Let's face it. Even if NASCAR is likely to attempt to spin it any other way, this has been a really rough start to the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
A week of alleged cheating followed by confusion, a record fine, unprecedented penalties and post-race alterations followed by half-apologies and a flurry of mixed messages, late additions to the Chase field and, finally, a last-minute rule change all preceded the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
What percentage of fans do you believe stuck it out to watch the entire Geico 400 either from the stands or on television?
And then the rains came.
The start to the Chase opener was delayed by roughly 90 minutes, but that was nothing. After the first 109 laps were in the books—just 25 laps before the halfway mark, which would have made the results official, even if they didn't get back on the track—the heavy stuff came pouring down.
Thus began an interminable rain delay that lasted five hours, 10 minutes and 21 seconds. Kudos to all the fans at the track and on television who stuck it out. They're real animals. They're obviously passionate about this sport they love.
There also appears to be fewer of those types of diehards following the sport these days and even fewer new fans going all-in, and those are problems. (For evidence, take note that Daytona International Speedway, the crown jewel of all NASCAR tracks, is removing 45,000 seats, per AutoWeek.)
It's not just NASCAR. There aren't fans of very many sports left anywhere who would have the patience to wait out such a long rain delay or who would be willing to cheerfully wade through the seven days of mess that led up to the opening Chase race in the first place.
This is the Now Generation. With smartphones, iPads and thousands of instant options to snag the attention of sports fans at every available and even unexpected moment, the bad weather that dampened the Geico 400 and got the 2013 Chase off to such an inauspicious start only underscored bigger issues that have long faced NASCAR.
For starters, why is the season so darn long? At a full nine months, it's longer than all other major professional sports seasons by at least a month. A woman could get pregnant on the eve of the season-opening Daytona 500 and have the baby before the end of the season.
Also, why are so many races still too long? And why have two entertaining road courses run during the regular season but none during the 10-race Chase that decides that season's champion?
Yet these logical questions have remained largely unaddressed by the same officials who muddled through the week of Spingate with such mixed success. In other words, while it was right to add Ryan Newman and eventually Jeff Gordon to the Chase, why did it take so long?
And why did the alleged perpetrator of the spin that caused all the controversy, Clint Bowyer, largely remain unpunished as he headed into his own pursuit of a championship in the Chase?
Oh, and don't even get us started on the change to a restart rule that NASCAR officials told five-time champion Jimmie Johnson was "black and white" back in June, only to ignore what happened at the end of the Richmond race when Carl Edwards clearly ventured into what Johnson called "a very gray" area, according to USA Today. Those same officials changed the restart rule on the very day the Chase was to commence, according to SportingNews.com.
Memo to Brian France and all others running NASCAR: Collectively, these weren't your finest moments. And if you're still trying to draw new fans, all this did was confuse them.
There were, of course, millions of reasons why by the end of last week NASCAR was still groping to cope with it all and attempting to get the Chase field right, at least, USA Today's Chris Jenkins explained:
NASCAR officials' unprecedented reaction to allegations that teams tried to orchestrate the results of last week's race at Richmond International Raceway did more than just trigger a seismic shift to its season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup and rile up its fan base. From a business perspective, the ramifications of officials' decisions over the past week can be measured in the millions of dollars. By retroactively adding Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon to the 10-race playoff run, NASCAR gave both drivers a shot at winning the championship, gave their teams the valuable media exposure boost that comes with qualifying for the Chase -- and a potential swing of several million dollars in incentives and bonus money.
The Chase is supposed to generate the most interest of the season for NASCAR, but all of this really brought into question one former prominent race promoter's long-held philosophy that "any publicity is good publicity." In this case, was it really?
This still has all the makings of a great Chase. Matt Kenseth's eventual win in the Geico 400—more than 10 hours after the scheduled start of the race and in front of only the most ardent fans in the stands—cemented his spot at the top of the standings.
Yet Johnson, Gordon, Kyle Busch and many of the sport's other big names remain in close pursuit as they prepare to head to New Hampshire for the second event in the 10-race Chase.
But it's already moving into late September. These guys have been racing since February. Football season is upon us, and whether NASCAR wants to admit it or not, every year it loses casual observers of its sport to their passions for the pigskin.
The Chase would be much better off and draw more universal attention if the season was shortened by at least six weeks. Start it earlier, if you must, and have it end by Labor Day.
Throw in a few shorter races while you're at it, a road course in the Chase and maybe even a couple new All-Star-type elimination heat-style events (hey, they do something similar in professional golf when they offer up match play at least once a season).
In other words: Do something different, do it decisively and quit trying to compete head-to-head with the NFL for way too much of the football season. Then deal with whatever issues come up during said season more decisively and more immediately, and leave the rules alone for at least a year.
The current NASCAR season is too much like the Chicagoland rain delay that fans were asked to sit through, as well as the week that led up to it: way too long and way too wet, as in wishy-washy.
All quotes not otherwise attributed were obtained firsthand by the writer.
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