This past week, much has been made of an All-Star Race that was more of an All-Star Snooze for what few fans stuck around to watch the entire event. For the sixth straight year, there wasn’t a single pass for the lead in the final “no guts, no glory” 10-lap segment. Denny Hamlin used clean air to cruise to a $1 million dollar victory that looked less enticing than the fireworks display following the event.
This week, NASCAR talked about “starting the All-Star Race at an earlier time” seeing as the green flag didn’t happen until 9:42 ET on a Saturday. But as a member of the 18-to-34 male generation the sport is so desperately trying to attract, its problems run deeper than a start time. I can’t speak for everyone, but here’s how you send this age group running for the hills…
*You have a race that happens on a Saturday night. With the variety of entertainment options these days, how many people in that generation are going to stay in, gather around a television and watch an event that starts at 9:30? It’s no surprise all of NASCAR’s lowest-rated Nielsen numbers, this year and in years past, have happened on Saturday nights. There’s a reason weekly NFL games happen on a Sunday…
*You have an analyst in the broadcast booth that starts a race by going, “Boogity! Boogity! Boogity!” And, as much as I love the trio of Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip, and Larry McReynolds, they are increasingly disconnected from the “next generation” of stock car racing fans every passing year. Talking about racing from “back in the day” is increasingly difficult when newer fans don’t know the combatants you’re talking about. The good old days of the All-Star Race, like the 1992 event was when many 20-somethings weren’t born or too young to understand. We need to hype up the present competition instead of trying to get new people to love the past. It’s gone.
*Driver introductions, almost as long as the All-Star Race itself contained all the personality of a local library. For those who didn’t see it, Sprint set up a stage (as it always does) with fans set up all around in a mosh pit environment. One by one, the drivers would come out with their crews as the announcers would loudly introduce their arrival to the sport’s biggest event. Here’s the problem: each one responded like they were walking down the street, hurrying to get to their financial analyst instead of connecting to the fan base in front of them. A limp handshake and a small wave doesn’t do it, guys in this age of six-second Vines going viral. Give the kids something to talk about; for those who watched, do you even remember anything from those intros?
*I’m a firm believer competition, not crashes, put fans in the seats. But there wasn’t a single wreck in the All-Star Race, barely a minor glitch in an event where everyone was supposed to be giving 110 percent. After the race, Hamlin was talking about how he’d invest his money, talking like a CNBC anchor instead of an athlete fans should be jumping up and supporting. Where’s the intensity? Where’s the rivalries? People gave each other more room than I do driving down the highway. If this All-Star Race doesn’t give drivers a sense of urgency, an exhibition where there’s no championship points on the line, it’s a serious problem.
*New fans need new faces to hold onto. What new face was in the All-Star Race? There was a celebration of Jeff Gordon’s career, as there should have been since the four-time champ is retiring this season at the age of 44. Instead, we had the same old teams and drivers running up front, tired stories in an age where the rules and entrenched organizations make it near-impossible for new ones to appear. NASCAR needs a name to catch fire just like golf once had Tiger Woods enthrall a generation. But who will it be? Chase Elliott? Kyle Larson? Austin Dillon? Can any of them catch on when they’re put in politically correct teams and plugged into top-tier rides like a factory? Will fans believe they had to fight for everything they’ve got? It’s the “Jimmie Johnson” problem for a new generation.
Note we haven’t even talked about the competition side of this equation, “clean air” that’s dirtying the waters of quality racing. But that’s what going Through The Gears is for.
FIRST GEAR: NASCAR’s Aerodynamics Gone Awry
In just a few months, the sport has backtracked from testing its 2016 rules package in the All-Star Race to perhaps nixing any changes altogether. Owners are complaining about the cost to redo cars, engines, and chassis designs in such a short period of time. But there’s also a different cost to be weighed, as both the audience for the sport and television ratings plummet to all-time lows.
The bottom line is single-file competition, the type we saw at Charlotte isn’t doing the world of racing any favors. Double-file restarts have even lost their flavor as fans know after a minute or two of side-by-side action their driver will be “stuck” in whatever place they end up. Bob Pockrass of ESPN.com has a great piece on what part of the problem is, corner speeds up significantly to the point drivers can go close to wide open on intermediate tracks like Charlotte. That takes driver skill out of the equation, makes passing more difficult and induces fear in a group of athletes raised on “safety, safety, safety” and scared of the type of serious injury Kyle Busch suffered back in February.
What’s the fix? Well, you can’t have an answer if you don’t try experimenting. This area is where NASCAR really needs to step up with the large amount of TV funding they’re pouring in each season. Give the teams who have attempted every race this season money to supplement the costs of a new package. Hold several NASCAR-sanctioned tests where people smarter than writers (i.e. – engineers) work on creating better racing. Right now, the value cost for the owners isn’t there to do it. You’re asking them to spend money on changing a package where new rules could make the top teams fall further behind. Long-term, that would cost them financially and potentially allow new people to enter the sport and challenge them. So why do it?
NASCAR has to give them a reason. Paying for fixing their own sport is a good start.
SECOND GEAR: How to Beat Hendrick and Stewart-Haas Racing
Hamlin, in his All-Star Race win, lived up to comments he made a month ago about the current state of Toyota drivers on intermediate tracks. To beat the top teams of Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, and Kurt Busch, all of whom are running Hendrick chassis and engines, Hamlin said every little thing has to go their way.
Saturday night, all the stars aligned. Hamlin, through a unique NASCAR qualifying procedure applied in the All-Star Race, used the speed of his pit crew to snatch the pole. He then kept track position through most of the evening, capping it off with a 10.4-second pit stop that put him up front for the final segment. Earning clean air through strategy and pit road gave Hamlin enough of a cushion in a short stint to hold off Harvick.
In the Coca-Cola 600 this weekend, I’d expect that trio, not Hamlin to charge to the front. But at least JGR now has a blueprint on how to “steal one” if they’re still this far behind Hendrick equipment in this fall’s postseason Chase.
THIRD GEAR: Kasey at the Bat
While Kasey Kahne didn’t win the All-Star Race Saturday night he made his presence felt in the first segment, making a rare pass for the lead under green. Fighting by Hamlin, Kahne eventually fell back in the pack through pit stops but the muscle he flexed should be there in next week’s 600.
Kahne, who is often overshadowed by teammates Johnson, Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., now has a chance to make a statement this weekend. After a few years of tough luck driving the No. 5 car, he’s quietly collected a handful of consistent finishes while gelling with new crew chief Keith Rodden. Charlotte is one of his best tracks and a win would seal the deal on a Chase bid, producing a sigh of postseason relief he hasn’t often had. Keep in mind five of 10 Chase races are the type of 1.5-mile tracks Kahne eats for breakfast when running on all eight cylinders. One of these years, he’s going to peak at the right time and use that strength to his advantage… is 2015 the year?
FOURTH GEAR: Tough Break for All-Star Hopefuls
Martin Truex Jr. has had an outstanding season. While not winning a race, he’s been second in points for the majority of the year’s first 11 races. But after failing to advance through the preliminary events, along with losing this year’s “Fan Vote” he failed to make the All-Star field. In comparison, Aric Almirola, a driver who has finished no better than 11th in 2015, earned a spot through his victory at Daytona last July.
It’s rare the sport has such a blatant example of an All-Star “slight,” but it might be time for NASCAR to take a look at its policy. Currently, the stance of “2014 and 2015” victories putting a driver in the field is like rewarding a MLB player for what he did last August and September. Certainly, that won’t put him into the sport’s All-Star Game in mid-July of the following year and you wonder if NASCAR should be the same way. Should you be an All-Star for what you’ve done lately or what you’ve done over the course of a longer period of time (i.e. – the rule to let past All-Star winners in the field)? It’s open to debate.
Kahne, driving in the Camping World Truck Series for JR Motorsports, edged out Erik Jones for a victory only for his No. 00 Chevrolet to fail post-race inspection. It was a great opportunity for the sport to make a serious statement, punishing a part-time team for violating the rules that could have earned them that slight edge. Instead? They got a slap on the wrist this week. Disappointing… This year, no NASCAR driver is attempting the 1,100-mile double of both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600, held on the same day. I thought both sports benefitted from Kurt Busch’s attempt last year and remain baffled why they won’t work together to make sure someone keeps doing it. Both series are struggling to keep their fan bases; why not work together toward a common goal?
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.