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Kris Johnson, NASCAR Scene

Bet On It: NFL Sets Pace For NASCAR To Chase

You have noticed “The King” is back, right? Not the venerable Richard Petty, but the modern-day leviathan that is the National Football League. Our new national pastime, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the American sports landscape. Sing it one time: You like it, you love it, you want some more of it.

NASCAR, for good reason, has enjoyed the distinction of being our “fastest-growing sport” for a while now. But as powerful and popular as it is, NASCAR is always chasing the NFL (pun most definitely intended), especially this time of the year. Hence, the Chase For The Nextel Cup, conceived to help the sport compete for eyeballs after the opening kickoff.

TV ratings are a valid indicator, but they’re also as dry as the most subtle sense of humor. Give me gambling as a gauge, and then we can truly take the public pulse on what really matters when it comes to sports in the U.S.

Earlier this season, two industry experts acknowledged that money wagered on NASCAR is growing, but football (as is the case with TV ratings) remains “The King.”

Simon Noble, spokesman for Curacao-based sportsbook Pinnacle Sports, said NASCAR’s handle vis a vis professional football still “doesn’t compare.”

“The NFL is probably 100 times greater than what we receive from NASCAR,” Noble said.

If NASCAR is to surpass the NFL in terms of national supremacy, race fans, this needs to change. Encourage NASCAR newcomers to put their hard-earned money on a driver and watch the interest in racing surge to unprecedented levels. 
 Las Vegas-based Smashmouth Sports owner Scott Spreitzer’s involvement in NASCAR wagering dates back to 1996, and he has seen first-hand how having a vested interest can deepen a person’s appreciation of the sport.

“Once I decided to dive into it from a gambling aspect, I became hooked,” Spreitzer said. “It’s one of the few sports I can sit down [now] on a Sunday afternoon and watch from start to finish even if I don’t have a wager on it. I’m hooked, put it that way.”

Another advantageous aspect of betting on NASCAR: It isn’t scrutinized nearly as close as each and every NFL game on the board.

“That’s what got me into it back in ’96,” Spreitzer said. “I walked into a sportsbook and saw they just weren’t getting the action, weren’t paying much attention to it. In fact, they had Darrell Waltrip’s name spelled incorrectly on the board at one of the casinos here in town. Here’s one of the biggest names in NASCAR, and they can’t even spell his name right. I should have an advantage here.”

The bettor’s edge remains today as only a couple of Vegas sportsbook directors closely follow NASCAR, according to Spreitzer. It’s worth noting, too, that you don’t have to pick the winner of the race to collect on a bet. There are numerous wagering options, including, for example, over-under bets on the number of cautions or how many Chevrolets will finish in the top 10. Spreitzer says the smart money these days is often found in driver matchups, betting one competitor’s finish will be higher than another’s.

You don’t have to be a professional prognosticator to understand how watching such a race within the race will keep viewers glued to the TV set.  

This is the future. Start those NASCAR neophytes early with a tout like Spreitzer and watch the sport’s fan base grow exponentially. He’s paid to give professional advice, and he also doles out some strong opinions. Spreitzer says NASCAR may in time enjoy the same “dilemma” the NFL has with gambling, which it publicly decries but must secretly relish.

“It’s kind of a catch-22,” Spreitzer explained. “Right now, NASCAR heads are saying this is great, and it just shows how NASCAR is taking off and becoming a mainstream sport. At the same time, when they get big enough, or they feel that they’re big enough, then they might start doing what the NFL does, which is look down their nose at gambling.”

If and when that duplicity becomes a reality, NASCAR will have made real progress in its bid to dethrone “The King.”

Please note that the preceding commentary is for entertainment purposes only.

Here’s The Sobering Reality Of Busch’s Phoenix Incident

Kurt Busch should be held up as an example. Not of good behavior, per se, but the very thing that every alcohol manufacturer properly espouses: responsible drinking.

The Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff’s Office informed the Arizona Republic that Busch blew a .017 blood alcohol level on his preliminary breath test on Nov. 11 just outside Phoenix International Raceway. This means one of two things: Busch either had a swallow or two of his preferred adult beverage or the common sense to sober up before driving. Or, perhaps, he overindulged in a strong blast of Listerine. 

In Arizona, the legal limit for blood alcohol content is .08. Think about that. Busch’s reading could have have been four times higher than the reported minuscule amount, and he still would have been within the boundaries of state law. If the .017 is accurate, Busch didn’t have “one for the road” as the old saying goes. Rather, it seems he barely had one at all. For this, he should be lauded and not lambasted.

Unfortunately, Busch made it all too easy for team owner Jack Roush to show him the door early. Bad driving, bad attitude? Both are on display every day during rush hour. The combination of the two seems pretty pedestrian, but throw alcohol into the equation as well as his being a high-profile driver held to a higher standard of accountability, and let’s just say grounds for dismissal were effectively fertilized. With Diageo’s Crown Royal whiskey as a sponsor of the No. 97 Ford driven by Busch, Roush Racing did the prudent thing and severed ties with its oft-nettlesome driver.             
Unless you oppose alcohol on moral grounds, though, there is no argument to be had on whether Busch was in the wrong when it came to his consumption.

The erratic driving and abusive behavior toward law enforcement officials? That’s another debate altogether. Having already lost in the court of public opinion, Busch will get his chance in a real courtroom on Dec. 22.

As the son of a retired police officer, I’m not fighting that battle for him. As a guy who’s made plenty of mistakes on his own, I’m still not inclined to do so. You can say he used bad judgment in many regards and get no argument from me, but not where alcohol was concerned.

I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on television, but the guess here is that two healthy gulps of cough medicine would put most of us in peril of blowing a .017. Who knows? Maybe that was all he imbibed: a shot of Robitussin followed by a Vicks 44D chaser.

But the mere possibility that alcohol played a role in his citation was enough to light the fuse of this powder keg, one already stoked by suspicion and fueled by fan dislike. The small trace of alcohol left in Busch’s system was enough to blow everything up – and out of proportion – again, where drinking was involved.

The real question: Is there a zero tolerance provision built into these contracts (i.e. Busch can have nary a drop to drink if he plans on driving later)? He’s representing products that promote responsible drinking messages, and rightly so, but shouldn’t he have the chance to be a positive example of that in real life? If he’s endorsing a beverage and its social campaign, his message rings more true if he actually lives it instead of uttering rehearsed lines on TV.      

“Know when to say when.” My favorite corporate catchphrase from the slew of instructional messages out there, it makes perfect sense and is easy to both remember and apply these days (Note to self: Knock on all the wood you can find regarding that last part and then repeat the process). I’m 36 years old. Kurt Busch is nine years younger and yet he still managed to make a responsible decision.

Miller Brewing Co., which sponsors the Penske Racing South entry that Busch will drive next year, should find some solace in that. The great irony to come out of such a sensationalized incident was the alleged villain was seemingly a paragon of responsible drinking, one that any sponsor would be happy to have if not for the other aforementioned considerations.
         
That is the sobering reality.
 

Meeting Their Match Can Be Hard For Sponsors, Drivers

The quest to find Nextel Cup's ideal driver-sponsor combination led me to a match made in heaven: Morgan Shepherd in the Racing For Jesus Dodge. Here's a man of conviction racing for his cause, albeit on a part-time basis, and giving real meaning to believing in your backer.

When it comes to the more conventional pairings, synergy is sometimes elusive. Hate to fan the flames of rumor and chagrin Dave Blaney, but wouldn't Sterling Marlin look picture-perfect in a Jack Daniel's-sponsored car? To me, he never seemed like a Coors Light type of guy. Notwithstanding Marlin's long relationship with Coors, I see the Tennessee native choosing Rocky Top over the Rockies.

With sponsors assuming an increased role in determining who drives what car, the issue of finding the right guy to represent your brand has to be weighed against finding one that can compete up to the level of investment. Someone remarked recently of Jamie McMurray's ongoing Ganassi-Roush saga: Has there ever been so much discussion about a driver who has one career Cup victory? To which I responded in jest, "Yeah, but he's sooooo cute." What I meant, of course, was that he is marketer-friendly. With the sponsor situation of the No. 6 Ford up in the air (insert Viagra joke here), pitching McMurray's youthful look along with his driving ability can help cast a wider net over potential partners.

It was good to see Carl Edwards secure an exclusive primary backer in Office Depot for 2006. Doing backflips to celebrate victories is one thing, but bending over backwards for a handful of primary sponsors is clearly another. Scott's, AAA, Stonebridge Life Insurance and Pennzoil? Edwards was running the risk of developing a split personality.

Once Jani-King's six-race Cup commitment to journeyman Mike Garvey ends, Peak Fitness is likely to return in what amounts to a house ad on the Peak Performance Motorsports Ford. Garvey took over for Hermie Sadler in a somewhat surprising change in June. Enter Jani-King, enter Garvey. But with Jani-King's run as sponsor ending soon, the old sponsor will be back with the new driver. Nothing against Garvey, but as a card-carrying member of the fitness chain, I just don't see him fitting in at the next "Body Pump" class.

The rolling billboards that are modern day Nextel Cup cars also combine to carry disparate messages, for sure. The Peak car, when it was still being piloted by Sadler at the Richmond race, was stationed in the garage next to Robby Gordon's Jim Beam machine. A short walk brought me to Shepherd's transporter (his name appeared as Shepard, by the way, reminding us that to err is definitely human). Imagine my confusion amidst all this clutter. Should I drink, work out at the gym or go to church - and in what order? There were more messaging "disconnects" in the Cup garage than when AT&T was overtaken by Suncom.

I like things that fit, that somehow make sense. Like Elliott Sadler, a guy who owns more than 30 dogs, and Pedigree dog food. Ricky Rudd and Motorcraft. Yeah, that seems right. Brian Vickers and Garnier Fructis. He looks the part.

As terrorist concerns continue to abound worldwide, I particularly like Joe Nemechek's U.S. Army sponsorship, and Greg Biffle's on-again, off-again primary relationship with the National Guard. Call me a jingo if you will, but in times like these, this is the type of cause marketing that needs to be done. Although between Subway and Post-It, I'm never quite sure from week to week who is doing what for Biffle.
       
In the final analysis, though, it all goes back to Shepherd's arrangement for me. Granted, he needs more than pennies from heaven to compete in additional Cup events, but in this case the relationship between driver and “sponsor” rings true.

No Reason For Earnhardt Jr. Or His Fans To Panic

“And if everybody jumped off a bridge, would you?"

Evidently, mothers everywhere, I would.

I promised myself I would not, after reading endless inches on the recent woes befalling Dale Earnhardt Jr., add to the volumes of verbiage and appear to fall in line with the "it's the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it crowd."

No amount of his fame, fortune or frivolity would allow me in good conscience to address a situation addressed by so many already. But here we are, and here we go:

If I were Junior, I'd know pressure in a way that has nothing do with tires ...

If I were Junior, I'd have more than enough money and not nearly enough time to enjoy it ...

If I were Junior ... well, clearly I'm not, so enough of that already.

The point, in this case, is that Earnhardt Jr.'s struggles this year pose a problem for many: NASCAR, NBC and Budweiser to name just the precious few. To say nothing of the millions of fans who are seeing red for all the wrong reasons right now. Collectively, they're all behind the 8-ball, and if the Chase For The Nextel Cup began today, it'd surely be one of the wrecking variety. But is there really cause for such concern?

The margin, unlike the synergy between the DEI teams, still seems workable. Heading into the race at Infineon Raceway, Earnhardt Jr. was just 103 points shy of a spot in the Chase. The immediate future plays favorably to the organization's restrictor-plate prowess with the upcoming Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway next on the schedule.

All is not lost, and there is time to stage a rally. The difficulties at DEI notwithstanding, he has a fighting chance to save the season. For the sake of argument, though, let's say Earnhardt Jr. does fall short. Do we give him a little E for effort? Does Anheuser-Busch rechristen his ride with Bud Light as primary sponsor? Not likely.

Here's the real question, though, for NBC and NASCAR: Will Earnhardt Jr. fans tune out if he's not in the championship hunt? He's the two-time defending winner of the NMPA's most popular driver award and at last check was leading the vote in this year's balloting. That's lots of fans, a lot of eyeballs. But again, the answer to the question is probably not. NASCAR, even in the TiVo age, is still appointment viewing, and the supposition here is the bond between fans and sport remains even if one's chosen driver doesn't play a role in the postseason.

This playoff thing is still so new to NASCAR. Using the NFL as a basis of comparison, having a Chase without Earnhardt is tantamount to a Patriots-less playoffs in this era when parity is so prevalent. The fact is the times aren't just a changin'; they've already been transformed. A Super Bowl featuring the Bengals and Seahawks is about as likely as a Chase battle between Greg Biffle and Elliott Sadler, for better or worse depending on who you pull for in both sports.

For his part, driver No. 8 seems to be taking things in stride. Maybe it's the maturity that comes with age. A few years back, when he was still a twenty-something, I accompanied Earnhardt Jr. to an appearance in Arkansas. It was the day after his birthday. He rolled in about 45 minutes late, and looked a little bit haggard as we boarded his father's plane for the short flight from North Carolina. Phone calls were made prior to departure, itineraries coordinated and the event went off without a hitch. A couple hours of sleep later high above the ground, Earnhardt Jr. was good to go, smiling and shaking hands with an endless line of fans at the local Kroger. What I remember most about the appearance was Earnhardt Jr.'s boyish enthusiasm. Gripping a complimentary T-shirt featuring only the grocery chain's logo, he unfurled it and remarked to me how cool it was because it was so simple.

While his life isn't quite so uncomplicated these days, Earnhardt Jr. manages to smile as the sky reportedly is falling down around him. Things may look a bit bleak Earnhardt Jr. fans, but don't go making a beeline for that bridge just yet.

NASCAR Ads Are Keeping Me Awake Nights

Pity me this: I awoke in the middle of the night recently to the image of Darrel Waltrip making his pitch to drive the Aaron's dream machine for the umpteenth time. After chastising myself for allowing such a thought to interrupt sleep, I realized just how potent and indelible these messages become when you see them “ad nauseum.”

It's not my fault; it's not yours, either, if you occasionally suffer a similar fate. Look, there goes ol' DW tooling around in his Toyota Tundra, and whoooosh, here's Tylenol's new cast of characters left stupefied and wondering one after another: rapid release gel? At every turn (seemingly in Fox's case as of late), and corner of my mind, Dale Earnhardt Jr. appears, beseeching me to rent vehicles from Enterprise (is the hot chick included?) and order my pizza from Dominos (must I really tussle with Michael Waltrip to get a slice?). The NAPA spots featuring DEI's dynamic duo fail to get my motor running, but that Advance Auto Parts jingle stays with me deep into REM sleep. Or is it the one for Auto Zone?

In the middle of my slumber, and thinking how a splash or two of Drakkar Noir might help improve my smell, Jeremy Mayfield peers over from the driver's side of his race car and asks if my perfume is 78 Octane or something. Dream? No. That, my friends, is a nightmare. Suddenly, one of the Gillette "Young Guns" playfully pushes me across the hood of his car, and I'm shoving back and raining haymakers, flailing for the right to keep on using my trusty non-NASCAR-sponsored electric razor. Hey, what in the name of Whirlpool is Greg Zipadelli now doing lounging inside that Home Depot-renovated Porta-John? Doesn't he know, as all football players do, you can't make the club if you're always in the tub?

Having worked previously on the marketing side of the business, I know how important these ad campaigns are to sponsors. Watching from behind-the-scenes as Dale Jarrett shot some of his early UPS commercials, I used to wonder, though, in fleeting moments of sponsor disloyalty, will somebody really move their office shipping account from FedEx to UPS just because they want Dale to drive the big brown truck?

The great thing about being a journalist, the thing I find to be most liberating anyway, is the truth and how it set me free. Put me on the polygraph, I'm begging you. Questioner: Did you sneak the occasional Mountain Dew even though Coca-Cola was a cornerstone client of your former agency? Yes, more than occasionally. Fealty is one thing, taste is quite another, and Mello Yello was running a far-distant second to that green-canned liquid nectar of the gods.

I need to know how many fans are actually affected at the point of purchase. Do you drive a Dodge truck because Ryan Newman was seen blowing the doors off his Mooresville neighbors in that national TV spot? Imbibe only Budweiser because Little E has a big sponsorship deal with the king of beers?

After packing on a few pounds during the winter hibernation period, I was nearly tempted to indulge in a little Stacker 2. Maybe WinFuel helps with out-of-shapeness, too? There's Junior again, infiltrating my thoughts, but not to the extent that I'll go and drop a dime on such product. The leather coat he gives that cute little kid in the ad sure might sway me though. Free, free, that's for me, I guess.

Just today, I received a small supply of something called Mad-Croc Energy Gum. Two pieces roughly contain the caffeine equivalent of a cup of coffee. A former smokeless tobacco user who now relies on a pinch of nicotine gum to satisfy the urge, I’m afraid to try this new product. And before Nicorette sends Casey Mears parading through my dreams, Wal-Mart's generic brand of nico-gum suits me just fine, as does the lower cost.

Four pieces usually do me well and eight is enough to keep me going on a rough day. Coincidentally or perhaps not, those are usually days that turn into nights where I’m tortured by DW and NASCAR's merry band of pitchmen.