Just a few random thoughts as we get ready for this weekend's action at Talladega:
-How long will we go this weekend until a car slides out of control on the backstretch onto the area of pavement that used to be grass and hear how many times that car would have tumbled end over end if that area hadn't been paved? Every time a car spins out and slides onto that pavement, one of the experts in the booth tells the audience how it surely would have flipped and cartwheeled had that area still been grass. I've seen every Talladega race since 1986 on the tube. Sure, many cars have flipped through the grass. But many of those flips started on the pavement. Bobby Allison got airborne through the tri-oval in 1987 without coming close to the grass. Same thing with Rusty Wallace in 1993 and Ken Schrader in 1995; both may have ended up in the grass but their cars took flight on the asphalt. And furthermore, there's been dozens of spins onto the grass that didn't result in a huge flip. Paving that area is definitely a great thing because it allows the drivers who do spin out of control some added room to get back under control before hitting something.
-In four NASCAR sanctioned races at Talladega last year, Toyota drivers won them all. Who ever would have imagined back in the days of the Alabama Gang that a foreign manufacturer would one day sweep every event in the heart of Dixie and the drivers make it out of the speedway unharmed? There may still be some jeers from the most hardcore in the grandstands but the evidence suggests that Toyota has been fully accepted within the NASCAR community.
-Imagine if Kurt Busch wasn't able to start the season in the No. 2 car due to illness and missed the first two races. Imagine that his replacement scores a couple of top tens, one of them a solid top-five, and a pole. Imagine that going into the third race of the season he sits second in the points. But Kurt's feeling well enough to drive and he gets back in the car, leaving his replacement rideless. Okay, it's not 100% the same, but a similar story is playing out with Roger Penske's IndyCar team. Will Power replaced Helio Castroneves while the former Indy 500 winner was on trial for tax evasion. Castroneves was eventually cleared of those charges and returned to the cockpit. Penske fielded a third car for Power at Long Beach but will go back to a two-car team for this weekend's race at Kansas. That leaves Power, who is sitting second in points, without a ride for the weekend. He may not have the strongest team in NASCAR, but the allure of driving for Penske Racing in the Indy 500 is so strong that championship caliber drivers are willing to drive a very limited schedule in exchange for the chance to have their likeness etched onto the Borg-Warner Trophy.
-The Sprint Cup awards ceremony has officially been moved from New York to Las Vegas. I for one don't understand why a race fan would care where this event is located. I've been to my share of short track banquets and the Truck Series and Nationwide Series banquet a couple of times. At the short track level it's a chance to get together with everyone you've raced against and grab a couple of cold drinks and retell the stories of the year while a few trophies are passed out to the top drivers. At the NASCAR level it's a gala affair, with a catered meal, black ties and evening gowns. The speeches are scripted and the access to the drivers is carefully controlled during the event itself. I can understand why the drivers would care where the event is held. I can even understand why the media would care since they were also up in the cold in NYC. Whether it's a short track or NASCAR, I just don't get the hullaballoo that some fans make concerning the banquet. All anyone who thinks it's going to be easier to access the drivers in Las Vegas and that it will be cheaper to go there for a week than New York needs to do is see how cheap rooms are at the Wynn during the banquet. My guess is it won't be cheap.
-I had a long conversation with a friend yesterday about the precipitous decline in NASCAR's television ratings over the past couple of years. While I think the fact that NASCAR is now basically a spec-car series and fans want to see different types of cars on track fighting it out (yes, actual STOCK cars!) and my friend disagrees, we do have the same opinion on the broadcasts themselves chasing off viewers. If you tune into any other sport, whether it's football, baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, or even horse racing, the expert analysts actually offer the viewer in-depth analysis. You can break down how Team A got into the end zone because Team B's defense broke down. You can look in super slow motion at a golfer's swing. You can put an iso-cam on the favorite in the Kentucky Derby and watch as he paces the first half and then breaks through the field down the stretch. We don't get that type of in-depth analysis in NASCAR. Maybe the fans, most of which are long-term viewers, are tired of being spoken to like we're watching for the first time. We know how aero push works. We know know the draft works. We know what tight is and what loose is. Talk to us like we are passionate fans who know the basics. When someone makes a late-race pass for the lead, break it down: show us what he did, how it did it, and why he did it. When you talk to the lowest common denominator, eventually you chase off everyone but those at the very bottom of the ladder. That's what's happening now. Gimmicks like "Digger" and telecasts that offer the viewer nothing substantive aren't keeping people interested. NASCAR and the networks can say they are trying to expand the audience but the fact is right now that audience is contracting.