As we approach the start of the NASCAR season, excitement is high as Jimmie Johnson goes for title No. 6. There are plenty of other exciting story lines to follow.
There are the numerous amount of drivers that swapped teams and the impact that will have on their careers. There was the three team crew chief swap at Hendrick Motorsports. And then there is the ever-present 26 race push for the Chase.
But it's not all rosy in NASCAR circles. There are plenty of issues facing NASCAR in the coming season. Ahead we will take a look at 10 of the bigger ones and see how each of them is affecting the product that NASCAR delivers.
Keep in mind, these are in no particular order and as you will notice, many of them wind up going hand in hand.
The first notable issue facing NASCAR is the lack of big-time sponsors stepping up. At a time when the American economy is still very fragile, a very limited number of big corporations want to invest the amount of money it takes to be a sponsor in the sport.
This problem is being seen all across the board. Some races are struggling to get a sponsor associated with the event and many teams are scraping the bottom of the barrel and being forced to use one-off sponsors or sell primary sponsorship among many different companies.
The effect on teams is not limited to just the smaller teams either. Jeff Gordon has seen his primary sponsor of nearly two decades, DuPont, greatly reduce its role in the sport. Even Ryan Newman and Mark Martin are still looking to fill a few races with a primary sponsor.
The shortage of primary sponsors has led to another pressing issue which we will now address.
The second part of a lack of sponsorship is the fact that a large handful of teams are having to rely on the old start-and-park method, in which a team gets into the race, runs a few laps and then pulls into the garage for the rest of the day, all for the sake of making a paycheck.
It is hard to imagine NASCAR doing anything about these teams. They are under pressure to produce a 43-car starting field and without some of these start-and-park teams, it wouldn't be possible to hit that number.
As a fan, it is frustrating to watch a race and see five or six cars drop off the track within the first 20 laps. You want to see a competitive race, with all the drivers looking to win the event. Unfortunately, for the last couple of years, that has not been the case.
Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage claimed early in 2010 that start-and-park drivers "add nothing to the races" and "steal money from racetracks." As harsh as those statements may seem, especially in today's economy, he is not wrong.
But like I said, there is not much NASCAR can do about it. It isn't the team's fault that they can't find adequate sponsorship dollars and they are doing everything they can just to survive, but it is certainly an issue that NASCAR needs to address at some point.
If you watched any NASCAR race on television this past season, one thing was clearly evident. The stands were never anywhere near full. It seemed like every other seat was empty at most of the tracks. Once again, today's economy has played a huge roll in this.
During the NASCAR boom back in the late 1990's, many tracks were selling out of tickets nearly as soon as they were available, but that isn't the case in this day and age. Even Bristol, the holy grail of race tracks for ticket holders, is having trouble selling out. In 2010, for the first time in decades, Bristol was advertising available tickets up until race time.
So what can be done? Well, unfortunately for NASCAR, there isn't much they can do about it. Each track mandates its own ticket sales, so it is up to each track to make the necessary adjustments to sell tickets.
The best move I think that tracks could make would be to off general admission tickets. Sell a limited amount of tickets for some reserved seating, but other than that, make it a first-come, first-serve basis as far as seats go. It isn't much, but it could be a starting point. And, hey, reducing some prices by a little, as well as some of the concession stand prices, may not hurt either.
It's not just the attendance that is dropping. The number of people watching the races at home is diminishing. On the whole, ratings for NASCAR races were generally down in 2010.
Only seven out of 36 races saw their 2010 television viewership increase from 2009. (There were actually nine, but two of the races were comparing numbers for a Sunday race to those run on a Monday, due to weather, in 2009).
The logic behind the decline is viewership could be attributed to many factors. The on-track racing, as a whole, has actually improved in recent years, but the results are usually the same. Jimmie Johnson has won a record five consecutive championships and, quite frankly, a lot of fans are getting bored tuning in to see the same thing year after year.
But that's not the only reason. In today's technological world, you can get up-to-the-second race updates sent directly to your phone if you want, so sitting in front of the TV to find out what is going on is no longer necessary. Obviously, that is going to make watching a race a non-necessity for some, thus resulting in lower ratings.
Again, there is no easy way to fix the problem. The only thing that NASCAR can keep doing is putting on quality racing and just hope that is enough to lure people back in front of their television sets.
Before I jump into this topic too much, I am going to be up front and honest. I am a huge NASCAR fan, but I am in no way a typical "car guy". I know very little about the setup of these cars, nor do I claim to know anything about the ins and outs of what it takes to keep these cars safe.
With that being said, I do know that the safety of all of the drivers, as well as the crews and the spectators, is NASCAR's No. 1 priority and they are constantly looking at ways to improve and ensure the safety of everyone involved.
Over the last decade, the cars that NASCAR builds have become safer and safer, but the one lingering issue is finding a way to keep the cars from getting airborne in the case of an accident. This past season, both Brad Keselowski and AJ Allmendinger had cars leave the ground and flip over in separate incidents.
While both drivers walked away with just some minor bumps and bruises, this is an issue that NASCAR would love nothing more than to eliminate completely, because some day, with the high speeds that these cars reach, another driver may not be quite so lucky.
Whether it was Richard Petty and David Pearson or Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough or, even more recently, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, NASCAR has always seemingly had one big rivalry between drivers that it could hang its hat on.
But that is no longer the case. There hasn't been any sort of real rivalry in years. The closest thing NASCAR has had recently has been between Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski, but supposedly that feud has simmered. And even when it was at its peak, it couldn't compare with any of the great rivalries of the past.
Over the course of Jimmie Johnson's reign at the top of the series, he has faced a number of different challengers for his throne, but never the same driver more than once. With so many different drivers coming and going in the quest to overtake Johnson, it becomes nearly impossible for a big rivalry to form.
For the last few years, the Nationwide Series has been nothing more than an extra test session for the Sprint Cup Series. The Cup regulars have dominated the series and now questions are being raised about whether they should be limited in their number of attempts per season in the series, or if they should be disallowed from contending for the championship.
Over the last five seasons, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, all Sprint Cup regulars, have each won the championship in the series. And in 2010, only twice out of 35 races was the Nationwide Series race not won by a Sprint Cup regular. Justin Allgaier scored his first career victory at Bristol, while Boris Said snatched his first win in the series up at the road course in Montreal.
Once again, NASCAR's decision is heavily based on the economy. All sponsors want to back a team and a driver that gives them a chance to win. And, like it or not, that typically means teaming up with a Sprint Cup regular. Not to mention that the fans that go to Nationwide races want to know the drivers and be exposed to the best that NASCAR has to offer.
So what to do? I like the decision that NASCAR is pondering. I say let the Cup Series regulars run if they want to, just make them ineligible for championship points. Everyone wins that way. Drivers get to do what they love, sponsors get to associate themselves with the sports best drivers, and the fans still get to see the big stars that they want to see. It seems like the only way to make everyone happy.
Whether you love him or hate him, there is no denying that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still one of the primary faces of NASCAR. Yet, unlike the other faces of the sport, Earnhardt has failed to produce much of anything recently.
Since joining up with Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt has scored just one victory and has only amassed 29 top 10 finishes in 108 starts. Those were not the numbers that everyone expected when he signed on with the sport's top team, back in 2008.
For the eighth straight season, Earnhardt was the most popular driver of the year, but yet again, he failed to deliver on the race track. For the second consecutive season, he failed to lead more than 200 laps during the course of the season and he also only scored a single-digit amount of top 10 finishes.
I don't want to blame the decline of the sport on one person, but the constant disappointment of its most popular driver can't help. It will certainly be interesting to see if interest turns back around for NASCAR if Dale Earnhardt Jr. once again becomes a factor.
One way or another, NASCAR would love nothing more than to see its biggest star shine bright once again.
For the fifth time in as many seasons, Jimmie Johnson won the Sprint Cup championship. For the first time over that stretch, Johnson actually had to come from behind in the standings over the course of the last two races, which made for a little more drama than he is accustomed to having.
While five straight championships is an unprecedented and amazing accomplishment, it also makes watching races, and namely the Chase, boring for people who are not Johnson fans. As I mentioned earlier, if people already know who is going to win, why would they want, or need, to tune in to it.
I think that it would help NASCAR immensely if Johnson was not in the championship hunt next season, over the course of the final few races. It would make people a lot more interested in the product if they already knew that there would be a changing of the guard at the top.
It seems that every year there is discussion about tweaking the format of the Chase in hopes of making it a tighter race while at the same time making it more appealing to fans and attracting more viewership.
Over the last couple of months, rumors have floated around about possibly expanding the Chase to 15 drivers. There were also discussions about making the Chase an elimination-style format, among other things that NASCAR can concoct.
The problem is NASCAR always seems to think that they have it figured out every time they make a change and that whatever they have just done is going to solve all the problems and bring the excitement back to the Chase. But other than this past year, nothing has worked. The final race of the season has typically been nothing more than a victory parade for Johnson, this past season being the exception, when there was actually some excitement as three drivers were still in the hunt for the title.
So can the Chase be made perfect? I don't think that it can. Adding extra drivers to the mix definitely doesn't do anything to improve it. If anything, I think it only makes it worse. Look at this past season. Jeff Burton finished 12th in the standings, last in the Chase, 589 points behind Johnson. Adding extra drivers will only spread the field more, instead of making it closer like NASCAR would want.
And as far as the elimination-style format? I don't think that could ever work. That seems like it would incorporate luck more than anything. And while luck is certainly involved in the sport no matter what, it should not be the determining factor in deciding the champion.