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Get out there and point ’em to death

Did you realize that heading into last weekend's Texas 500, the eighth race of the season, only one driver in the top 12 of the points standings has won a race? That’s four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, and he has won three of them. You have to drop all the way to 14th place to find the next race winner, Kurt Busch. Ryan Newman, who won at Phoenix week before last, is all the way down in 16th place. Virginia native Denny Hamlin, the Martinsville winner, who admittedly is playing hurt after undergoing knee surgery is 18th, and this year’s Daytona 500 winner, Jamie McMurray, is a dismal 20th in the standings.
And the brain trust of the sport wonders why there are empty seats every weekend and the TV ratings are not what they were a few years ago. Clearly, times are tough and many fans may not have the extra cash to attend races like they did in the past, but all things being equal, you would think that would increase the TV ratings. It's not happening.

From the earliest days of drag racing when we were kids, to the local dirt and asphalt tracks, to the "world’s greatest drivers" on the high-speed super speedways, the thrill of racing has been the contest of the competition of driving talent and machine. Line them up. Drop the green flag, and may the best man win. Race fans don't get all excited seeing their favorite finish third or fourth. Even worse is when they do and happily smile for the TV cameras and talk about what a good points day they had. Then again for those earning their living in the sport, like any job, it's all about the Benjamins. What's wrong with this picture?
In his recent book, Growing up NASCAR, former Lowes Motor Speedway President "Humpy" Wheeler sums up points racing and the plague it has become on the sport about as well as anyone I have heard discuss the matter. Wheeler discusses his take on the situation in a chapter aptly titled, The Corporatization of Racing.
When Brian France took over, everything at the speedways had a sign on it. He started a jet-powered marketing push. There was the official drink of NASCAR, the official bank of NASCAR, the official snack food of NASCAR. Money changes things and not always for the better. With drivers making $10 million a year, and most of it guaranteed, what is the incentive? A driver running second may have a car that is slightly faster than the lead car, but does he want to risk losing his second place points by challenging the leader and risking a crash? Most guys won't risk it, or they make a halfhearted attempt as if to say, "I tried, but I didn't make it."
Today everyone wants to finish in the top 10. Wheeler blames this trend on the sponsors’ investment in racing, saying, "A lot of this has come about because of a group of young people with business degrees are making decisions without knowing the essence of the sport. They never worked at a racetrack, and they don't understand what brings people through the gate. To these people, winning isn't as important as how many minutes a sponsor's car is seen on television. Wheeler's suggestion? Get the corporate sponsors off the cars, and increase the race purses. Then the drivers would have to race to win because how he finishes determines how much money he would make.
Makes sense. Local track racing has operated that way for years. Will it happen on the Cup level? No way. The corporate ship has already sailed. Too many people living high on the hog. But rearranging the purse structure and points to put more emphasis on winning would be a step in the right direction. As it stands now the last place car at Texas last weekend was guaranteed something like $80,000. And you know that is going to go to a Start and Park car.
With Learjets, million-dollar motor Hhomes, multimillion-dollar McMansions and garage mahal racing shops, the world the race teams and drivers live in continues to grow further and further from the world of the race fans. No one wants to rock the boat. Just have a nice points day.

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