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Ageless Mark Martin on the Dover 400 pole....and Dale Earnhardt Jr. says.....

Ageless Mark Martin on the Dover 400 pole....and Dale Earnhardt Jr. says.....

When Earnhardt speaks, everyone listens. And Dale Jr. says..... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



   By Mike Mulhern

   DOVER, Del.
   It's the last race of the season for Fox, and as the 13-week run winds down, something curious has just happened:
   Dale Earnhardt Jr. has joined Rusty Wallace in the curious opinion that if the NASCAR Sprint Cup season were shorter, by four to six races, interest in this sport might spike up.
    "I think shortening the season would be a good thing, and would definitely sort of change some things for the better," Earnhardt says.
   "The model that the NFL uses is a pretty productive model. They seem to have it about right.
   "When you're a football fan, you can't wait for the season to start, and it seems like an eternity before it does. And when it's here, it's gone just as fast and you can't wait for the next one.
    "You are just enamored with it all the time. You're just trying to get all the information you can get.
    "So they have a good model."


   Ageless Mark Martin on the Dover pole. And remember what Harry Gant did here a few years ago.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Mark Martin won the pole Saturday afternoon for Sunday's Dover 400, and Goodyear's new compound will be closely watched by crews.

    But questions about how to perk up the sometimes seemingly lackluster action on the stock car tour this spring remains a top item of discussion.

   Earnhardt too has been pondering.

   And his point about the length of the tour, well, maybe it's not just an out-of-the-blue comment by the sport's most popular.
    Maybe it's even timely...
    Certainly curious, because the current 38-race package (36 tour events, plus the Daytona Shootout and Charlotte All-Star) was sold-and-bought by TV, back in 2005. That is an eight-year deal, for $4.8 Billion, running through the end of 2014. Fox carries the first 13 races, Turner carries the next six (Pocono, Michigan, Sonoma, Kentucky, Daytona and New Hampshire), and ESPN/ABC carry the last 17.
   Negotiations for the next NASCAR TV contract are presumably on-going, though no word on what's really going on. If things go the way they did with the previous two big TV packages, some official announcement should be expected around the Homestead, Fla., finale of the 2013 season.
   The NASCAR-TV package signed in 1999 with Fox, NBC and Turner was a six-year $2.4 Billion package. For a thumb-nail: that's about $11 million for each of the year's 36 Cup races, though of course the package included all sort of other shows. A similar thumb-nail for the current TV deal is about $16.6 million for the 36 annual Cup races.
  The question of what a new NASCAR-TV package might really be valued at is a topic for another day. (However, remember that the current package was signed in 2005, before the recession hit.)

 Rusty Wallace (L): cut four Cup races from the tour, and pique interest in the sport (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Do Earnhardt and Wallace have some insight on what the new NASCAR-on-TV schedule might look like?
   Throw in some teaser hints here this weekend that Fox might like to expand its part of the NASCAR season, and the TV topic appears ripe for thought.
   What would the ideal NASCAR Sprint Cup calendar look like?
   For fans.... for television networks...and of course for promoters?
   The current tour opens at Daytona in early February and closes out in late November. It's a tour that sometimes seems endless, certainly the longest in sports.
    Too long?
    NASCAR once ran as many as three times a weekend at different tracks, during the 1960s and early 1970s, when the tour included 50 to 60 races. When R. J. Reynolds stepped in as the sport's sponsor and major marketer in the early 1970s, the tour was sharply pruned to 28 to 30 events. But with the sport's explosive rise in the late 1990s, and the construction of big new tracks in Texas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Kentucky, Chicago and Homestead, the tour likewise expanded.
     Now the old 1970s tour actually opened in late January in Southern California and ran through late November. However there were frequent breaks of a weekend off.


   In NASCAR racing, green is good (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

     But in contrast, this season has only two such off-weekends, in April for Easter, and in late July.
     For a sport that plays outside, and never in the rain, a schedule like that doesn't leave much wiggle room, particularly considering the distances involved: The March race in Los Angeles made that quite clear, when fans got robbed when NASCAR was forced to end the race just past the halfway mark because of rain. Stock car teams went all the way from Bristol, Tenn., out to California, and then all the way back to Martinsville, Va.....to put on a show in LA that could only be described as pitifully weak.
    So maybe when debating the shape of the stock car tour, some consideration should be taken about NASCAR's long-standing rainout rule of 'if we get to halfway, it's an official race, and we can all go home.' A rule like that would be laughable in the National Football League – 'you've seen the first half, and, gee, it's too cold and wet, so go on home now, we're cancelling the second half.'
    Mega-promoter Bruton Smith (and, again, why isn't he in that new NASCAR Hall of Fame already?) has suggested this formula for revising the tour: All 23 tracks get one Cup weekend each season, and then all 23 get to bid for a second Cup weekend, with the highest bidders getting two Sprint Cup races a year.


   Since the first major NASCAR TV contract was signed in 1999, the sport hasn't been the same. And now it's time for more TV contract negotiations. How will this sport fare at the bargaining tables? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

     Earnhardt, though, is not getting his hopes up: "Shortening up the schedule is probably the last thing I would expect to happen.
    "There's just too much money involved, there's too much money moving around and changing hands for a half of dozen dates to be cut from the schedule.
    "The impact on the economy in those areas, per race, that would be reduced.
    "The politics are too thick for anything like that to ever occur.
    "I think shortening the (NASCAR) season would be a good thing, and would definitely sort of change some things for the better.
     "But I don't think that even a possibility; more of a daydream than anything else."


   What might a Dale Earnhardt Jr. win do for this sports? He'd like to show us all. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

     Well, maybe all this sport needs is Dale Earnhardt Jr. in victory lane again, Dale Earnhardt Jr. challenging for the championship....
     Rick Hendrick certainly has the horses to run right now, with Jimmie Johnson winning Darlington and the Charlotte All-Star and Kasey Kahne winning the 600 and Jeff Gordon running strong though plagued by such bad luck...
    And Earnhardt?
    He's the only driver to have finished on the lead lap in every race this season (though he's still on that winless streak).
    Dale Earnhardt Jr., title contender?
    "We're trying to put ourselves in the chase. I wouldn't call us a contender, we got a chance to be one this year, the way we are doing it.
    "Jimmie can win just about any week. Kasey has been one of the fastest of the four all year long; he just had really, really weird luck.
     "I'm not competitive on the race track with my teammates at all...You're a driver with a team that feels they deserve to win, and they're ready to win, and we've been wanting to win for so long....
     "It motivates you to work harder."
   However Sunday's Dover 400 probably won't be the breakthrough race for Earnhardt.
   "I've had good cars here, and I've had some tough runs here. This place has definitely been up and down for me.
    "It is pretty fun....(but) I don't really like concrete tracks at all.
     "I like the banking and the speed. I really like the banking, I love the shape of the track.
     "If it were asphalt, it would probably be one of my favorite tracks.
      "But it's a real challenge with the concrete, the concrete dust. The track rubbers up, and then when the caution comes out we pick it (the excess rubber on the track) all back up. So the track never really rubbers in really good, and it kind of changes the whole race."
    Which is precisely why Goodyear tested new compounds here a few weeks ago. Earnhardt is not the only one to complain about the way the track rubbers up.

    Well, if not here, maybe Pocono next weekend?
    That track has just been repaved, and it's smooth and very fast, and the tunnel turn has a tricky curb to deal with. So NASCAR is opening Pocono Wednesday for two days of testing for teams before action officially begins Friday.
    "I'm not real excited about being there that long, I don't think anybody is, to be honest with you," Earnhardt says. "But I am looking forward to the new surface.
    "We've got two cars in the trailer, and we'll try to not tear either one of them up before the race."
    Earnhardt says part of the reasoning for the extra days of testing is to make sure the track gets plenty of rubber down before next Sunday's race. The Pocono Mountain area is notorious for June rain.
     Then Earnhardt and Company get to test and race on Michigan's lightning fast new asphalt the following week, again with an extended pre-race test session.
     "It should be really interesting the next couple of weeks," Earnhardt says.
     Hopefully yes.




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