Richmond International Raceway is one of the three jewels on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit Along with Martinsville Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway. Saturday night at Richmond should be what the doctor ordered, but it wasn’t for some reason. The beginning, and for that matter, most of the Toyota Owners 400 was an event dominated by two drivers: Matt Kenseth and Juan Pablo Montoya. At different times during the race, they were dominant. Kenseth was dominant overall and Montoya late in the race. As the race got to the deciding stage, Kevin Harvick’s crew came alive and it was the No. 29 Chevrolet that won. Montoya said it was lane choice, and maybe it was, but it was more about the RCR than any driver.
With the heavy load of point penalties and crew suspensions hanging over the heads of the No. 20 and both Penske teams, it seemed like it was a heavyweight championship fight. Kenseth led early and often and Montoya late. It also became a fight to the finish. As is the norm on short tracks, things changed at the end. Everyone pitted, well, most everyone, on the last caution with less than 10 laps to go, and Harvick, who started seventh, proved that with a car good enough, you can get to the front and Harvick did. Kenseth faded out of the top five and Montoya could do no better than fourth. To his credit, Joey Logano finished third on this long night and Clint Bowyer second—two players who didn’t have any say most of the night. Sounds like a pretty good show, right? I thought so.
Behind all of this was the lack of crowd. I didn’t go to Richmond this year. I just couldn’t fit it in the schedule this year, and all I could see was empty seats. It reminded me of Bristol at the beginning of the month. If people won’t come to these two venues were the racing is so good, is there any hope for NASCAR? That’s a question that should be pondered elsewhere. With the scrum after the Nationwide race on Friday, I would have thought the stands would be overflowing. And yet, it’s a problem.
I have a theory. It’s lack of competition. I know that will be rejected by most of you reading, but look at the 2013 so far. When the Gen6 car was announced, it was the end-all of cars. It would be the solution for evening the field. It looked more like the showroom car and that would bring fans back. For an organization that said brand loyalty wasn’t important and driver loyalty was important, it was a tremendous error in judgment. The Car of Tomorrow, which has strangely been removed from the vocabulary used, was a disaster. Couple that with the domination of just a few teams, and you have a disaster waiting to happen. And yet, no one has admitted blame, at least as far as I can tell. One fan told me recently that he would not go back to Charlotte to spend $1,000 to see Jimmie Johnson win again. Years ago, NASCAR tried to keep the competition between brands equal, but with the advent of the COT (forgive me, the Gen5), all that stopped. Things started to go downhill from there.
The competition factor also relates to the Chase. The whole season is based on the last ten races. Once upon a time, it was important that drivers were always noted as the champion of the Daytona 500, the Southern 500, the Coca-Cola 600, or the Food City 500. Not anymore is that the case. It’s all relative. All that matters is if you can get into the top 10 or be in line for the two wild card slots via wins. No matter if you finished fifth each race and via circumstances you might be fifth in the points, you might start the Chase in ninth position, giving the big teams an advantage because they have more resources or got on a lucky streak. So, each race weekend is less important. Why should you and I attend a race that is only important on how you finish in the regular season? Well, I know the MLB, the NFL, and the NBA do this, but this is not a stick and ball sport, something that the powers that be are always telling us. Win the Daytona 500—big deal. Finish second on a big battle with another driver, not so much, You’re the first loser. And you get punished for the playoffs, something no other racing organization has.
Yes, the ticket prices are high (almost 20% over the last ten years according to one season ticket holder I know). Yes, motel rooms are higher and gasoline prices are higher, but so many are willing to spend the money if they think it’s worth the cash. Today, the race you’re seeing is only a stepping stone to the final ten races and a win is only good if the dominant teams (here defined as only Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, and only Roush-Fenway, Richard Childress Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing being an afterthought, among others like Earnhardt-Ganassi, and Furniture Row). Motel rooms are outrageous, and the cost of hauling an RV around is tough. But people still come to other sports venues when there is going to be a competitive event. These days, with each race not being important, and fans knowing everything will be totally different come September, it’s easier to sit at home and watch the large screen TV. I don’t see an answer.