Another race, another mediocre result for Dale Jr.

The 2009 NASCAR season is quickly approaching its playoff system, known as “the chase for the cup“.  Planted firmly in 21st place overall and 367 points behind the last-place chase-qualifying driver at the moment (Matt Kenseth), Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been a huge disappointment for many fans (including myself) this year.  (Current standings are available here).  When Dale Jr. moved from his stepmother’s DEI race team to the big-money, top-performing Hendrick Motorsports team in 2008, expectations were set astronomically high.  Dale Jr.’s Hendrick teammates are current three-peat Cup champion Jimmie Johnson,  4-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, and current-season Cup-series wins-leader Mark Martin.  One could make the argument that expectations after his move might’ve been too high.  Still, after changing crew chiefs this year and having had a full season with Hendrick to get things right, it’s reasonable to expect him to be at least competing for a spot in the Chase.  Given that there are so many drivers between him and 12th place and that the points format does not overwhelmingly favor winners, even an unlikely win-streak will not save his Chase aspirations at this point.  Saturday’s result was especially disappointing, because Dale Jr. didn’t really ever look like he was in the race, despite the fact that he won at Chicago last year with Hendrick.

NASCAR’s biggest star turning in such a mediocre season’s performance is a story in and of itself.  However, what it means for the sport (specifically the track owners) is another story, and it will be interesting to see how it unfolds this year.  Dale Jr.’s popularity is something of a money machine, and it keeps people coming to the races.  If you look at his fans, they’re mostly a mix of old-school NASCAR fans (mostly inherited from his legendary father) and younger Southern fans.  Stereotypes aside, these are the people that pay money to go to the races, eat the food, and stay in the hotels (okay, okay, some may be camping in parking lots — the RV-based fans you see on TV are actually the extreme minority).  Though Jeff Gordon’s success and national popularity helped NASCAR become a national, mainstream sport, Dale Jr. is the draw for people who actually go to the races (which are still predominantly located throughout the South).  When I went to Daytona for the (then-Pepsi) 400 a couple summers ago, Dale Jr. fans outnumbered Jeff Gordon fans by at least 4:1.  This, despite Dale Jr. was winless that season.

However, with the current economy, I’ve noticed that NASCAR (like all sports) is taking in fewer fans.  The rumor is that NASCAR is doing everything they believe that they reasonably can to try to help stimulate lagging attendance, but I haven’t seen that reflected in ticket prices.  Even a crappy seat is going to run you $50 with fees.  A good seat will be five times that or more.  Many race tracks hold over 100,000 fans.  (Daytona holds 167,000.  Talladega holds 175,000).  With so many seats available (many of which are empty these days), the economics of this doesn’t make sense.  The entire back-stretch of Daytona was empty for the (now-Coke Zero) 400 this year.  The 10s (that’s right, 10s) of fans that were there seemed to have sneaked in to that portion of the track, because they seemed to be moving around a lot (likely dodging security).

The risk here is that the local fanbase dries up and doesn’t go anymore — or at least, doesn’t go in as large of numbers.  I love NASCAR, but I am not one of the people who goes to just watch “my guy”.  For most fans, however, that’s what they do.  And if their guy is Dale Jr. (as it seems to be for most of the people in attendance), you have to wonder if they’re going to continue shelling out $400+ in tickets, food, and gas to take the family.  This is terrible for the local track owners and the surrounding businesses in what are usually fairly rural towns.  (Talladega has a population of 80,000 people — less than half the capacity of the track).  I don’t think that NASCAR is about to dry up, but it seems like NASCAR may have been riding on the popularity of one driver to fill large tracks with fans who were willing to overpay for tickets.

Unless Dale Jr. starts at least looking like a contender, NASCAR is going to have to do something much more drastic about ticket prices.  If they don’t, tracks may go bankrupt, and NASCAR will have to decide whether they want to bail/buy out those tracks, shorten the season, or have new races at existing (financially solvent) tracks.  In the end, that may be better for the sport — having 4 races a year at one location versus 2, for example.  Also, it’s not clear that the length of the season is ideal.  NASCAR may generate more interest by having a shorter season (and possibly eliminating the Chase, which I am not a fan of).  Hopefully they won’t nix the New Hampshire races, though, since those are about the only ones I can reasonably go to anymore.  🙁

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