Despite Great Competition, NASCAR Must Still Deal With An Ongoing
The sport of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing faces a familiar problem in 2012, one that has bedeviled it for the last three years.
However, that problem is certainly not the quality of its competition. For once NASCAR didn’t have to come up with obscure facts and figures to tout itself as the most competitive form of motorsports in this country – which, incidentally, is a claim it has made repeatedly over the years.
In 2011, there can be little argument that it was, indeed. And no one has to search high and low for statistics to prove it.
Now, I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating. Not only was the past season highly competitive, it was also, in many ways, historical.
All it takes to understand that is a quick look at what happened and who made it happen.
There were 18 different winners in Cup racing, which matched those in 2002 and fell just one short of the record of 19 set in 2001.
Five of those winners won for the first time in their careers, and, to make this unprecedented, four of those winners were victorious in four of the circuit’s most prestigious races at three of its most prominent speedways.
Trevor Boys won the Daytona 500. Regan Smith won the Southern 500. David Ragan won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400.
Not one of these drivers was considered a victory candidate in any of these races – if, indeed, in any other.
That these relatively unheralded drivers won as they did for the first time – and all in one season – has never been done before in NASCAR.
And Marcos Ambrose became the fifth first-time winner when he was victorious on the road course at Watkins Glen.
It was routinely believed that if Australian Ambrose won in NASCAR it would be on a road course. That he did so was no surprise.
That may be, but judging from response, his victory enhanced NASCAR’s international appeal – at least in one part of the world. Ambrose is a hero in his native country.
The battle for the championship was like no other in NASCAR’s history.
It came down to a two-man war between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart that wasn’t settled until after the final race of the season at Homestead.
Stewart won that race while Edwards finished second, yet another in a series of Chase races in which the two finished within a single position of each other.
The result was the first tie in points ever in NASCAR. Each had 2,403 points.
Stewart won with the tiebreaker – the most wins in a season. He had five, Edwards one.
But the championship drama goes beyond that. It wasn’t simply because Stewart won it in historically close fashion, it was also how he did so.
He started the 10-race Chase ninth in points without a single victory to his credit.
But once the “playoff” began Stewart surged like a tsunami. He won five races, rose quickly to No. 1 in points and, with four wins under his belt, was second when Homestead began, just three points in arrears to a remarkably consistent Edwards.
That set up the dramatic finish.
Stewart has to receive credit for one of the most impressive, come-from-behind runs for a title in NASCAR’s history.
Any decent statistician could put up some other numbers that would support the excellent competitiveness of the 2011 season – laps lead, most lead changes, cars running at the finish and such.
But I don’t believe they are needed. What has been presented here – and, I admit, earlier – should offer solid proof that NASCAR is in no way suffering when it comes to the quality of its competition.
Fact is, it’s thriving.
But, when it comes to being a business and not a sport, NASCAR and its teams are not thriving.
In 2008 this country, and the world, plunged into an economic disaster.
Stocks plummeted, banks failed, businesses folded, homes went into foreclosure and jobs were lost a thousand fold.
Nothing escaped, not even NASCAR. At the end of the 2008 season team members were laid off in droves. Other organizations folded. Sponsors, who suffered a loss of profits, pulled the plug on their NASCAR participation.
Sponsorship suddenly became a gift, not a given. Teams used to single-entity deals that brought in $20 million or more began to beg for limited schedule deals at reduced prices.
For those teams fortunate enough to have it, financial backing was acquired through multiple companies providing full support for 10-12 races here, 4-6 there and maybe even one or two.
And I think it is obvious that speedways suffered as well. Where they once were able to sell tickets with little difficulty, they now had to use creative public relations and marketing strategies to lure cash-strapped fans to come to their races.
It wasn’t easy. Empty grandstand seats prevailed.
I was one of many who said then that the economy was NASCAR’s biggest challenge. It remains so.
The economic malaise has not gone away. It hasn’t for the country and it hasn’t for NASCAR.
We already know of two teams that have ceased operations, both of them part of high-profile operations. Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing no longer have four teams, they have three. A lack of sponsorship has caused that.
And the Roush team that features past champion driver Matt Kenseth is still searching for financial backing – as are several other organizations at one level or another.
Red Bull Racing, and its two-car operation, folded. I’ll be honest. The economy might have had something to do with that but I suspect politics might have played a larger role.
Regardless, after 2011, think of the number of racing jobs that have been lost – again.
At present NASCAR does not have as many well-funded, full-time teams now as it did at the start of 2011.
Its speedways still have to find the means to get folks to part with their dollars. After all, the joblessness rate is still high, companies continue layoffs or job elimination (including among the motorsports media), real estate values remain low and gasoline prices are volatile, among many other things.
The problems NASCAR faced after 2008 are still its major concerns as 2012 approaches.
But it is clear that, at least for one season, competition is at an all-time high. That is something that can potentially lures fans, encourage needed media attention and honestly establish NASCAR as something it has always claimed to be – the best in this country.
If what we saw in 2011 is matched, or approached, by what happens in 2012, that can only be good for NASCAR and its continuing challenge to sell itself, and its teams, to the public and corporate America amid a still struggling economy.