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The Product Or The People? NASCAR's Tough Choice

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Denny Hamlin 2015 MyAFibRisk.com 400 winner Chicagoland Speedway Chase for the Sprint Cup

Denny Hamlin 2015 MyAFibRisk.com 400 winner Chicagoland Speedway Chase for the Sprint Cup

This article will get published hours before NFL "Thursday Night Football" kicks off. It’s no secret the gridiron dominates the sporting landscape these days, making NASCAR borderline irrelevant during the fall even during its 10-race run to the championship. Chicagoland, the first of the 10 postseason races pulled a weak 1.8 Nielsen rating Sunday; by comparison, CBS pulled a record 14.3 for its Denver-Kansas City NFL broadcast last Thursday night. For a once-proud series, it’s like trying to compare the economy of, say China to a third-world country at this point. What was once a potential battle for the No. 1 sport in America now has the NFL leading 70-0, driving for another touchdown early in the fourth quarter with no end in sight.

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As the appetite for football remains healthy, CBS doesn’t have to do much to promote Thursday’s game. All you’ll see is a quick commercial revolving around a few major players, reminding people of the time and... voila! You’re all done. There are no gimmicks; there is no excess drama being sold. It’s a simple, up front proposition where nothing is blown out of proportion. The actual product, played out over three hours on the field will sell itself.

Compare that with NASCAR, in the midst of declining interest and playing out a 2015 rules package that’s perhaps its most disastrous on-track decision since the Car of Tomorrow. The choice to keep things fair for everyone was the right call; you don’t change regular season rules teams have spent millions prepping for in the playoffs. However, the end result it causes, making passing near-impossible at times, could alienate an audience over the long term.

The product they’re putting out, designed to entertain, has more risk of falling flat. Their fear in letting the simplicity of a race play out appears to be, well, that it’ll be boring. You’ll have cars running single file, teammates giving too much room, no mechanical failures or wrecks to spice up the unpredictability factor (indeed, on that last one Chicagoland had every car finish the race, just the fifth time we’ve seen that on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup level since 2007).

When faced with that sobering reality, that’s when you see small issues become big deals. One small piece of metal, outside the racing groove, will cause a caution; indeed, half of the six yellows we saw Sunday were for negligible pieces of debris. Making those calls, like a bad penalty in other sports, alters the outcome of the race in a way that can’t be reversed. Officials might be “spicing things up” but all they’re doing is artificially creating competition.

Those choices cause a rollercoaster of mixed feelings across the spectrum. Denny Hamlin and his fans are sure happy NASCAR found debris with eight laps left; without it, he wouldn’t have won the race. Kurt Busch, meanwhile feels a victory was stolen while Jeff Gordon fell from second to 14th after an ugly final restart. They leave with an sour taste in their mouth, a late double-file frenzy feeling gimmicky when everyone involved wasn’t fully convinced a caution should have been thrown in the first place.

It’s an awkward ending to try and promote, right? So while the NFL can focus on the game, NASCAR is focusing on... off-track drama. Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson had a shoving match post-race, Harvick angry over contact between the two that left him 42nd. The “fight” was more like a quick push, a ton of handlers getting in the way and then, boom it was over. But you wouldn’t know it everywhere you look this week; major news outlets can’t get enough of “Harvick-Johnson” and the question looms of “will there be payback in New Hampshire?” I’ve seen bigger fights between second grade kids yet the storyline for “suspense” has already been set.

It’s "General Hospital" for NASCAR, so it seems, except it’s a real sport, not the WWE and five seconds of “scuffling” isn’t the three hours of racing people tune in for. Lost in it all is the 400-mile event that actually happened, exceptional strategy that played out which put Hamlin in position to win. NASCAR’s product, as we saw at times at Chicagoland, is actually getting better after a rough start; better rules are on the way in 2016 most observers agree will bring back some sparks. Advertising the “product” they have without manipulation wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

But those pesky numbers — 1.8 versus 14.3 — force a different type of decision. Once the gap grows so steep, once it feels like the bleeding will never stop, that’s the time when people grow antsy. You can’t blame NASCAR for trying to pull every gimmick, exaggerate every “fight” and borderline manipulate competitive racing in order to draw people in. We live in a world of quick fixes; it’s easy to get sucked in.

I just think the “quick fixes” don’t make a sport better. It makes it look desperate. Let’s hope the right people keep that in mind moving forward.

Through the Gears we go with a look at four takeaways from NASCAR’s first playoff race and a look at what to expect from the second...

FIRST GEAR: Much Ado About Nothing?

I’ve talked to a bunch of people this week about the Harvick-Johnson dustup. Harvick feels wronged that Johnson banged into him following contact from Joey Loganoon a restart. That bump caused the No. 48 to slide down on the apron, borderline lose control and then slide back up into Harvick’s No. 4 when the reigning champ refused to give extra room. To me, it looked like one of those racin’ deals but the end result (Harvick 42nd) would be enough to make anyone upset. With no attrition at Chicagoland, the poor finish means a 22-point deficit for Harvick in 12th place with just two races before the Chase field gets cut from 16 down to 12.

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Harvick, who has one career win combined at New Hampshire and Dover, will likely need to point his way in. Two top-5 finishes could accomplish that but it’s far from guaranteed, causing the tempers to flare and a shoving match between the two when Johnson explained himself. Some in the sport feel it’ll go further, Harvick determined to end Johnson’s bid later in the Chase should his own title defense fall by the wayside.

Others aren’t so sure and I’m inclined to agree with them. Harvick drives for Stewart-Haas Racing, a virtual “B” team for Johnson’s employer, Hendrick Motorsports. The two organizations share information while HMS provides engines and chassis to Harvick’s program. Could you imagine the fallout if Harvick plays “payback” with the No. 48? Would engines even be delivered to SHR Monday?

Owner Rick Hendrick, the man who earmarked the teamwork philosophy, knows this fact and will help these drivers make peace. Harvick and Johnson are friends; they both grew up in California, slept on Ron Hornaday Jr.'scouch while rising through the ranks and respect each other. Johnson helped Harvick stay calm and mentally prepare for the Homestead season finale last year; Harvick came away from that with the season title. There’s too much good vibes between the two men – let alone too much at stake financially — for this issue to linger longer than a few days.

Now, will Harvick make the next round? My bet is no. It’ll make him upset but in the long run, he’ll do what’s best for both companies; keep from spinning out the No. 48.

SECOND GEAR: Joe Gibbs Racing in High Gear

One big question entering the Chase was whether Joe Gibbs Racing, the stars of the summer could keep momentum going in NASCAR’s playoff. Most of their wins happened with a variety of rules packages that wouldn’t be used in the final 10 races; their four drivers also combine for one total championship (Matt Kenseth, 2003).

It didn’t look good early at Chicagoland; Hamlin caused the first caution and Carl Edwards sped on pit road under green. Both drivers were a lap down and well outside the top 20 at one point while Kenseth had about a 15th-place car on speed. But cautions, pit strategy and solid adjustments put each of JGR’s four cars (add Kyle Busch, leading a race-high 121 laps) in position to win by the end of the race. All ran inside the top nine, winner Hamlin secured a spot in the next round and the Toyota team seems well-positioned to keep their dream alive of putting all four of their cars inside Homestead’s Final Four.

Looking ahead, Kyle Busch won New Hampshire in July and enters Sunday the prohibitive favorite. Kenseth has a 24-point cushion on 13th-place Jamie McMurray and could likely endure a DNF the next two weeks and still squeak through. Add in Edwards, the pole sitter the last time out in New Hampshire, and there’s no sign their momentum will be stopping anytime soon. 

THIRD GEAR: Bowyer’s Bad Break

Drama at Michael Waltrip Racing, already high with its pending closure after the season, took a turn for the worse this week with a penalty against Chase driver Clint Bowyer. NASCAR came down hard after recognizing a right-rear quarterpanel was modified during pre-qualifying inspection Friday, docking the driver 25 points and suspending crew chief Billy Scott for three races. Those punishments would almost certainly cost the driver any chance of advancing to the next round.

Officials claim the car was altered with components that would give Bowyer’s No. 15 team an easier way to modify their track bar. It’s a charge MWR denies, although their truthfulness is made difficult through a past history of getting caught cheating. (See: Jet Fuel, 2007; Spingate, 2013). An expedited appeal has not yet been scheduled; it’ll happen before Dover, though in a hearing that will have meaning for many people. The organization is vigorously preparing a defense but cannot escape an awkward reality; their entrance and exit to the sport will now forever be tied to some sort of cheating “scandal.”

FOURTH GEAR: Schedule Changes Coming?

It was reported this week Pocono Raceway will appear on the 2016 XFINITY Series schedule, replacing Chicagoland. But other than that, NASCAR remains tight-lipped about a slate of races that usually get released a few weeks ago.

Is the sport considering major shifts? Hard to say; we’ve waited before only to be sorely disappointed. However, there is concern about filling up Bristol and the  stagnancy of never changing race dates. Drivers would like to see fewer intermediates in the Chase as well, replaced by a road course (Watkins Glen?) and perhaps another short track or two. It’s a topic to keep an eye on as NASCAR looks to keep the XFINITY Series as NASCAR’s “Saturday Showcase.”

OVERDRIVE

After a strong run to start the Chase Kurt Busch may be without crew chief Tony Gibson Sunday. The mechanical leader of the No. 41 Chevy had an emergency appendectomy this week; engineer John Klausmeier will hop on top of the pit box in his absence…. BJ McLeod, who has never run higher than 15th in any XFINITY or Truck Series race, has been signed to make his Sprint Cup debut this weekend driving the No. 33 Circle Sport Racing Chevrolet. While McLeod is mature (31) his lack of credentials draw attention to just how easy it can be to get a Cup ride these days at the back of the field if you have some money.

— 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 tom.bowles@frontstretch.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

Photos by ASP Inc.