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In the Rearview: Pocono

June 9th, 2014 1:16 pm by Dave Ongie

In the Rearview: Pocono

Dale Earnhardt Jr., right, holds the winner's trophy with Pocono Raceway President Brandon Igdalsky after Sunday's Sprint Cup race in Long Pond, Pa. (AP Photo)

For the past month, Hendrick Motorsports has dominated the competition on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series circuit.

It all started when Jeff Gordon picked up a win in Kansas on May 10 and continued with wins by Jimmie Johnson in Charlotte and Dover before Dale Earnhardt Jr. won in Pocono on Sunday.

After Johnson won in Dover, the wailing and gnashing of teeth reached its crescendo. "The sport of stock car racing had been damaged beyond repair," cried the Greek chorus on my Twitter timeline. "Think of the hit ratings and ticket sales will take," wailed the masses, their voices echoing loudly off the halls of Facebook.

Then Earnhardt wins in Pocono and many of these same folks are hoisting toddlers on their shoulders and hurling tickertape out of office windows. Happy days are here again. Folks from sea to shining sea can now safely emerge from their homes, dust off their RVs and make a mad dash to Michigan International Speedway.

Personally, I completely understand the pull Earnhardt has on many race fans, and it goes beyond his legendary last name. He is among a small group of stock car racers left on the Cup circuit that average people can relate to. Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer could be included in that group, but nobody captures the imagination of the public quite the same way that Junior does.

When it comes to television ratings and attendance, however, Junior isn't the magic bullet everyone expects him to be. After he won the Daytona 500 earlier this season, Twitter was atwitter with talk of "the buzz" surrounding Junior's win and "the shot of momentum" it would undoubtedly give to the sport, catapulting NASCAR forward into a bright future.

Then came the race one week later in Phoenix, and the telecast garnered the lowest ratings for a second race of the Cup season in since 2000.

When Earnhardt was asked about the fact that his win in Daytona didn't move the needle, his answer was simple. His fans hadn't gone anywhere. They'd been loyally watching racing all along, through thick and thin.

Earnhardt, by nature, preaches to the choir. His success excites the sport's core fan base, but it doesn't do much to re-engage the casual fans who wandered in during the mid-1990s to see what all the fuss was about before moving on to MMA or some other bright shiny object that caught their collective attention.

While NASCAR frets over finding a gimmick to get those folks back, the on-track product has suffered. Twitter may be rejoicing in Earnhardt's win, but lost in all the fuss over his late-race pass of Keselowski's No. 2 Ford — a pass that was facilitated by Keselowski's desperate attempt to get some trash off the grille of his car to prevent his engine from overheating — is that the race up to that point was a snoozer.

Given that passing was darn near impossible, Junior's pass for the lead in the final laps could go down as the most miraculous sporting moment to take place in Pennsylvania since Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception.

Things are never as good or as bad as they are made out to be on social media. NASCAR has some work to do, but if the focus is in the right areas, the quality of racing will continue to improve.

If NASCAR chooses to keep chasing after people with no real interest in stock car racing, however, it risks taking a precarious situation and making it much worse.

After all, Junior won't drive forever, and loyalty has its limits.

Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at dongie@timesnews.net. You can hear him Monday mornings during the 9 o'clock hour on "Good Morning Tri-Cities" with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.

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