Chicagoland by Night
By Mike Mulhern
You want to know who's going to win the championship?
We just want to know if NASCAR is even succeeding in the Chicago market, chase or no chase, Saturday night in July or Sunday afternoon in September.
Jimmie Johnson, Mr. Five-Time gunning for his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship over seven years, put Chad Knaus' Chevy on the pole Saturday afternoon for Sunday's Chicago 400, making a statement.
And there are plenty of other enticing story lines too as the 10-race playoffs begin.
The biggest story may well be the chase itself, and Chicago as the kickoff market.
Got to give NASCAR an A for bravery in moving the leadoff event of the chase to the heart of Bears country in mid-September, just as the National Football League kicks off its season. And there are the Cubs and the Sox, and however many college football games. At least the Bears and Packers are playing up in Green Bay this week, three hours up the road....
Yes, there may be a good question about why NASCAR is picking Chicago to kick off the playoffs. On a good day this town could swallow this sport whole and never burp.
It just doesn't feel like the best marketing call for this sport and the still problematic playoffs nine years on now.
In-your-face may be a good tactic at times, but this doesn't feel like that time, to be honest.
First off, Joliet itself is a small town an hour southwest of Chicago itself, on the I-80 truckers route.
Second, since this track in opened in 2001, it's been one on NASCAR biggest enigmas: perhaps the only track on the tour with virtually no personality, no signature, no claim to fame, no real pizazz, not even a fourth turn casino. And it's a cookie-cutter 1-1/2-mile layout to boot. Not really much to make it stand out.
So, is NASCAR really succeeding in the Chicago market, or just making a weekend stopover? That maybe an excellent question.
This is the country's third-biggest market, and the second largest market that this sport actually plays in. NASCAR needs to have a strong presence. But does it?
Los Angeles, the second-biggest market in the U.S., is also problematic for NASCAR. It once boasted three tour events, now just one, and this season that one race got to barely halfway before it was called by rain. Not much of a marketing success there....
NASCAR's New York City venture, of course, got shot down, and rudely, six or seven years ago.
Maybe NASCAR racing just isn't a big city sport.
Or maybe this sport needs to shore up its game with stronger weekly short track racing in some of these markets.
Jimmie Johnson: Is Soon-to-be-Mr. Six-Time checking out that new NASCAR Sprint mobile app? Can Johnson help NASCAR crack open this tough Chicago market? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Then there's this chase itself.
Designed to give the sport more marketing/promotion punch in the fall, when NASCAR is head-to-head against the NFL, Major League Baseball's own playoffs and World Series, and college sports in every neck of the woods.
Has the 'chase' improved this sport's position, vis-à-vis its big rivals?
Has Jimmie Johnson's perennial championship hot streak actually hurt the sport over the past six years?
Certainly many of NASCAR's marketers have to be pulling for a Toyota championship this fall or a Ford championship....just to put a new face on the whole thing.
In fact a Denny Hamlin/Toyota championship, in a thrilling run, might be a good conclusion for the sport....
One problem with the chase and with the 12-man roster is that there are still 31 or more other drivers and teams still out there every Sunday playing the game too, trying to win the weekend's race, trying to a spotlight to the sponsor.
Another problem with the chase is it makes the year's first 26 races, over seven months, almost superfluous. Tony Stewart did that in dramatic fashion last year, a season in which Carl Edwards was by far the best all-around driver yet failed to win the title, albeit by the barest of margins.
This season, early on, when drama on the track was noticeably thin, some drivers, like Jimmie Johnson, said he suspected teams were 'trying to game the system,' by not making mistakes that could take them out of playoff contention.
What we had, for weeks and months, was -- for whatever reason -- very boring racing.
Perhaps that was actually part of Kyle Busch's downfall. He didn't make the chase. But either last fall's Texas controversy took the steam out of him, or his game of 'laid-back' racing, avoiding any situation that might create controversy, backfired on him.
Then there is a very good argument to be made that the playoffs should include the very best tracks this sport has to offer.
Bristol, Daytona and Talladega for sure.
Atlanta should be, but maybe 500 miles is too long for a chase event there.
In fact, maybe the chase should feature much shorter races, right at two hours or so.
Maybe the chase should kick off Labor Day weekend, rather than some weekend lost in the middle of September.? Road courses? Sonoma – the 'new Martinsville' these past few years, for its wild driving – might be an interesting addition to the playoffs.
NASCAR hasn't really done a lot in the state of California lately. Remember it used to run three Cup events annual out there, January, June and November.
Indeed, despite the problems at California's Auto Club Speedway, it is simply stunning that this sport skips Los Angeles, and the nation's largest state, entirely each fall. If you're selling cereal or soap or automobiles, are you really going to just blow off LA and California?
But then regardless of when NASCAR runs at the California track, spring, summer or fall, it needs to fix the racing there. It is an arrogant insult to fans, and any TV audience, for NASCAR to keep putting on boring shows at that track.
Considering the high drama this season on the repaved Michigan track, virtually identical to California Speedway, it looks like the France family's International Speedway Corp. should get that repaving crew out to Fontana and change things up. And add some darned banking too; 14 degree corners must have been an architectural mistake. Maybe variable banking in the corners, up to 23 degrees. Sister-track Texas World, remember, is 22 degrees, at two miles.
And then there is the season-ending awards banquet. It is really part of the 'chase' too.
New York City never quite warmed up to it.
And Las Vegas is, well, a great place for a celebration of course, but it's all the way across the country, and it's a 'stand-alone' weekend that really has to be a hard sell to fans….if that is indeed the market at all.
The most logical move would be to run the season-ending race at Las Vegas and then have the banquet Monday night, to make a race package of it all.
Maybe to keep everyone happy, change up the last race of the race – Miami one year, with a South Beach awards wrap up that Monday night, and Vegas the next year.
This sport cannot expect to thrive with some of the obvious holes in its fall marketing plan.