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NASCAR's NEXT Generation Nationwide car: Is this part of the solution to sport's nagging TV question?

  Here's NASCAR's new Nationwide car, running this season at Daytona July 2nd, at Michigan August 14th, at Richmond September 10th, and at Charlotte October 15th (Graphic: NASCAR)

    By Mike Mulhern

   It has seemed something of a huge mystery: NASCAR's continued sluggish TV ratings, a turn that appears to have begun sometime  in the summer of 2008 and which is still a question, perhaps even a growing question.
   What is really baffling now is that NASCAR and its drivers and promoters would certainly seem to be doing nearly everything right this 'Boys, have at it' season.
    So why aren't things turning around more quickly?
   Too much Jimmie Johnson?
   Not enough Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
   Vanilla drivers?
   Heavy-handed NASCAR?
   Big-team domination, and the demise of the little guys?
   Races far too long for today's attention span?
   The long-controversial car-of-tomorrow (finally coming into its own, after enough tweaks)?
   Over-saturation? Too many races?
   Whatever it is, something is going on here, and it's starting to look more than a bit strange.

    TNT's TV coverage, with Kyle Petty and Company, is quite good. And there is plenty of support programming.
   Yet all four TNT shows the past month have shown a ratings drop from 2009, despite some bang-up racing action at Pocono and Sonoma.
   For the year, including Fox, TV ratings have been down for 11 of the 15 events which were run on time (discounting the rainouts). And that's a two-year trend: Of last season's 31 run-as-scheduled races, a full 23 of them were off in ratings from 2008.
    The Sunday Cup event at Loudon, N.H., drew a 3.0 rating, meaning 4.9 million viewers, and that's down from 2009's 3.5 rating and 5.5 million viewers. The 2008 race pulled a 3.4 rating (5.5 million viewers). In 2005 that event pulled a 4.5 rating (7.3 million).
   And how much did Danica Patrick's appearance in Saturday's Nationwide race pump up NASCAR's TV ratings?
   Uh, not much.
   But then she only ran seven laps before getting tagged by Morgan Shepherd, and she finished 30th, five laps down, so there wasn't really much to watch.
   Regardless, the Patrick promotion may need reworking. She's clearly not a quick learner at this, and jumping back and forth – she'll race Indycars at Watkins Glen this weekend and then return to NASCAR Nationwide next week at Chicago – isn't helping her situation.
   If Patrick were really serious about stock car racing, she would be devoting much more time to it, like running ARCA races at Iowa July 10th, Mansfield Ohio July 17th, Pocono July 31st, and Chicago August 27th. The rest of her NASCAR schedules season includes Michigan in August, Dover in September, California and Gateway (St. Louis) in October, and Texas and Homestead in November.
   ESPN earned a final national household rating of 1.2 for its New Hampshire coverage, averaging 1,652,287 viewers. That's down slightly from last year's race (1.77 million viewers), which was carried by ABC itself.  (Last season ESPN's national ratings for the Nationwide series averaged a 1.4. For 2008, it was 1.5.)
   Certainly NASCAR and its promoters can't be faulted for being asleep at the switch. They've been doing a heck of a lot to try to get things back on track – witness Dale Earnhardt Jr. driving here Friday night in a car sporting his father's Wrangler colors and the legendary No. 3 on the side. And of course the Danica Patrick promotions.
   And one of the newest is it's 'Next generation' Nationwide car, based on the Cup car-of-tomorrow chassis, with different body styling.
   It's a great concept, this Muscle Car thing, but it probably doesn't go far enough.
   In fact one skeptical fan calls it 'Phony Ponies,' because the sheet metal isn't anything close to street stuff.
   Yes, NASCAR's new Nationwide cars don't look all that much like what you might see out on the street or over in the dealer's lot. But at least you can tell a Ford Mustang from a Dodge Challenger even without the decals.
   It's a step, a small step perhaps.
   And if this Nationwide Pony Car gambit is successful, then maybe it's just the first step for NASCAR, and the body templates may eventually change for Cup cars too.
  About time.
  The common template era should have come to a close long ago....and the sooner the better.
  More brand identity for Detroit. A lot more brand identity is needed.
  Maybe the common template, tightly-controlled car-of-tomorrow itself – though certainly the safest car NASCAR has ever had – has been part of the reason for the continuing decline in NASCAR's TV ratings.
    Maybe it's not such a coincidence that the TV decline somewhat parallels the rollout of the COT, first used fully on the Cup tour in 2008.
    Yes, the weak U.S. economy has been pointed to as part of NASCAR's problem. And certainly there are more ways than just TV to experience the NASCAR thing.
   But for a sport that has become ubiquitous, such a part of the American fabric over the past 15 years, this current slump surely gives pause for reflection.

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  The four manufacturers' individual takes on the NEXT gen Nationwide car (Graphic: NASCAR)

NASCAR has become an

NASCAR has become an infomercial. You can't stand to watch the TV shows because of all the product product plugs. if I hear "getting a tank of Sunoco gas" one more time I won't even bother watching the last ten laps of the race.

Ever hear "And Phil Nickelson hit a terrific shot with his Nike ball." Or "Did you see how A-Rod snagged that ball with his Rawlings glove." Of course not. They're real sports. NASCAR is an ad.

Richard Newton

I agree the with the "phony

I agree the with the "phony ponies" remark. At first glance, these cars don't look much different than the Cup COT. And neither look anything like their showroom counterparts.
I'd love it if NASCAR could go back to running "factory sheet metal". I think that was a big part of NASCAR's glory days. They raced cars we recognized and could easily identify with.
In the glory days, there was no one asking "how fast is too fast?". Since then the focus hasn't be making the cars faster, it's been making them safer and more efficient and more "competitive".
We've just made them more boring.

I think the safety of the

I think the safety of the cars is contributing to a lack of respect on behalf of the drivers. We've seen a similar phenomenon in football. As the helmets got better and better, head injuries declined. Now the helmets are so safe that players use them as weapons, so we need "helmet-to-helmet contact" rules. Today's drivers feel so safe in their cars, that they don't think twice about wrecking another driver - even at 180+ mph (Edwards v Kesolowski).
Just my $0.02.

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