Video: Toyota drivers participate in Olympic crossover event

During two days in Utah, I watched as Toyota NASCAR drivers Martin Truex Jr., Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez — along with crew chiefs Cole Pearn and Chris Gayle — mingled with Olympic athletes and participated in various Winter Games training.

It was pretty fun, and I could tell you all about it, but I’d rather show you. So here’s a video I made about it:

Midseason changes harm a sport’s credibility

The email subject from this morning seemed like a very late April Fools’ joke at first: “NASCAR Adds Fourth Stage to Coca-Cola 600.”

Oh no.

Look, I get what NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway are trying to do here. The 600 is a long race, and dividing it into four 100-lap stages will break it up and make it more entertaining. Last year’s 600 was brutal — with 131 straight green-flag laps at one point — and people hated the race.

And the stages have added a lot to the racing this year, so an extra stage is fine. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if all races had four stages next year.

But…ughhhhhh.

What NASCAR fails to understand (or at least value highly enough) is how bad it looks to change rules in the middle of a season. These are the type of temptations a sanctioning body should avoid, because they harm credibility — and that’s very difficult to earn back.

Personally, I’m still affected by the worst decision of all time — adding a 13th driver to a 12-driver playoff in 2013. NASCAR changed forever for me that day, and I can honestly say I’ve never looked at NASCAR as a sport quite the same after that.

The Coke 600 decision isn’t on that level, but the concept is similar: A short-term play could have a long-lasting impact on people who are desperately clinging to the notion NASCAR is more of a sport than sports entertainment.

Yes, the “pure sport” aspect has been gone for awhile now — I get that — but it’s painful to see NASCAR toss aside more of its credibility.

That’s what makes this the wrong move.

NASCAR announced stage lengths for every race on Feb. 16. It said each race would have the same amount of stage points and playoff points, except for the Daytona 500 (which had 10 more stage points — but not playoff points — thanks to the Duels).

Now — less than two weeks before the 600 — NASCAR has suddenly decided a certain race is worth more stage points than other races. And it’s worth more playoff points than any other race.

Think about that: Drivers can earn more playoff points in the Coke 600 than they can in the Daytona 500.

That’s very troubling for purposes of consistency. All races should pay the same amount of points. And if they don’t, NASCAR should announce that at the start of the season — not 13 days before the race.

It’s really disappointing NASCAR decided to do this. Want to add a fourth stage to one race for entertainment purposes? Then at least do it before the season. Announce it, let people digest it and come to terms with it.

But by doing it now, NASCAR misjudged what’s more valuable: One night at Charlotte or its credibility as a sanctioning body.

New NASCAR-related Snapchat lens debuts at Talladega

NASCAR has been part of Snapchat’s Live Stories and some tracks have Snapchat geofilters, but there has yet to be a racing-related lens (the feature that changes people’s faces into dogs, bunnies, etc.).

But on Sunday, Snapchat will unveil a NASCAR lens that will be available to fans at every Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race going forward.

The lens puts a NASCAR hat on the person snapping, along with glasses and a mustache reminiscent of Dale Earnhardt Sr., with a steering wheel in front of them. When the person makes a facial movement, the lens plays the sound of tires squealing.

By the way, there’s also a Live Story planned for Talladega — so expect to see plenty of this lens on your friends’ snaps from the track.

Here’s a demonstration of the lens, courtesy of NASCAR:

How to enjoy your favorite sport when it feels like no one else is

I’ve been feeling a little down about NASCAR today.

The crowds at Richmond International Raceway last weekend were, quite frankly, terrible. There probably weren’t more than 5,000 people in attendance for the Xfinity race, and the local newspaper estimated the Cup crowd at 30,000 — tops.

Then come the TV ratings, which were down once again. They’re always down, it seems.

And what’s scary for everyone is NASCAR hasn’t even hit the bottom yet. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s impending retirement is certainly going to make the numbers look even worse in 2018.

So if you love NASCAR — and especially if you’ve loved it since before everything seemed to be trending downward — it’s all really depressing at times. And that’s not supposed to happen with something you voluntarily follow for enjoyment.

The question is: As a fan, what do you do?

The closest I can come to answering this question is to use one of the things I’m most passionate about: Electronic dance music, or EDM.

In Oct. 2015, there was an article from Forbes titled: “The $6.9 Billion Bubble? Inside The Uncertain Future Of EDM.”

The story had some of the same themes we hear about in NASCAR. “Once a fast-growing industry, EDM’s build up has slowed considerably as the market matures,” the story said.

I remember that was the first I’d heard of any potential downturn in dance music, and it honestly pissed me off. I thought, Screw you! I still like it! And I don’t care if other people don’t like it!

The truth is, I’m still going to enjoy the music no matter how many other people like it. And my sense is most of you feel the same about NASCAR.

When you hear about the TV ratings and the attendance and people leaving the sport, you sort of shrug: Oh well, their loss. Unlike your favorite TV show that loses viewers, NASCAR isn’t in danger of being canceled. The fact IndyCar still exists (it pulled in a 0.27 rating this weekend!!!) shows NASCAR can go on in some form indefinitely.

At the same time, NASCAR can’t sustain itself as a major sport if things keep heading this direction. The concern from people in the industry — drivers, NASCAR executives, sponsors, teams and media — is palpable, and I can assure you it’s the subject of many private conversations.

Those conversations end up becoming part of the public dialogue, because people who work in NASCAR generally love racing and want to improve it. Everyone wants to figure out what will stop the bleeding. They want to ask you, the fans, what you want.

The irony is a lot of you just want to stop talking about it. You want to get back to enjoying racing again, not spending time being frustrated about every little thing that happens.

Sure, you have opinions on what would make the sport better, but you watch NASCAR because it’s entertainment. It’s an escape from the many problems of the real world, and it’s no fun to have your remaining spirit drained by the very thing you love.

People in the NASCAR world are scrambling and scratching their heads, trying to figure out where to go from here. I want to make it better, too, and I’m not going to stop writing about possible solutions.

But that doesn’t mean you as a fan have to get sucked into the negative energy. You follow NASCAR because you love it, not because you have the answers to save it. If you don’t want to participate in all the hand-wringing, then don’t let it ruin a good thing for you.

My advice? Put your scanner headphones on, block out the noise and smile. It’s only five days until race day.

NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell on life after Dale Jr.

One of the hot topics in the wake of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement announcement has been: Is NASCAR in trouble?

It’s a fair question, because the up-and-coming drivers don’t seem to have the same sort of big, magnetic personalities drivers like Earnhardt, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon had.

There are a lot of opinions on this, but a very important one comes from NASCAR itself. Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and the guy who basically runs the show these days, attended Tuesday’s news conference and answered a few questions afterward, saying he was optimistic about the future of the sport.

Among his answers:

 

— The current crop of young drivers do have personalities that will attract fans, O’Donnell believes, but “they’ve got to win” more often in order for fans and media to recognize that.

“People like winners,” he said. “We’ve taken some steps in the Xfinity Series to move out some of the Cup drivers. The reason for that is we want drivers exposed to winning — (then) they’re interviewed more, people get to see their personalities.”

O’Donnell said there’s “no doubt” the drivers’ personalities will be exposed as they start to have more success.

— It’s one thing for NASCAR to be more involved with developing personalities and scheduling TV show appearances or similar opportunities, but there’s only so much the sanctioning body can do. At some point, O’Donnell said, the drivers have to step up and “take those personalities outside the sport.”

“It’s important for us to work together, but it’s also on the drivers,” he said. “They’ve got to want to do some of these things outside of the sport to help grow the sport as well.”

— O’Donnell is comforted by the fact Earnhardt isn’t going away and wants to remain part of the sport. He believes Earnhardt can continue to help NASCAR develop the young drivers’ personalities, both as an Xfinity Series team owner and other ways that haven’t yet come to light.

In addition, O’Donnell feels Earnhardt will continue to give feedback on NASCAR’s direction (as Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon have in retirement).

“He’s not hesitant to send you a message every day on, ‘Here’s what I thought about the race’ or ‘Here’s some ideas you all need to explore,'” O’Donnell said. “He cares about the long-term health of the sport. And I think the other drivers he’s interacted with, especially the younger drivers, see that and know that’s important going forward.”

Column: New All-Star Race format underwhelms

The reveal of this year’s All-Star Race format was more anticipated than usual for a few reasons.

First, Monster Energy is sponsoring the race. Getting Monster to put its stamp on the format had a lot of promise to be fresh and different.

Next, NASCAR and the tracks are enjoying an era of unprecedented collaboration with the drivers, with the exchange of ideas constantly going back and forth. Combine that with things like stage racing being introduced this year, and there seems to be an appetite for big changes in the sport.

So when the All-Star format was unveiled Tuesday afternoon, my leg was bouncing up and down with nervous energy.

They could do ANYTHING to the format! It’s a blank slate! What will be the big twist?

The answer: Tires.

Tires? Yes, tires.

Teams will get one set of tires that has a softer compound, which will theoretically enable them to go faster. If a team puts on that set before the final stage, the car has to drop to the back.

The tire twist is described as “a game-changer” in the NASCAR press release.

Tires…

……..

Look, I don’t hate this format. It’s just…underwhelming in a That’s it? sort of way.

A decade ago, the All-Star Race was special because it was the only time NASCAR had double-file restarts. Now every race has those. Then the All-Star race was unique because it had stages. Now every race has those, too.

So the fact there are going to be three 20-lap stages before the final 10-lap shootout? Eh.

I like that some drivers will be eliminated (only 10 cars make the 10-lap shootout), but it’s complicated to keep track of who they are. Three stage winners go to the final stage, plus seven drivers who had the best average finish in the three stages, which — HEY! Pay attention! You started to drift. Anyway, then the cars will be lined up in order of their average finish for the final pit stop, and the order for the final stage will be determined — HEY! Are you getting this??

OK, you know what? You’ll just figure it out when you’re watching.

The point is, with all the creative people and ideas bouncing around NASCAR these days, backed by a push from a new and innovative sponsor, the format could have been way outside the box and cutting edge.

Instead, they decided to have a race that is, in part, “an ode to the 1992 edition of the same distance.”

Tires, I’m afraid, aren’t going to sell any extra tickets.