NASCAR Sprint Cup Winning Not Emphasized? Just Blame the Television

Hank EptonCorrespondent IJanuary 25, 2011

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 14:  Jamie McMurray, driver of the #1 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2010 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images

NASCAR is emphasizing winning. It always has.

There’s a victory lap, a burnout, a victory lane, a giant check, a big trophy and a Sprint Girl smiling in the background.

Watch a video from the 1970s, or the 1980s or 1990s, and you’ll see almost the same thing, except the Sprint Girl was a Winston Girl and there weren’t as many burnouts back then.

Kids do the darndest things these days with the cars when they win.

I wonder why. There’s no emphasis any more on winning if you believe what you read.

Over the last several years, one of the complaints from fans that seems to surface over and over again is emphasis on winning.

Many say that winning doesn’t mean what it used to. It’s reached a point where “emphasize winning” seems to be a secret code word for “old school.”

Back in 1979, racing took a huge step onto the national stage with flag-to-flag coverage of the Daytona 500 on CBS. The season finished with Richard Petty winning the last of his seven championships.

Since drivers these days are locked into the field if they’re in the top 35 in points, use that as a comparison.

During the 1979 season, only 12 of the top 35 points finishers competed in all 31 races that year.

There were 23 drivers in the top 35 who didn’t show up in the field for all the races.

Dale Earnhardt was the highest finishing driver that didn’t make all 31 starts. He finished seventh in the standings and won rookie of the year.

The number of guys making the entire schedule has gone up dramatically over the years.

In 2010, only four drivers in the top 35 didn’t make every race. They all finished lower than the drivers who did. David Gilliland was the highest points finisher who didn’t make every show.

Gilliland finished 32nd in points.

Back in the 70s, when racing was old school, winning was everything. A lot of teams didn’t try to make all the races because it wasn’t cost effective and the championship wasn’t all consuming.

If it were, David Pearson would probably have more titles. He came close to running all the events in 1966, ’68 and ’69 when he won his three championships. He ran 141 out of a possible 151 races. In each of the three title years, he failed to make starts.

Winning used to be the way to pay the bills. Save your pennies, build a car and run the big paydays.

Show up for Daytona, Charlotte, Darlington and anywhere else where you can pocket a big check and make your year. It was “old school.” Winning was the emphasis. It paid the bills.

The sport has changed. Now, there are a lot more national sponsors in the game. They’re footing the bill. In exchange they want their sticker on the quarterpanel on television every week.

In turn, they can get their brand on television every week because the race is on television every week.

If the team is in the races all year, there’s a bigger prize on the shelf than an individual win. The Sprint Cup Championship is out there. If you make all the races, you’ve met the first criteria to win it.

Again, the top points finisher in 2010 who didn’t make all the races was David Gilliland in 32nd place. You won’t win the title if you’re not there every week, and if you’re in the show, you’re in the hunt.

Some of you reading this remember the television series “Dallas.”

For those of you too young to remember, ask someone about it. The continuing drama came on every Friday night on CBS. You couldn’t just watch one episode. You had to keep tuning in as the Ewings went through the twists, turns and shootings in their little crude oil-soaked world.

That’s how the networks market NASCAR to us now.

Prior to 2001, the individual tracks cut deals to broadcast the races. If you’re old enough to remember TV Guide, you had to look at it every week to see what network was carrying the race.

The network didn’t have a vested interest in the title or driving you to the next race. Executives just wanted to make sure you watched their race.

After the event ended, they’d briefly tell you the next race on the schedule, but not the network on which it would be televised.

They would tell you the next time a race was back on their channel for sure.

The races were stand alone events for the networks that represented a stand alone accomplishment for the winner.

It’s as if they’d say, “Here’s a race today, there will be another next week somewhere, but be sure to watch the one we bring you next month.”

In 2001, the landscape changed. Fox and NBC shared the season, and then it was Fox and ESPN with TNT getting a piece of the pie in the middle.

Now, the race season is like "Dallas." If you’re ESPN, everyone knows you have the race from week to week in the second half of the year.  It’s just like CBS when it featured the Ewings every Friday night.

You have to drive viewers to next week, and the championship becomes the ongoing plotline. It’s not “Who Shot J.R.?” but it’s “Who will catch the points leader?” The championship drama becomes the thread that sews the races together.

The season becomes the quilt; the races are its patches.

The Chase format was a way to increase the monetary value of the second half of the season for the network. It gives them a way to weave the season together and keep suspense in the events even thought the excitement of the first part of the season has waned.

NASCAR hasn’t de-emphasized wins.

Wins mean what they always have. Under the current Latford points system, they mean more than they did in the 1980’s.

There was a time when you could run second and lead the most laps and get the same amount of points as the winner.

NASCAR officials changed that. Winning stands alone.

It always has for the competitors. The drivers will tell you they’d do it for nothing if promoters just gave out a trophy.

I believe that. There was a time when drivers weren’t flying in a jet to the track and showing up on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

It was just about the trophy.

The television networks and the sponsors have made the championship a bigger deal because of the marketing and the ratings. Sponsors want to expose their product and the networks want you to tune in for the next installment in the drama.

NASCAR has remained the same at its core. There’s a track, a distance, a checkered flag and a trophy if you get there first.


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