Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Lack Of Winners, Lack Of Lead Changes Explain NASCAR's Ratings Dip

In July 2007 NASCAR became rather defensive about its competitive product, shown here and in various other forums. Below is a post initiated in November 2006 in response to this recent surge of defensiveness; it has been updated where needed -


NASCAR has undergone substantial change in this decade, and more and more those in the sport are questioning the need for change.

That Winston Cup "no longer has any competitive sizzle" and is thus suffering from a decline in TV ratings and attendance is universally understood in the sport, but the reason for this lack of sizzle is subject of disagreement and some misleading analysis. Some blame the length of races and the length of the schedule, but such complaints are for people with Attention Deficit Disorder; the races and the schedule are not too long. The Chase format has certainly taken away some competitive sizzle with its arbitrary lockout of most of the field from any top-ten points position, but the real core issue has largely gone unnoticed.

Pro Football had its Dead-Ball Era of 1966-77, when scoring was low and rule changes were needed to open up scoring. NASCAR for the last 25 seasons has been in a Dead-Lane Era, an era of mediocre racing highlighted by lack of lead changes. It began in 1985 when the Winston Cup season failed to produce a race with at least 40 lead changes for the first time since 1970. The decade that began with 20 such races 1980-4 saw just three more by the end of 1989 - at Talladega twice (1986 and 1989) and Charlotte in 1988. In April 1991 Bristol broke the 40-lead-change barrier (the only short track racing in NASCAR history to do so) thanks to a bizarre pitstop and double-file restart package that was discontinued after that race; the 40-lead-change barrier was not broken again until October 2000 at Charlotte.

It has, however, been the restrictor plate races, which were consistently the most competitive races during the 1990s (plate races set the season record for lead changes in 1990, 1993-4, and 1996-7), that broke the 40-lead-change barrier the most. Talladega in its last 22 runnings entering 2011 has broken that barrier sixteen times - October 2000, four straight races 2003-4, and a whopping eleven straight October 2005 through 2010, reaching 63 lead changes in October 2006, the most competitive race in 22 years, and then topping that mark at 64 lead changes among a motorsports-record 28 leaders in October 2008 - only to obliterate the record in 2010 with 88 lead changes among 30 drivers in April 2010, followed by 87 lead chanegs among 26 drivers on Halloween.

Outside of Talladega, however, the competitiveness of the racing has been subpar. Making it worse has been a shrinkage of winning organizations in the sport. The 1980s saw a phenomenal increase in winners, both in drivers and teams - in 1986 13 drivers for 11 teams won races; in 1988 14 drivers for 12 teams won; in 1990 14 drivers for 14 teams won, while a year later there were 14 winning drivers again.

Comparison is interesting to make in number of winning teams. The bulk of the 1970s was said to be dominated by a few teams. While this is true, the number of winning teams was greater than is generally given credit for -


WINNING TEAMS 1971-8 -

FRED ELDER #96
HOLMAN-MOODY #17/12
COTTON OWENS #6
PETTY ENTERPRISES #43 AND #11
WOOD BROTHERS #21
NORD KRAUSKOPF #71
RICHARD HOWARD/JUNIOR JOHNSON #3/12/11 AND #52
L.G.DeWITT #72
PENSKE RACING #12/16
HYLTON ENGINEERING #48
BOBBY ALLISON RACING #12
CRAWFORD ENTERPRISES #22
BUD MOORE ENGINEERING #15
DARRELL WALTRIP #17
DIGARD RACING #88
HOSS ELLINGTON #1
J.D.STACY #5
RANIER RACING #54



The 1979-80 period was when NASCAR first began to get major live television exposure after two decades mostly consigned to weekend sports anthology broadcasts -

1979-80 WINNING TEAMS -

DIGARD RACING #88
PETTY ENTERPRISES #43
JUNIOR JOHNSON #11
BUD MOORE ENGINEERING #15
RANIER RACING #28
ROD OSTERLUND #2
WOOD BROTHERS #21
M.C. ANDERSON #27
HOSS ELLINGTON #1
HAGAN RACING #44



The switchover to 110-inch wheelbases in 1981 coincided with a steady influx of new teams and new sponsorships, and the sport began reaching new highs in winning teams -

1981-4 WINNING TEAMS -

RANIER RACING #28
PETTY ENTERPRISES #43
JUNIOR JOHNSON #11
M.C. ANDERSON/BLUE MAX RACING #27
(team purchased from Anderson by Raymond Beadle after 1982)
CLIFF STEWART #50
BUD MOORE ENGINEERING #15
JUNIE DONLAVEY #90
JACK BEEBE #47
WOOD BROTHERS #21
DIGARD RACING #88/22
MARCIS AUTO RACING #71
MACH ONE MOTORSPORTS #33
J.D. STACY #2
RAHMOC RACING #75
RCR ENTERPRISES #3
HAGAN RACING #44
MELLING RACING #9
JACKSON BROTHERS #55
HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS #5
CURB MOTORSPORTS #43
("replaced" Petty Enterprises 1984-5)




The Dead-Lane Era began in 1985, a season almost monopolized by Bill Elliott and the Melling #9. From 1986 onward, though, the number of winning teams remained strong -


1986 WINNING TEAMS -

RCR ENTERPRISES #3
HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS #5, #25
JUNIOR JOHNSON & ASSOCIATES #11, #12
BLUE MAX RACING #27
STAVOLA BROTHERS RACING #22, #8
MELLING RACING #9
WOOD BROTHERS RACING #7
RACE HILL FARMS RACING #47
BILLY HAGAN RACING #44
BUD MOORE ENGINEERING #15



1988 set the post-1971 record with fourteen winners -


WINNING TEAMS -

RCR ENTERPRISES #3
HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS #5, #17, #25
LAKE SPEED RACING #83
RAHMOC RACING #75
STAVOLA BROTHERS RACING #12
BLUE MAX RACING #27
MELLING RACING #9
JUNIOR JOHNSON & ASSOCIATES #11
JACKSON BROTHERS RACING #55
KING RACING #26
RANIER-LUNDY RACING #28
KULWICKI RACING #7



As the 1990s began the competitive depth of the sport remained -


1990-1 WINNING TEAMS -

RCR ENTERPRISES #3
HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS #5, #25
WALTRIP RACING #17
(team purchased off of Hendrick Motorsports)
JUNIOR JOHNSON & ASSOCIATES #11
MORGAN-MCCLURE MOTORSPORTS #4
BLUE MAX RACING #27
PENSKE RACING #2
(Team formed from equipment and shop of Blue Max Racing)
SABCO RACING #42
LEO JACKSON MOTORSPORTS #33
KING RACING #26
ROUSH PERFORMANCE #6
MELLING RACING #9
ROBERT YATES RACING #28
KULWICKI RACING #7
BUD MOORE ENGINEERING #15
BOB WHITCOMB RACING #10



But as the multicar era surged the number of winning organizations began to shrink.
Here is the 1994 list of winning teams in the Second Hoosier Tire War:

1994 WINNING TEAMS -

RCR ENTERPRISES #3
PENSKE RACING #2
MORGAN-McCLURE MOTORSPORTS #4
ROBERT YATES RACING #28
HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS #5, #24
JUNIOR JOHNSON & ASSOCIATES #27, #11
RUDD PERFORMANCE #10
GEOFF BODINE RACING #7
ROUSH PERFORMANCE #6
JOE GIBBS RACING #18


With the end of that tire war and further restriction on testing, the surge of multicar teams became clear -


1995-6 WINNING TEAMS -

RCR ENTERPRISES #3
MORGAN-McCLURE MOTORSPORTS #4
HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS #5, #24
(also fielded #25)
JOE GIBBS RACING #18
PENSKE RACING #2
ROUSH PERFORMANCE #6
SABCO RACING #42
ROBERT YATES RACING #28, #88
BILL DAVIS RACING #22
RUDD PERFORMANCE #10
GEOFF BODINE RACING #7
PETTY ENTERPRISES #43



The multicar boom continued as the decade of the 1990s ended, resulting in a net shrinkage of winning organizations -


WINSTON CUP WINNING TEAMS, 1997-99 -

HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS #5, #24 (also fielded #25)
PENSKE RACING #2, #12
ROBERT YATES RACING #28, #88
ROUSH PERFORMANCE #6, #99
(also fielded #16, #26, #97)
RUDD PERFORMANCE #10
CALE YARBOROUGH MOTORSPORTS #98
PETTY ENTERPRISES #43
(also fielded #44)
JOE GIBBS RACING #18, #20
RCR ENTERPRISES #3
(also fielded #31)
MORGAN-McCLURE MOTORSPORTS #4
SABCO RACING #42
(also fielded #40, #46)



In 2001 a switch to a harder tire compound helped the sport reach a stunning high in number of winners at 19, and 13 different teams accounted for those wins. 2002 was less dramatic but of near-equal competitive depth as the two seasons combined for 26 winning drivers among 14 teams -

WINSTON CUP WINNING TEAMS IN 2001-2 SEASONS -

HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS #24, #48
(also fielded #5 and #25>
RCR ENTERPRISES #29, #31
(also fielded #30)
EARNHARDT, INC. #1, #8, #15
ANDY PETREE RACING #33, #55
JOE GIBBS RACING #18, #20
PENSKE RACING #2, #12
ROUSH PERFORMANCE #6, #17, #97, #99
ROBERT YATES RACING #28, #88
WOOD BROTHERS RACING #21
CAL WELLS #32
GANASSI/SABCO RACING #40
(won with two drivers)
BILL DAVIS RACING #22
RAY EVERNHAM MOTORSPORTS #9
MORTON-BOWERS #10



But from 2003 onward the number of winning organizations has shrunk, to where only the following teams have won in the period of 2003-6 -


WINSTON CUP WINNING TEAMS, 2003 THROUGH 2006 -

HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS #5, #24, #25, #48
RCR ENTERPRISES #29, #31
(also fielded #30/#07)
EARNHARDT, INC. #8, #15
JOE GIBBS RACING #18, #20, #11
MORTON-BOWERS RACING #01
(also fielded #10)
ROBERT YATES RACING #38, #88
ROUSH PERFORMANCE #6, #16, #17, #97, #99
CAL WELLS #32
RAY EVERNHAM MOTORSPORTS #9, #19
PENSKE RACING #2, #12



The 2007-8 period saw the disbanding of Ray Evernham Motorsports, Petty Enterprises, the Cal Wells team, Robert Yates Racing, and the former Morton-Bowers team; it also saw the merger of Ganassi Racing and Earnhardt, Inc. Johnny Benson's breakthrough for Morton-Bowers in 2002 was the last new winning organization to hit Cup until a flukish surge in 2009 saw victories for teams owned by James Finch, Michael Waltrip, and Dietrich Mateschitz.    2010 saw the merger of Ganassi Racing and DEI into a truncated two-car Chevrolet team using RCR engines - a team that shocked the sport by bursting to four victories that season, the first comeback by an organization since the Wood Brothers'  2001 victory at Bristol.   The Woods themselves spent the decade in essence just surviving, until Ford began increasing engineering help to where rookie Trevor Bayne pulled off the stunning 2011 Daytona 500 upset.

Even with this the number of teams competitive enough to win has shrunk to where only four teams control the engines and chassis of virtually the entire field and the number of teams merely running laps and then parking - widely derided as "start and park cars" - became noticeable and also significant.


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There are numerous reasons for this and the multicar monster is a major one, perhaps the key one; also contributing has been the repeated versions of the infamous and ineffectual 5&5 Rule, trademarked by a higher airdam and smaller spoiler compared to 2003; making it worse was the decision by NASCAR's John Darby to change swaybar diameter and mounting location rules and also the implemetation of aero-matching - aka Common Templates. "In three years," noted blogger MD80891, "teams had to suffer through half a dozen tire changes, two spoiler reductions, two or three swaybar changes, and aero-matching. Then they wonder what happened to the ontrack product?"


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NASCAR pinned considerable hope to the Car Of Tomorrow, but the COT proved an unadjustable failure.   A car/Truck hybrid, the COT has been based in large part on a myth - that the Craftsman Truck Series has the best racing.    The attempt to apply Truck-themed aerodynamics to make "The Quick Brick" from the beginning did not work; the COT did next to nothing beyond make the Dead-Lane Era even worse because of its abysmal design and inability to race well.  The only tracks where the COT did put on excellent races were the plate tracks.    Its poor design was criticized almost right away by drivers.

The simple fact is that the sport needs racing like it has at Talladega to reclaim its competitive sizzle - 40 or more lead changes needs to be the sport's norm, as it was in the 1970s and early 1980s, and not the exception is has been in the Dead-Lane Era. I hear a lot from fans who say they got interested in the sport because of the strategies from crew chiefs and so forth. The problem is none of that matters without on-track action, meaning passing and repassing, drafting and sidedrafting.

The sport also needs a points system without a playoff format and which requires winning the most races and leading the most often, either most net laps or most laps led in the highest number of races. And it needs to break up the multicar monopolies and get more teams on the winning track.

The sport also needs tire competition. There's a mixed bag here because one recalls the hard-tire package of 2001-3 that saw the above-mentioned upsurge in winners. The hard tire gave teams pitting options they did not have before, and as MD80891 pointed out, problems attributed to the hard tire in terms of adjustment were more a factor of two seasons of bizarre weather changes, with temperature swings periodically hitting ten to fifteen degrees day to day, which left most teams scrambling for answers; mismatching of tires was also a factor.

There is, though, something to be said for tire competition. Those who cringe at the idea of a tire war should note that number of winners has generally increased whenever there was tire competition, notably in 1988 when the sport reached 14 winners for the first time since the 1960s, and 1994, when the sport ended a two-year drought of first-time winners and jumped from ten winning drivers in 1993 to 12 and saw two owner-driver teams take victory - one was Ricky Rudd in his #10 Tide Ford, while the other, the ex-Kulwicki team of Geoff Bodine, won three times and led over 1,500 laps as Hoosier Tire's main works car. Why allowing some teams to use Firestones and some to use Hoosiers can really be that bad for the sport is puzzling.

The wildcard angle to the issue is the forgiving nature of the tire; short track series such as NASCAR's K&N Series and weekly racing use bias-plies, which are more forgiving than radials; it is noteworthy that in 1995-6 Goodyear used leftover tire-war tires and as Chris Economaki and Dick Berggren noted in their racing forums at the time those tires raced far more like bias-plies, and it was reflected in very spirited racing pretty much the entirety of those two seasons.  In the second half of 1999 Goodyear increased stagger on its tires and passing up front increased noticeably, with Michigan, Dover, and especially Atlanta seeing some of their most competitive racing in years. 


--------------------------------------------


The sport needs the racecars to be underpowered and overgripped, overall and/or relative to what the tracks can handle (see for example the difference between Indycars, the Modifieds, the Trucks, etc. in races such as 2016 at Daytona, Kansas, Indianapolis, and Texas) the draft needs to punch open, and the tire needs to be forgiving.   The points structure needs to revert to the Latford Point System with  100-plus point bonuses for each race win and most laps led per race. 

The sport also needs some procedural changes - or more accurately reversion to some older procedural changes. The Chase has to go.  Also needing to go is the field freeze and lucky dog rule, a procedure introduced in panic after September 2003 at New Hampshire and having nothing in NASCAR history to serve as justification.  Racing to the caution was never as dangerous as the field freeze rule makes it out to be, and that races are more and more being determined not at the stripe but at scoring loops often a mile from the stripe strikes at the integrity of the sport.  This is the officiating tower wielding too much control of the racing and it needs to be ended.

The decade beginning in 2010 has had some good moments but overall hasn't ended the Dead-Lane Era.  That has to change.


2016 POSTSCRIPT    -  In the years since this piece first aired, the Truck Series has seen some striking improvement in its racing; as horsepower was restricted more the series saw memorable battles up front on several intermediate tracks, notably Atlanta, Kansas in 2013 and 2014, and Charlotte in 2015's epic Erik Jones-Kasey Kahne shootout; it also saw some spirited competition in the series' 2010 debut at Pocono.  Daytona and Talladega as usual provided the wildest racing, especially in 2008-09, 2013, and 2016, while Kansas and Texas in 2016 saw stunningly physical battles up front. 

A rumored 2011 wider tire didn't happen, but the idea certainly is not a bad one and engineering a more forgiving tire remains necessary.   The COT is gone, but top-heavy sedan bodies are still the body of choice for NASCAR. 

The 5&5 Rule was revived for the Kentucky race in 2015 and saw substantial driver praise though the racing was okay yet not great.   That low-downforce package was then used at Darlington's throwback Southern 500, a race that set a new record for yellows for that track and didn't see much in the way of passing - the final 70-plus laps in particular were woefully uncompetitive.  Yet NASCAR in 2016 began running the low downforce package on the non-plate tracks, this despite its history of competitive failure - a history proven anew as 2016 soldiered on. 

And with additional downforce changes at Charlotte in May 2016, NASCAR's rules search goes on.

6 comments:

Gvav1 said...

Your vebiage is well thought out and obviously researched. Kudos to you Monkee!

I agree and diagree. I do get bored with almost year round 4 1/2 hour telecasts...so naturally I think the answer is fewer races and shorter races. But as you stated...the boredom may be a symptom of something else.

I was not a fan back when the cars really looked like cars, but maybe heading back in that direction would be a benefit?

Regardless, I enjoy a blog that truly makes me cogitate, thanks Monkee!

Monkeesfan said...

Thank you for your kind words.

As for "when the cars really looked like cars," there's a certain mythologizing and romanticizing that occurs when people speak like that. Certainly the cars of the 1970s and '80s were "stocker" than today's racers (Chevrolet teams could purchase parts, often at below-market prices, from car dealers; this is a reason why there were so many Chevrolets in WC back then), but they were still purebred racecars.

I'm not sure heading back in that direction would be a benefit because - a) true stock cars are too brittle to withstand the high-speed tracks of today, and - b) getting away from stock ultimately isn't why the racing has suffered.
They can go in the aerodynamic and engineering direction that they have as long as the draft still works (remember the roof spoiler package, a bolt-on piece that has been the biggest single positive development for improving racing in decades), the costs don't bankrupt many teams, and the speeds are kept in check.

NASCAR certainly deserves a share of blame for the sport's Dead-Lane Era (though we shouldn't really exonorate the teams in general and teams like Hendrick Motorsports in particular for pushing the envelope even when they don't need to push it) because it hasn't cracked down hard enough or in the proper direction on the escalation of speeds and costs. Say what you will about the varied changes in airdam kickouts etc. in the recent and no-so-recent past; the balance sheet on them is they did keep things more equal than aero-matching and so forth have done.

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Blake said...

Interesting article in The Wall Street Journal spots section yesterday.

What is this Rowdy website and what happened to all my blogs?

MD80891

Monkeesfan said...

Hello there, Blake.

Not sure what happened to your blogs.