NASCAR is dying and they have no idea how to save it

Mike Bell
March 15, 2018 - 9:38 am
Jimmie Johnson

© Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

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Just read yesterday that Lowes is pulling the plug on the 48 car sponsorship. The home-improvement giant has been in the sport since 1997 and with Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Racing since 2001. Their logo on the hood for all seven of Johnson's Championships.

It's just another indicator of how this sport, which saw explosive growth in the 90s and early 2000s, is now running on empty.

If you ask me it all started going downhill when they tried to shoehorn a playoff format into the sport. 

In 2003 Matt Kenseth dominated the last Winston Cup Series winning the title by 90 points while only winning one race. Ryan Newman won eight races that year, but also wrecked out a lot. Kenseth & Roush Racing's steady top-10 finishes won the season.

The ratings dipped a bit; NASCAR panicked. Had it been Newman or Dale Jr. that took home the trophy, I'm convinced NASCAR wouldn't have tinkered with the series.

All they needed to do was to award more points for race wins. Problem solved. But in an effort to stay viable during football season they overthought it.

The next season big tobacco was out and Nextel was in as the title sponsor and a brand new format.  

The Chase for The Cup featured a 10-race playoff that was eventually won by Kurt Busch. While the ratings began to plateau, the moves became more desperate. 

Here's some of the contributing factors to the sport's loss of attendance, corporate sponsors and TV ratings... 

  • In an overreaction the Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s fatal accident, NASCAR rushed the "Car of Tomorrow" into service. Safer? Yes. Drivable? No. The quality of racing mid 2000's was awful.
  • In an effort to expand their brand, NASCAR abandoned its roots in places like the Carolinas & Atlanta to build boring, relatively flat 1 ½-mile tracks in Kansas, Vegas & Chicago. The sport alienated and priced its hardcore fans out of attendance. 
  • Whoever shoots the overhead shots from the blimp should get an Emmy for concealing how empty the stands are. You see tumbleweeds at the 2-mile snooze fest in California. Even in Charlotte, the sport's capital, tons of empty seats.
  • NASCAR kept changing the rules almost every offseason, in some cases expanding the field for the playoff to ensure its biggest star Dale Jr. made the cut. This kind of blatant WWE style gerrymandering got ridiculous.

Speaking of Dale Jr., as great a pitchman and Daytona 500 winner as he was, he never got closer than a third place finish in the points in 2003. After his father's death his race team at DEI had a window for a championship that closed in 2006. Despite having strong equipment he was never a serious challenge for the title after moving to Hendrick. 

The biggest stars don’t win... There's a problem when two of the sport’s most popular and heavily marketed stars can't grab a checkered flag or the championship. After all, the fanfare that surrounded Danica Patrick's move from Indy Car in 2012, she is 0 for 191 in Cup races. Despite driving the same equipment as her teammates who won races and a championship.

Jimmie Johnson and the 48 car are the New England Patriots of NASCAR. I know Jimmie has a legion of loyal fans, but he's boring as hell. One of the byproducts of NASCAR's chase format was going to 10 tracks where Hendrick Racing could dominate. Five titles in a row wasn't good for the sport.

The drivers are all cookie-cutter just like the tracks. Either rich kids whose dads bought their ride or the sons of former drivers who look and sound more like boy-band pitchmen than race car drivers.

Earnhardt is retired. So is Tony Stewart. There's nobody with a Southern accent. 

The only thing that will save this sport is a transformative African-American or female star. Darrell "Bubba" Wallace took second at the wreck plagued Daytona 500 last month. He is a charismatic kid who can win. Unfortunately, he's driving for an underfunded Petty team. If NASCAR can find someone like Danica who can actually win races, they'd see a nice ratings bump.

I've always thought the races should be shorter (save for the sport's Super Bowl the Daytona 500).  Formula One uses a 2-hour window to complete their races. Its makes every lap count. NASCAR has tried to energize its races with bonus points for winning mid-race stages. It's an acknowledgment that for most of the 3-plus hours the drivers had been laying back.

I loved NASCAR as a kid. Because the drivers were real and tough as hell. I miss North Wilkesboro, free packs of Winstons, The Silver Fox, The King, The Intimidator, Tim Richmond, and The Alabama Gang. The front stretch and back stretch packed at The Firecracker 400, that stuff seems like a faded photo in a scrap book now.

"Days of Thunder" came, then the big TV contracts. Then the track owners, The France Family and Bruton Smith got greedy. It became all corporate, homogenized… soulless.

It's a cautionary tale for baseball. If it ain't broke don't fix it. And there's no fixing NASCAR now. In an effort to keep fans tuned in, they succeeded in tuning almost everyone off.