SBD/Issue 51/Leagues & Governing Bodies

NASCAR's France Bullish On Year, But Chase Changes Could Come

France Says NASCAR Plans To Meet With
ESPN To Discuss Race Times, Promotion

NASCAR Chair & CEO Brian France said that this year's racing was some of the best in recent history. The move to lift some regulations and foster a "boys, have at it" philosophy worked as evidenced by the 41 points separating '10 Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson from Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. That offers a solid foundation on which to improve ratings and attendance in coming years. France said, "We keep the racing as good as its been ... (then) I'm not worried about a thing on the popularity of this sport." However, NASCAR does plan to meet with ESPN officials during the offseason to discuss everything from race times to promotion in an effort to reverse ratings declines (Tripp Mickle, SportsBusiness Journal). In Charlotte, Jim Utter noted France "seems inclined to make changes" to the Chase for the Sprint Cup format. France suggested that the move of most Chase races from ABC to ESPN "may have contributed" to the ratings decline. France also noted NASCAR started yesterday's Ford 400 "two hours earlier than we did last year." He added, "We are looking at shortening races as we go along. We shortened California this time around (and) we think that made for a very good event" (CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, 11/20). FOXSPORTS.com's Lee Spencer wrote France "still wants that 'winner-takes-all' approach to the season finale." France: "Watching someone not just have to run well, but have to beat other people." France believes that "adding a greater 'incentive-based' points system will bring those 'Game 7' moments he desires" (FOXSPORTS.com, 11/19). The AP's Jenna Fryer noted France is "thrilled with how this Chase has developed," but said that he "plans to move forward on potential changes." Drivers "have mixed feelings on what they'd like to see to the Chase." Harvick said he would "like to see a little bit more diversity in the racetracks." Johnson added, "A shorter schedule would be awesome. Shorter races, too" (AP, 11/19).

OUT OF TOUCH? The CHARLOTTE OBSERVER's Utter noted France Friday responded to a question about fans "who don't like the Chase format or who prefer a return to the old points system" by saying, "You met somebody who's telling you that?" Utter wrote France's "incredulous response to the question leads to two theories -- either he believes his own invention is so good he can't believe anybody would disapprove, which smacks of arrogance; or he sincerely doesn't listen to the abundance of fans who ... complain of the Chase." Utter: "That means he's out of touch. Either choice is not very comforting" (CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, 11/21). But FOXSPORTS.com's Spencer wrote France "simply isn't ... 'out of touch' with the fans." NASCAR has "typically floated trial balloons with the media, but France has actively participated with focus groups to gauge the sentiment of his customers." He most recently "sat with groups in Orlando and Atlanta about a month and a half ago." France: "We do have focus groups frequently, and I try to sit in on them. It's usually when we're testing a certain thing that we may be considering" (FOXSPORTS.com, 11/19).

Johnson Captured His Fifth
Consecutive Cup Championship

DRIVE FOR FIVE: The OBSERVER's Utter notes Johnson yesterday won his fifth consecutive Sprint Cup Series and became "just the third driver since 1975 to overcome a deficit in the season finale and win the championship." It "remains to be seen whether Sunday's outcome will help turn the tide" of declining TV ratings and attendance. But the race "brought to a close a season filled with many positives -- a down-to-the-wire battle for the championship, better racing and a new mantra -- 'Boys, have at it' -- that left drivers more discretion in policing themselves" (CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, 11/22). But in a front-page piece for the OBSERVER, Ron Green Jr. noted the race capped a year "marked not only by attendance drops, but by double-digit declines in television ratings." Fans offered a "variety of answers" as to "what has led to the sport's declining numbers." Green Jr.: "There is no single cause and no single answer." But the "success of the three dominant drivers" -- Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick -- has "given the sport a bit of excitement as it screams toward the season's finish line." ESPN VP/Programming & Acquisitions Julie Sobieski: "So many factors play into these ratings. There's not one silver bullet. But to have these guys racing for the championship sets up next year beautifully" (CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, 11/21).

STAYING PUT: FANHOUSE.com's Holly Cain noted France "shot down the possibility of moving the final race from South Florida and dismissed the likelihood of ever ending the year" at Daytona Int'l Speedway. France "didn't indicate if he was looking to swap around" the Chase venues (FANHOUSE.com, 11/19). In Miami, Gary Long wrote in France, Homestead-Miami Speedway has a "friend at the peak of the decision-making pyramid in the annual parceling of race dates." France on Friday "didn't conceal his affinity for South Florida." He said, "This is a great market for our fans to come down and spend a few days. There's lots to do" (MIAMI HERALD, 11/20). But the OBSERVER's Utter wrote if, "as NASCAR officials maintain, Homestead-Miami Speedway is the best place to decide their series' championship, where are all the fans in the stands to justify that contention?" A "lot of people turned out for the Zac Brown concert on Friday," but it "only matters for the sport if they turn out at the race track" (CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, 11/21).

KEEPING THE WEEKEND RACES SEPARATE: NASCAR continues to look at tweaking the eligibility rules for its Nationwide Series to limit the number of Sprint Cup drivers who race in the secondary series. NASCAR reportedly is considering rules that would make Sprint Cup drivers ineligible to win the Nationwide Series championship. France: "We don't want to see Sunday and Saturday homogenized." He added that NASCAR wants to be sure that the Nationwide Series continues to produce new drivers and potential stars for the Sprint Cup. In an ideal situation, France said, it would function as a feeder system for NASCAR's Sprint Cup series the same way that NCAA football functions as a feeder for the NFL. Meanwhile, with the Izod IndyCar Series adding two new manufacturers in GM and Lotus, France was asked what NASCAR was doing to keep manufacturers interested in the sport. France acknowledged that it was important NASCAR continue to innovate and said that the sport is on a "slow, hopefully smart march" to add more technology. He said the sanctioning body and teams are balancing costs and competition as they try to remain good partners with manufacturers and open themselves up to technological developments. He pointed to the sport's move to E15 fuel in '11 as an example of the type of changes it's undertaking to innovate (Mickle).

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