NASCAR Nation Fades

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

The NASCAR season ends this weekend with the final chase for the Sprint Cup race in Homestead-Miami. The stands aren't nearly as crowded and rowdy as they were just a couple of years ago. Last week NASCAR fans suffered a slap of indignity when the penultimate race at Phoenix was bumped off the ABC air waves with 34 laps left and replaced with America's Funniest Home Videos. NASCAR Nation is losing some of its once-mighty muscle and this ill-conceived chase for the Sprint Cup is the culprit. Similar to the new FedExCup on the men's professional golf tour, the Sprint Cup is a season-ending series of races for which drivers qualify all year long. And, similar to the FedExCup, there is a points system that adds up throughout the ten races that determines the Cup champion. Unfortunately, exactly like the FedExCup, it happens that one driver can amass so many points early in the series that nobody else has a mathematical chance of winning the thing by the end. So here we are heading down to Miami for the Ford 400 this Sunday. But the drama has long been sapped from the series by the superlative performances of Jimmie Johnson. He may be a dry, Mr. Corporate type but this guy sure can drive. He has won so many races, accumulated so many points, that the Cup is his if he can just finish in the top 36 this weekend. So who cares? Who's going to tune in when the victory is Johnson's fait accompli before the green flag drops?

NASCAR was running on such a high over the past several years that they have found themselves swimming in excess. They were short-sighted in extending their season. At the apex of their popularity, more and more became the mantra, which led to piling on the Sprint Cup to the already long season and now the sport is saturated to the point of fan exhaustion. The teams that once bustled down gasoline alley with some 50 crewmen per garage are now looking at radical numbers of pink slips come the '09 season.

The economic crisis is going to force NASCAR into humble times. The private jets, the hotel suites, the inflated crews, the myriad of excesses are going to be curtailed drastically. The season will be shortened, fewer cars will run each race, fewer practice sessions will mean a lot less fuel spent per weekend. And we'll all learn that this sport could have and will survive at half the cost of what they've climbed to. It's akin to the America's Cup syndicates agreeing for the next races, 2010, to set a limit on the building and racing of their boats to about $20 million per boat, whereas they escalated into the stratosphere of about $100 million per boat the last few Cups. So, we naïve non sailors ask, if the America's Cup can successfully run at $20 million per boat, how in the world did those folks let their ambitions spiral out of control to $100 million per? What's next? Will baseball owners slack down off the $100 million contracts they've gone up to? The law of progress says there's no turning back but NASCAR is going to prove that athletes and owners and fans can indeed readjust to a scale-back, once the excesses reach absurd levels.

One mention about college football today. When people learn I'm a huge football fan, they ask whether I prefer college or the NFL. I'm a rabid NFL fan and not much a college fan for several reasons, the biggest of which is the NFL playoff system. I am quite sure by the Super Bowl that the two best teams of the season are matched in the final showdown. In college ball, unless you've got a lucky year where two undefeated teams meet each other at the end, you have no idea. That eternal line-up of Bowls makes me crazy. I'm in line with the thousands of fans who are crying out for an eight-team playoff for college football. Otherwise, for me, even all the school spirit and fun, creative, shovel-pass plays aren't worth the nebulous, subjective, often meaningless denouement of the season.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad