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Fifth Place
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com

It Was a Mess of a Week for NASCAR, and it Needs to be Fixed

RICHMOND, Va. -- Kyle Larson won the regular-season finale Saturday at Richmond Raceway. At least for now.

Nothing against Larson, but after what happened in the past week, it's hard to be sure of anything in NASCAR these days. He'll have to wait until Tuesday, when his car goes through an additional inspection at NASCAR's research and development center, before he can be sure of the victory.

That's the circus of NASCAR. Maybe someone had to replace Ringling Bros. after it ceased operations and now NASCAR is making its play.

In a span of less than four days, NASCAR made news by penalizing the winner of both of the races at Darlington, having an ambulance nearly cost a driver a playoff spot and then throwing a caution with three laps remaining caused by a car about 15 laps down after it brushed the wall.

At a time when the talk should be about how Jimmie Johnson is vying for his eighth title (remember, he won three times this year despite recent struggles) and NASCAR is talking about a potential first-time champion in Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Larson, the focus isn't about the racing. It's about what in the world is going on in NASCAR, which announced Wednesday -- about 64 hours after the Darlington race was over -- that Denny Hamlin's car had failed inspection and he wouldn't have the benefit of the five playoff points from that win.

Playoff points. That's another item of conversation, something that needs explaining, as they are new this year. NASCAR did a good job in creating a points system that gives drivers incentive to race hard throughout races and throughout the season. It didn't do a good job in keeping it simple.

Drivers earn playoff points -- one point for a "stage" win and five points for a race win, and then more points for those who finish in the top 10 in the regular-season standings. It makes every moment in the race a pivotal moment.

So that's why it was a big deal when NASCAR threw the caution Saturday night when Derrike Cope scraped the wall with just a few laps left.

"I just think that's ridiculous that a guy could cause a caution with one lap to go as bad as he's running and just riding around there basically just making laps," said Truex, who was leading handily at the time. "It's pretty dumb."

That caution allowed Larson, who had a better short-run car, to win the race after coming off pit road ahead of Truex. Larson would have been 30 playoff points behind Truex to open the playoffs, but instead sits second to him at just 20 points behind. That could be the difference in the championship.

"I've got the same amount of wins as him, but [Truex] should have probably have like 10 or 12 wins if things would go his way more often," Larson said. "But he's been the class of the field all year, and the Toyotas in general have been really strong here the past few months.  But I look at it as we all just have to work harder."

Truex was the most unhappy regular-season champion ever. He has toiled in this sport for more than a decade and every win is key.

"Tonight sucks, plain and simple, just the way it ended up," Truex said.

Even Matt Kenseth was frustrated when he should have been thankful. He lost a chance to guarantee himself a playoff spot when he ran into the back of another car when entering pit road with 143 laps remaining.

Why did he run into the back of the car? Because an ambulance had stopped right at the entrance to the pits.

On the one hand, mistakes happen. But a team makes a mistake and a piece isn't as flush as it should be and it costs the team five playoff points, $50,000 and an unlimited amount of grief (Denny Hamlin was booed at his home track Saturday). A NASCAR-directed ambulance makes a mistake and it nearly costs Kenseth a playoff spot -- and it did ruin the chances for Clint Bowyer of any hope of an upset -- and it's almost like, "Oh, sorry, we'll look into it."

NASCAR should come out and beg the fans for their forgiveness for the embarrassing miscue. If NASCAR wants to remain credible and wants to stem the tide of lackluster ratings and attendance challenges in certain markets, it can't have such ridiculousness.

The NASCAR officials have run plenty of races. They are allowed to make mistakes, such as early in the Richmond race when a huge puff of smoke out of Kenseth's car resulted in a caution even though he had locked his brakes only briefly.

NASCAR's track record isn't one of having ambulances stop at the entrance of pit road. But to have it happen was downright pitiful, and NASCAR can only hope that people were watching their favorite college football team at that moment.

When NASCAR created this playoff format, one of the first things that came to mind was that its actions, its calls, would come under greater scrutiny. When a championship was decided by a 26-race regular season in which weekly finishes didn't matter much as long as a driver won, and a 10-race playoff determined the champion, a driver could overcome a NASCAR ruling here or there.

But not with this new system. Every NASCAR call can have critical impact on the championship. Thankfully, with the Larson win, Kenseth still made the playoffs and NASCAR didn't have to consider whether it should add him as an exception.

Instead of talking about a great rally to the finish by a potentially win-and-in driver, the talk this weekend around NASCAR was, on Friday, whether the whole garage is cheating up its cars and, on Saturday, whether an ambulance driver has a clue.

NASCAR heads to Chicagoland Speedway next week to open the playoffs. It signifies another failed NASCAR experiment to try to generate excitement in a big city with the playoff opener.

Next year, NASCAR will open the playoffs in Las Vegas after a regular-season finale at Indianapolis instead of Richmond.

Change is in the air. NASCAR needs to change the narrative. It needs to find a way to find the areas in which teams are pushing the envelope and snip it prerace rather than three days later. It needs to find a way to educate fans about the confusing playoff system, as fans continue to ask questions about playoff points (yes, drivers earn them through the playoffs).

And NASCAR needs to be perfect when officiating races. Because if people don't have trust in the sport and don't have faith in the competition and the playing field, all the "young gun" promotion -- Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon are among those in the playoffs -- in the world won't be enough to make people want to watch.

Monster Energy Could be Huge for NASCAR, but There's Work To Do 

Fun. Edgy. Fun. Global. Fun.

Those buzzwords rang through the NASCAR news conference last week when the league introduced Monster Energy as the sponsor of its Cup series, or whatever it chooses to call it in the future.

The news conference included two mentions of "global" and three references to "edgy" ... but "fun" -- a fun, fun, fun 10 times.

It sounds good. It sounds like last Thursday could go down as a historic day in the sport. Or at least a fun day.

The potential appears awesome, and the storyline sounds so, so fun and good. But thinking NASCAR just landed a sponsor with a florescent green wand that will magically wave and automatically create great things for the sport would rate as a stretch of the imagination.

If the NASCAR-Monster pairing provided the perfect deal, they would have gotten it done six months ago and not late Wednesday night or Thursday morning of banquet week. Both sides had such little time to prepare for the news conference, they didn't have an elaborate plan, leading to even more speculation to what Monster intends to do with the sport's premier asset.

While Monster's consumer fan base trends younger, those fans won't migrate to NASCAR just because their favorite energy drink sponsors the sport. If they did, they would have followed Ricky Carmichael or Travis Pastrana. Those famous athletes didn't win as they had in their motocross and X Games endeavors, and their fans loved them because they won and because of their personalities.

So NASCAR can't just slap a logo on a bunch of NASCAR drivers, have some Supercross (and even recent Monster signee Tiger Woods) show up at the track and expect those ages 18 to 34 to fall in love with the sport.

It could expose NASCAR to a new group of fans, but NASCAR will need to make the most of it. It seems strange that people seem to still stick to the philosophy that if someone goes to a race, that person will turn into a fan for life. Tracks wouldn't remove seats if that philosophy proved true.

NASCAR doesn't need all those fans -- it just needs some of those fans -- and hopefully with the cars having less downforce in 2017, the competition will build on a strong 2016 season on the track.

The gnawing question: What will Monster get from this relationship?

Monster has money to burn -- its net income for the first nine months of 2016 was $539 million. Its market cap, the combined worth of all of its stock based on the current stock price, sat at $25.63 billion at the close of trading Monday. For comparison, International Speedway Corp. had a market cap of $1.67 billion, Lowe's $63.43 billion and ESPN's parent company, The Walt Disney Co., $159.1 billion.

Monster Energy's revenues rank it 787th on the Fortune 1000 list, up from 875th a year earlier with a revenue increase of 10.5 percent and profit increase of 13.2 percent in 2015 from 2014. About 23 percent of its gross sales come from outside the United States.

So did Monster just buy the series -- for what some would consider at an estimated $20 million to $25 million a similar amount to the sponsorship of one full-time Cup car on a prominent team -- because it can? Part of having an edgy persona requires doing the unconventional.

That edginess could ruffle traditionalists and alienate an already frustrated longtime fan base. From the marketing standpoint, not everyone will look favorably upon the scantily clad Monster Energy girls.

And what will Monster want on the competition side?

Will Monster try to influence race formats to try unconventional ideas to attract millennial fans? As the whole Chase concept has evolved, NASCAR hasn't shied away from unconventional, but every step will serve as a test of whether it goes too far.

NASCAR executive vice president Steve O'Donnell appears as the executive most likely to sit in the crosshairs as his job will include saying yes or no to any stir-the-pot ideas that conflict with competition philosophy. O'Donnell perfectly fits that role -- he has pushed for change while also trying to balance it with NASCAR's historical roots -- but even his strong diplomacy skills inside and outside the garage could receive a mighty test.

Monster Energy obviously faces a hurdle as an energy drink, and it remains a legal target by certain families who blame the drink for ailments and even deaths of loved ones. Monster doesn't market to children under 12, while some in Congress have urged energy drink companies not to market to anyone under 18.

But all companies have challenges, and Monster and NASCAR (which navigated the world of cigarette marketing for decades) at least know what they signed up for. Or at least they should.

Among those things, they should know Monster enters a sport with drivers who already have deals with beverage companies.

"At least in the relationships I have, I know everybody wants to grow the sport," said Gatorade-sponsored and seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. "Sure, I'm going to get out of my race car, I'm going to drink a Gatorade; I'm not going to drink a Monster Energy drink.

"I am sure there will be some collaboration and support from both sides."

If that's the biggest issue, then NASCAR did better than some of the other sponsors it apparently considered that could have had much bigger conflicts. The only primary sponsorship conflict at the moment appears to be the 5-Hour Energy deal with Erik Jones, and many consider energy-shot and energy-drink markets as different.

So what to make of the Monster deal? Well, maybe look at it a lot like the product itself. For some, it makes their day go much easier. For others, it doesn't have as much of a boosting impact.

Life is about the ride, and NASCAR has paired with a company that promotes the motto "Unleash The Beast." In a sport of many leashes, it could end up entertaining -- ahem, fun -- to watch, if nothing else.

Embracing Roots Racing May Be What NASCAR Needs Most

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Sprint cars and modifieds whipped around the Texas Motor Speedway dirt track Friday night, allowing several drivers from Texas and Oklahoma to show off their skills to NASCAR fans likely more familiar with what goes on at the big track across the parking lot.
 
All but two of the top 12 drivers hailed from Texas or Oklahoma. The other two: Danny Lasoski and some former NASCAR driver named Tony Stewart, rank among the most notable of all sprint-car hotshoes.

While the event Friday night, and the one schedule for Saturday, probably served as a win for the 0.4-mile track only used for select events, it also possibly created a few converts. But the glaring takeaway from it should focus on an alternate theory, one that works in reverse: NASCAR needs dirt-track and sprint-car fans more than the short-track racers need NASCAR fans.

With all the talk this week about how much Texas used a "tire monster" to grind tire rubber into the newly repaved surface, the same amount of talk should center on how NASCAR can immerse itself into the soil of grass-roots racing at tracks that run on a weekly basis.

NASCAR can't ignore the glaring ratings and attendance declines, confirmed by International Speedway Corp. this week. Viewership continues its freefall, down 10 percent this year. Since Daytona, ISC has seen attendance tumble 7 percent and has similar projections for its upcoming weekends.
 
Why? Theories abound. But it appears clear that people feel less emotionally invested and connected with the sport and its drivers. NASCAR appears to have lost that passion among fans, some through no fault of NASCAR (the decline of the car culture), some through growth (opting for bigger markets), some certainly self-inflicted (Car Of Tomorrow, anyone?) and possibly even having different sponsors for NASCAR's biggest series and the weekly tracks it sanctions.

"I race 70 dirt races a year all over the United States, and what the dirt racing fans say to me all the time is that they feel disconnected from NASCAR," said former NASCAR driver and current Fox Sports analyst Kenny Wallace, who raced a modified Friday night. "When [former NASCAR sponsor] Winston cigarettes sponsored dirt tracks, they would put up a Winston scoreboard, and the fans felt connected like, 'NASCAR cares about us.'

"There's a disconnect. Every dirt track I go to, it feels like NASCAR has left them. ... They feel left behind."

Wallace loves NASCAR and he wants NASCAR to succeed, so don't take his words as a bashing of the sport, but more of an honest assessment. The bigger question: How does NASCAR get those grassroots fans who love to go see sprint cars or their weekly short-track programs?

NASCAR must return to the short tracks that run on a weekly basis with much more than just a sanction, a coat of paint, uniforms, and insurance for drivers. It must do it with appearances from Cup drivers or, better yet, run the trucks or Xfinity Series at a handful of those tracks. Eat a sanction fee? Possibly. Have to pony up for SAFER Barrier for these facilities? Absolutely. NASCAR built the R&D center because its drivers died. Now the sport appears to continually see its fan base wither away, and the NASCAR industry needs to invest more into the sport's backbone.

Maybe NASCAR should give Cup teams an incentive to run a local track champion -- maybe say if it wants to run a third or fourth car, it must give an opportunity to a track champion in a truck or Xfinity car; or possibly require NASCAR teams run two cars at a NASCAR weekly racing track for other benefits.

Local fans for other sports have plenty of opportunities to watch through high schools and colleges. In NASCAR, up-and-coming drivers don't play four years for their high school team, and then one or two or three or four for a college team to build up a fan base and energize people for the sport.

In Texas, 12 minor league baseball teams will play this year. There are 22 Division I colleges, including 18 that play football -- 12 in the top NCAA division. Local asphalt oval tracks? It's somewhere between one and four, depending on which ones are open.

That makes it tough to excite fans from the grassroots. Athletes competing in hometowns or adopted college towns make their names there -- not by hopscotching across the country on in-and-out two day trips such as Xfinity and trucks.
  
The sprint-car guys can attract fans by racing twice as many times -- and sometimes in multiple divisions -- than the up-and-coming stock-car drivers. They race against some of the stars who have raced for decades such as Lasoski, Stewart and Sammy Swindell on Friday. They can do that on a budget that probably would rival, if not be cheaper, than a NASCAR K&N car.

At dirt races, fans can watch a driver adapt to the surface each week. At most local tracks, both asphalt and dirt, the rules are not as complicated as in NASCAR. Each race is more a race rather than a quest for a championship.
 
Stage racing and aero push don't seem to fit in these fans' wheelhouse. What they need is a physical connection, a reason to have that passion.

The crowd Friday night appeared as a mix of sprint-car fans and NASCAR fans, if the T-shirts were any indication. They didn't see many NASCAR stars -- the only current NASCAR driver who raced a sprint car was Christopher Bell, a driver many believe will follow in the footsteps of Kyle Larson.

Larson has a contract that allows him to run 25 sprint-car races a year and he plans to run all 25. He built his fan base at those dirt tracks around the country.

"I get asked that question all the time [of] when are they going to shut you down," Larson said about the pressure from the outside to concentrate on his NASCAR ride. "But I feel like everybody needs to encourage me and others to go race at your local short track and all that because I feel like we've lost touch with our grassroots race fans.

"And, I really think with me going back and doing that stuff and Kyle Busch running Late Model races throughout the year, it really kind of gets the local fans back excited about NASCAR."

Sprint-car racing isn't without its flaws for sure. In just the last couple of months, the tragic death of David Steele and the scary scenes of cars flying over the fence at Volusia Speedway Park in Florida make one question (rightly or wrongly) the commitment to safety. The dust kicked up and having to Q-tip dirt out of one's ears after a race won't attract everyone.

But if people are willing to wait until 11 p.m. for the main event and get pelted by clumps of clay to watch cars at incredible speed, then certainly they might be willing to sit on the couch during a Sunday afternoon and watch a stock-car race. While the crowd had appeared to have thinned by the time of the main feature, it appeared about 7,500 or so were in the stands -- a good crowd for this show (where tickets were more expensive than some for the Xfinity race today).

One of those hanging out watching the races standing outside the backstretch fence was Clint Bowyer, who drives a NASCAR Cup car for Stewart and owns a couple of dirt late models.

"My obligation racing at this level is to still go back and visit these grass root short-tracks all across the country," Bowyer said. "Weekly racing is what put me on the map and gave all of us a chance to showcase our talents to the teams we are racing for today.

"That is the level that gets everybody here, not just drivers. It is crew members and engineers and crew chiefs and over the wall guys. Everything you see that makes up the Cup series all starts in one way, shape or form at a weekly series across the country. I love being a part of that. My guys ask me every year if they have a job and I tell them as long as they see my ass in a Cup car, don't you worry about your job."

Brad Keselowski said one of the reasons he wants midweek races is to help those local short tracks. He didn't say this, but as he says it, one would think -- would it be great if NASCAR did a midweek race, let's say on a Thursday, and required all its drivers to visit a nearby short track in the next few nights? Maybe even race?

"We make a lot of our sport's weaknesses and we forget sometimes that we have a lot of strengths," Keselowski said. "One of our strengths is if you look at the models of the football leagues, the basketball leagues and so forth, ... you don't see a lot of 40- and 50-year olds playing football.

"What NASCAR really has going for it, at the grassroots level, we do have the 50-year-old that loves racing and has a passion for it and races at his local short track and that exists for us. It's as important for NASCAR to embrace the local levels as it is for the professional sports stick-and-ball wise to embrace the collegiate levels."

Wouldn't it be cool if that 50-year-old could race against a NASCAR star? Just race. Not meet. Just compete, like a real racer on his turf with, at best, even equipment.

Stewart said when he was at an appearance at the big track Thursday, everything stopped for about 10 seconds as the sound of the sprint cars practicing on the dirt track bellowed through the air. It is a unique sound.

Now NASCAR needs the roar of the stock cars to do the same. It needs its roar to stir passion of people wanting to see both stars and cars. It won't happen in this climate without some help, more seeds and more tilling to create more roots.

Without Sponsorship, Danica Patrick is Ready to Move on From NASCAR if She Can't Remain Competitive

Danica Patrick has said she doesn't want to live a miserable life of racing in the back half of
the NASCAR Cup field. If she can't race competitively, she doesn't need the money.

She has other interests. Among them, she is the proprietor of a vineyard, has a clothing line,
and has authored a fitness/nutrition book coming out next year. She didn't embark on those
ventures thinking 2017 would be her last year in racing. She pursued them because she has
passion in those areas, and it just seemed right at the moment.

But if 2017 is her last year in NASCAR, and it looks as if it could be, Patrick can find a happy
place. She has lost her ride at Stewart-Haas Racing after this year. Originally, her
sponsorship deal extended through 2018, but sponsor Nature's Bakery dropped her, so the
relationship will end a year earlier.

Patrick said Wednesday she wants to race if she has a team behind her and can remain
competitive. If not, she's ready to move on.

It's likely she wouldn't be perfectly happy with perfecting yoga poses and posting Instagram
photos of Dallas, the dog she and boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. dote on. From what she has
said in the past, she would miss the competition and the challenge.

She also would miss the instant gratification she gets when young girls' eyes light up as she meets
them weekly at the race track.

But she won't miss running 20th to 25th in many races. She won't miss wrecking. And she
won't miss the weekends when the car rolls off the truck, is a beast to drive and doesn't get
any better through Sunday.

Her chances of finding a ride are minimal at best. Any sponsor willing to commit to Patrick
would have to recognize it would likely be a one-year venture, or two years at the most. Sure,
she could win a race on strategy and get in the playoffs, but more than likely, it will be more
of the same with maybe a slight improvement.

She doesn't really worry about anyone who says she is done as a NASCAR driver. She knows
what the public discourse is on her career.

"I'm sure they're saying everything from really great to really awful, and that's just part of my
daily life," she said.

Patrick's weekly struggles in NASCAR were typical of the ones open-wheel drivers face in
NASCAR.

For instance, after a solid 13th-place finish at Michigan in her first full season in 2013, she
talked about how she finally had a day when she felt comfortable with the car.

When told of the comment, her then-crew chief, Tony Gibson, understood what she was
saying but noted that the key to being fast is to be able to drive the car when it's
uncomfortable.

"I don't think you ever get comfortable in these things," Gibson said that day. "It's a
controlled wreck all day long.

"You're only going to get it so good, and they don't drive very good in traffic because you can
take the air off of people really easy, and she's still learning that."

The problem is that in IndyCar racing, uncomfortable means a wreck. In NASCAR,
uncomfortable means fast. Patrick, who grew up racing open-wheel cars before making the
transition to NASCAR, never found that consistent spot where she was comfortable with the
uncomfortable in a stock car.

"If you look at our stats of our first few years," Stenhouse said, "they didn't really look that
much different for all the success I had in the Xfinity car and winning races and
championships, so it's just tough to make sure that you have the right people behind you --
the right people on your team that believe in everything that you can do.

"I think she's put a lot of work in, and I think she can drive a car when it's the right car."

Patrick could end up in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. She is still the only woman to be on the
pole for any of the 2,524 Cup races. Her eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500 in 2013 is the
best of any woman. And her seven top-10 finishes is also a standard for women. Granted, her
180 career starts -- 190 at season's end -- will be over 100 more than the 15 other females
who have raced in the Cup combined.

She has set the bar for women drivers, and frankly, there aren't many in the NASCAR
pipeline who appear ready for Cup in the next three years. Soon to be 26, Julia Landauer (a
Stanford grad) might be too old to get a good shot after her good-but-not-great
performances on the NASCAR regional level.

Patrick has dealt with incredible pressure in her NASCAR career - partly because of the
scrutiny of being a woman driver and the questions about whether she deserved her ride or
was primarily a marketer filling a race car seat. Few will remember that even before she
raced in IndyCar, the motorsports community was buzzing about a young girl from Illinois
who had gone to Europe and was holding her own. She earned her way to race IndyCar and
proved her worth with a win in Japan and a third-place finish in the Indianapolis 500.

She made no apologies for using her femininity and her uniqueness to continue to get
opportunities. And she definitely portrayed a willingness to learn about stock cars, while not
worrying about the perception if her questions seemed totally bizarre or ignorant of what
stock car racing is all about.

And through it all, she has lasted five full-time seasons in a Cup car. She made her enemies,
and has given a scornful look to fans who caught her on a bad day at the track. But many who
knew Patrick in her IndyCar days would say she has either matured or just enjoyed NASCAR
more.

Speaking of IndyCar, some might think she will return. When she met with reporters last
month and was asked about a potential IndyCar and NASCAR mixed schedule for 2018,
Patrick said she had not heard of any talk of that type of plan. She said Wednesday that while
she won't rule it out, IndyCar isn't in her sights.

She knows this is a business, and with no sponsorship right now, she has no ride. Whether
that changes in the next few months will determine whether she dons a firesuit in 2018. For
the first time in her career, she faces being released with no ride in sight.

"I've been on the good end of sponsorship and money for a very long time, basically my
whole career," Patrick said. "So this is definitely a different position.

"But it's the way it goes. It is just a business. If the money is there, then teams are going to
move forward. Money is harder than ever to come by. ... It's a tough world. I've been on the
good side for a really long time. I've always been grateful for that."