love that.”

But in a year when “Boys, have at it” dominated the headlines, the 39-year-old Stewart packed no punch while others traded barbs in public. Instead, on a return trip to Pocono in August, he served as NASCAR’s protector by lying to reporters about his knowledge of a $50,000 secret fine for driver Ryan Newman, then wagging his finger at the media for negativity.

“Between everyone in this room (media center) and in the garage we have all done our part to try to break this sport down over the last four-five years. When you finally tell someone that the racing is bad enough, long enough, you’re going to convince people that it really is,” he said. “The facts show that the racing is better than it’s ever been. Everybody sitting here and listening to this right now makes a living off this sport, myself included, and we’re all shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Looks like making a living is the most important issue for Stewart at the moment, money enough to muzzle his mouth for the time being. Let’s be honest: 2005 Tony would have looked at those comments, searched for 2010 Tony and punched him in the face.

5. Will ESPN bail on NASCAR’s television package?

It was a horrible year for NASCAR on ABC/ESPN, both in the Nielsen ratings and behind the camera. Only one of 17 races had a ratings increase (Bristol, August); average viewership was down by more than a million; and its supposed “crown jewel,” the Chase, had its numbers tank a whopping 21.3 percent over the 10-race playoff. In the middle of it all, longtime producer Neil Goldberg was discharged in October over a “peeping tom” arrest that went national and embarrassed the network.

Clearly, all is not roses at the Worldwide Leader In Sports, which holds the biggest chunk of NASCAR’s behemoth eight-year television contract worth $560 million annually. With sources claiming private unhappiness, budgets deep in the red and the sport’s unwillingness to give a discount (Why should it? The networks were the ones stupid enough to sign it) all eyes now focus on ESPN’s bid for the Olympics. If it wins it, the rights fee could be $500 million per two-year event, a gargantuan price that necessitates budget cuts elsewhere. And with their racing leader on the sidelines for good, losses in the millions on a contract halfway over and no end to the ratings disaster in sight, guess who could be first in line to take the fall?

Can TV just break a contract like that, you ask? It’s as simple as not showing up. Already, they’ve thrown nine of the 10 Chase races to cable, expanding post-race programming on SportsCenter to show the sanctioning body that, “Hey, we hyped this racing thing on Sundays more than ever before – and it’s still not working.” The next step, it seems, would be to give up and let someone else take the reins … likely for a much cheaper price tag.

6. What could NASCAR possibly have to gain by “secretly” fining Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman after Hamlin’s comments via Twitter concerning late-race debris cautions (among other things) and Newman’s damning assessment of plate racing at Daytona and Talladega?

To understand this, you must understand the antiquated line of thinking that pervades the sport’s leadership.

NASCAR wants controversy. It craves headlines. Since its January 2010 “Boys, have at it” edict, it has actually encouraged personality and outspokenness among its competitors. Unless, of course, that controversy and outspokenness are directed at the sanctioning body itself.

So when Hamlin admitted to being “secretly” fined $50,000 by NASCAR, the absurd rationale of the brass in Daytona was revealed. After all, how can a fine of this magnitude be levied in such a covert manner without the garage area — a place where rumors run rampant and some media members share a borderline unprofessional chumminess with the competitors — knowing about it.

Hamlin crossed the line in late July, insinuating that debris cautions were being thrown late in races to improve the show — basically stating that NASCAR was attempting to engineer exciting finishes.

Newman’s sin may have been more noble, but was viewed with no less consternation after a Talladega crash.

“No business owner would permit employees, vendors or partners to damage their business — nor can we,” NASCAR’s managing director of corporate communications, Ramsey Poston, said. “It is the sanctioning body’s obligation on behalf of the entire industry to protect the brand, just like every other major sport.”

Fair enough. You don’t work for me, but please don’t work against me, right? NASCAR is a sport that has to sell itself harder than ever to win the entertainment dollar of Joe and Jane Fan. When its legitimacy is called into question by a swarming media and on message boards by fans across the internet, the last thing it needs are its drivers fanning the flames of conspiracy and calling its credibility into question.

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However, the way to handle those drivers is not by secretly penalizing them. The NFL, NBA or MLB may drop the hammer on its participants’ criticisms, but the crime and punishment are outlined in minute detail so players’ unions, ownership groups and fans are assured said punishment fits the crime. Not so, in this family-owned sport. No checks and balances — not without a players’ union. And nothing short of franchising will bring that into existence.

It’s situations such as these, when the sport’s benevolence could rule the day, reassuring its skeptics that any credibility issues can be put to rest, that NASCAR finds its long lost consistency. The problem is, the only consistency displayed is a relapse into an outmoded iron-fisted rule: “Boys, have at it on the track, but don’t you dare cross the line off it.”

7. How will NASCAR’s 20 percent cut in Nationwide Series purse money affect the series in 2011?

When word came down last August that the Nationwide Series would see a 20 percent cut in purse money this season, jaws dropped. The series, along with the Cup and Truck circuits, suffered from a 10 percent purse reduction prior to 2010, stretching an already thin margin for the lifeblood of the two junior series: the low-budget, independent teams.

Those shoestring-budget teams that fill NASCAR’s fields in the Nationwide and Truck series often depend on purse money to pay the bills, a far cry from the Cup juggernauts that keep the lights on via sponsor dollars, not race earnings.

The reductions have been made with track operators in mind. An extended economic downturn has given way to sparse attendance figures and less corporate sponsorship backing for the facilities. Therefore, NASCAR took the step to slash the purses tracks must pay, while still charging the same sanctioning fee — the money tracks must pay the sanctioning body to host its events. In refusing to accept any less itself, NASCAR has made the decision to hit the teams where it hurts: in the wallet.

What is expected to follow are less-than-full fields in the Nationwide Series, a development that’s been anticipated for some time, but may become a reality as the season’s erratic travel schedule combines with a substantially lighter payday to discourage the small teams — the backbone of the junior circuit — from making a go at a full-time effort.

8. Did Mike Ford’s trash talk kill Denny Hamlin’s chances of winning the championship?

For eight weeks, Denny Hamlin’s Chase plan worked to a tee. After staying within striking distance through the playoffs’ first half, he’d turned it on with two wins in three races to take the point lead over Jimmie Johnson at Texas, seemingly stealing all the momentum while doing nothing on- or off-track to wake the sleeping giant. The No. 48 was a team in disarray, with crew chief Chad Knaus swapping out pit crews in the middle of that same race while Johnson appeared resigned to the fact someone may have gotten the better of him. Everything seemed to be leaning the No. 11’s way … and then Hamlin’s crew chief spoke up.

“I think it was kind of a desperation move,” said Mike Ford of the No. 48’s crew swap, words that would come back to haunt him. “Their team got them to this point and they pulled them out, so this is more about trying to win a championship for the company and not the team.”

Clearly, those words lit a fire under Knaus and Co., who used mental toughness to outlast a faster No. 11 car at Phoenix before throwing a knockout punch in the season finale. That left Hamlin at odds with Ford, a poor fuel mileage decision combined with knowing how much those words cost them.

“I didn’t appreciate the way that they said that,” said Chad Knaus two weeks later. “I wanted to make sure that this championship is not about that decision that was made in Texas.”

Did Ford play with fire and lose? Yep, and don’t think Hamlin doesn’t know it. If a terrible start to the 2011 season ensues, leading to divorce, look back to these moments as the ones that broke them up.

9. How can Whitney Motorsports cheat twice and get 50-point penalties each time while Clint Bowyer’s team does so once, gets 150 points, four-race crew and car chief suspensions and is essentially knocked out of the Chase?

OK, so let’s get this one straight: NASCAR needs a laser, three geeks from Revenge of the Nerds and 48 hours of nitpicking at the R&D Center to figure out if Clint Bowyer’s car is out of tolerance. Whitney Motorsports, a small, single-car outfit whose hobbies include start-and-parking, has not one but two instances discovered at the track. First, parts of the engine were found illegal at New Hampshire in September – the same weekend Bowyer was penalized. Then, at Talladega one month later, lower A-arms were discovered with buckshot inside, an old Junior Johnson trick to realign the weight inside the car. Surely, if Bowyer got such hefty consequences, and Carl Long was docked 200 points/$200,000 with an oversized engine in ’09, poor Whitney would find itself setting the wrong kind of records, right?

Wrong.

To understand why Whitney gets off the hook, look no further than this year’s car count. Only 30 fully funded teams are left; the back half of the garage is so poor that even operations set up to start-and-park as a business are closing up shop. Getting to 43 cars each week, even with field-fillers, is going to be a difficult task at places like Phoenix and California, putting the sport in jeopardy of losing precious TV money. That means that imposing a $500,000 fine for cheating and killing off a team like Whitney, whose small operation was even putting two cars out there at times to close 2010, could cheat NASCAR out of millions over the long-term.

So the little guy escapes, a rarity in this sport, while Bowyer gets the equivalent of a guilty verdict for murder. And the rest of us? We sit and wonder when the hypocrisy will finally stop.

10. If Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggles again this season, will he ask out of his contract a year early?

It doesn’t appear likely. Earnhardt and Hendrick casually mentioned that contract extension talks — Earnhardt is currently signed through 2012 — were in the near future just one week after the personnel shakeup at HMS that aligned Earnhardt with crew chief Steve Letarte in the new “48/88” shop. While that may be true, it may also be posturing, putting any sponsor’s apprehensions at ease while the company regroups and rolls out a new product in 2011. Any sponsorship negotiations attached to the Earnhardt name take a much more decided effort and additional diligence due to the asking price. Could the pair’s hinting at an early extension actually be step one in luring AMP Energy Drink and the National Guard back? Possibly.

Also, Earnhardt knows the resources currently behind him are unmatched. Hendrick Motorsports is the unquestioned powerhouse in the sport with 10 Cup titles in its trophy case and an all-star lineup that will only get bolstered in 2012 when Kasey Kahne comes on board (and that’s not to mention the relationship with Tony Stewart and his Stewart-Haas Racing operation). Really, it won’t get any better for Junior. Or Hendrick.

Despite three subpar seasons at HMS, Earnhardt brings in over $30 million per year in sponsorship revenue alone. Factor in merchandise sales (of which Hendrick gets a cut) plus over $14 million in winnings over the last three years, and the numbers say Earnhardt — win or lose on the track — is raking in just as much money for Hendrick as his new shopmate.

Still, does a blues jeans and t-shirt Earnhardt fit in a starched white-collar world at Hendrick Motorsports? Maybe, maybe not. And for the time being, he’ll remain where he’s at through at least 2012.

11. Does NASCAR need to change its officiating style?

Like NASCAR, stick ’n’ ball sports aren’t immune to controversial calls. So why do stock car officials wind up with the worst rap? Simple: visual aides. NFL challenges, MLB instant replay and NBA shot clocks can help tell us whether a decision is right or wrong, leading to endless and exciting debates at the office the next day.

How can we do that with, say, a season finale in which Kevin Harvick was busted for speeding, then accused Jimmie Johnson of sneaking by without so much as a warning? No media member or fan gets a look at pit road times, and all we see is a bunch of cars charging real slowly on the screen towards pit out. NASCAR refuses to publicly release those times, just like it won’t adequately explain a rules violation from Clint Bowyer that contains a top line that would make any politician proud.

Behold, Section 20-3: “The car body location specifications in reference to the certified chassis does not meet the NASCAR-approved specifications.”

What specifications? What tolerances? What in the world does that mean? You’d have to go through 16 pages to find out, in a rulebook not every Joe Schmo on the street can access. Considering NASCAR’s inauspicious history with penalty calls – just look at some of these other questions in the book for proof – it’s no surprise that this breeds suspicion in a transparent world where WikiLeaks, Facebook and Deadspin feed the public’s desire to know.

For generations, that’s how the France family has run NASCAR, a family-owned dictatorship with more secrets than Nixon and Watergate. But that needs to stop, pronto, if the sport wants to stop the bleeding of angry fans and nose-diving attendance. It’s time to drop the act, open the books and work to ensure that fans can believe in the legitimacy of officials’ calls.

12. Is Kyle Busch good for NASCAR?

He’s cocky, oftentimes immature, seemingly on an emotional roller coaster in the car, wins a lot and plays it up for the crowd in the process. What’s not to like?

Actually, for many fans there is a lot not to like. Busch’s post-race scowls and short answers in defeat and goading bows and mock tears in victory provide the ammo, and NASCAR fans are all too happy to fire the gun. However, fans — particularly in auto racing — often love to hate a driver more than they love to cheer on their favorite. And nothing spurs those feelings more than when a driver is good … and tells you so.

Busch has been compared to Dale Earnhardt on the track, but goes about his business much more like Darrell Waltrip in his early days. The fans loved to hate Waltrip too, as his brash personality, fast talking and once-in-a-generation talent burst onto the scene in the mid-1970s. While Earnhardt was more subdued than Waltrip in his early years on the circuit, he was more vicious on the track, never afraid to bully his way to the front.

The one thing both drivers had in common — besides a fierce rivalry — was the polarizing effect they had on the fanbase. As each became more successful, the sport garnered more publicity. It was a wild growth NASCAR experienced in the ’80s and ’90s — one that can be attributed to personality as much as horsepower.

So the answer to this question is a qualified “yes.” NASCAR has historically been a more entertaining sport when a heel is around to stir the pot. Just enjoy it while it lasts, because the “bad boys” don’t stay that way forever.

13. Should Mark Martin have let anyone know he was retiring?

Like any good businessman, Rick Hendrick is always looking ahead to stay on top; it’s why he’s won 10 championships as one of the sport’s most successful owners. But as the conductor on the sport’s fastest train, the second you leave his forward-thinking mind you’re in danger, changed from a first-class passenger to a stowaway inside the railway line once built for your success.

Just ask Mark Martin. Ever since the moment the 51-year-old announced that he would retire after 2011, here’s what his “supportive” car owner has done:

• Combine resources with the No. 5 and No. 88 during the ’09 offseason, including moving Martin’s top-notch engineer, Chris Heroy, over to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team.

• Sign Kasey Kahne a year early to replace Martin. Only one problem existed: Hendrick had no ride for Kahne in ’11 before those plans went public. As deal after deal for Kahne fell through, media questions mounted about whether Martin would depart a year early, an ugly distraction that had him snippy with the media last summer and ultimately struggling enough on-track to miss the Chase.

• Hendrick made major moves in December 2010 to fix three of his ailing four teams. Where did Martin land? With the worst chassis (former No. 88) and worst-performing crew chief, Lance McGrew, a man with one career Cup victory to his credit. Heroy and Martin are reunited … but is it too late?

Some say this man’s cried wolf too many times, this being the third full-time “retirement tour” he’s had in six years. But that doesn’t make this arrangement fair.