By Jerry Bonkowski
Brian France never misses an opportunity to boast that NASCAR, with 75 million fans, is the No. 2 most-popular spectator sport in the country behind the NFL.
While some might argue the veracity of those numbers, we'll go along with them for sake of argument.
But one thing I won't go along with is how NASCAR treats the culmination of its season vs. how the NFL ends its season.
In the NFL, there's two weeks of anticipation, preparation and excitement that leads up to the biggest sports event of the year in the U.S., the Super Bowl.
Along those same lines, the Super Bowl also brings out some of the best parties of the year – both on-site and across the country. When was the last time you heard about fantastic parties being held at thousands, if not millions, of bars and homes for NASCAR's final race of the season?
Anyone who is anyone finds himself or herself at the Super Bowl. It's a star-studded celebrity magnet, drawing hundreds of the biggest names in entertainment and sports. Even several NASCAR drivers attended Sunday's Super Bowl in Tampa between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals.
And what does NASCAR have in the way of "celebrities" for its final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway? If we're lucky, we get Nick Lachey – you know, Jessica Simpson's ex-husband.
That's pretty much it – an abysmal embarrassment for what is supposed to be arguably NASCAR's brightest light of the season. Where's Jack Nicholson? Or how about Brad Pitt? Hell, I'd even take Jim Nabors, who regales us every May with "Back Home Again In Indiana" prior to the Indianapolis 500.
Instead, NASCAR gets second-, third- and no-rate "celebs" to Homestead – if it gets any at all. It's bad enough that Johnson has all but sealed things up going into the season finale the last few years, but to have so little major attention from celebrities outside the sport really says a lot about NASCAR's drawing power … make that says very little.
Sure, NASCAR's "Super Bowl" is the Daytona 500, where we have seen a number of major celebs in recent years, folks like Matthew McConaughey, Nicholas Cage, Brooks & Dunn, Kool and the Gang, Chubby Checker, Bon Jovi, among others.
But NASCAR compensated them for their time, so that doesn't really count. Did we see any of them at Homestead on their own dime when their appearance would really have counted even more?
Nope. We get stuck with another visit of Lachey, and only because he's Johnson's good buddy. Hell, I'd rather see Britney Spears return to Homestead like she did back in 2001 than to have Lachey hold the celebrity torch for NASCAR.
In recent years, NASCAR has had the Super Bowl in and around Daytona. It was right up the road in Jacksonville four years ago, in Miami two years ago and across the state in Tampa this year. Surely, some of NASCAR's top marketing minds not only attended the big game, but couldn't they have picked up some ideas to translate to build excitement for the season finale in their own sport?
Unfortunately, the answer remains 'no.'
Of all the season-ending, championship-deciding events in professional sports, NASCAR lags way behind the NFL's Super Bowl, Major League Baseball's World Series, and even the NBA Finals.
Even the NCAA's Final Four or Bowl Championship Series games have greater hype and attention.
In this current tough economic climate, it's all the more important that NASCAR tries new things to attract fans back in the stands and in front of their TVs, both for regular season races as well as the final race of the year at Homestead.
Yet, all we've been met with so far has been relatively boring events leading up to a relatively boring season-ending event. There's little build-up or hype in and around Miami like there is when there's a Super Bowl in town.
In fact, when I was in Homestead more than two months ago for the season-ending Ford 400, a Miami resident told me that if he wasn't a race fan, he wouldn't have known that NASCAR was in town and Johnson was on the verge of achieving history by tying Cale Yarborough's record of winning three consecutive championships.
That's truly sad.
When the NFL comes to a city to present the Super Bowl, it takes it over and makes sure that everyone – even non-football fans – knows that the biggest game of the year is in town.
NASCAR? The relative lack of media attention for last November's season-ending race at Homestead was a sheer embarrassment. Even with the construction of a beautiful, new multi-million dollar media center, it was only just over half-full at best.
Admittedly, NASCAR has a problem in that Ford has an iron-clad contract to host the season finale – and championship-deciding weekend for all three major racing series (Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Trucks) – through 2014 at HMS.
But the time has come for NASCAR to make a major change in how its season ends up.
For those of you that have read my work for many years, you know I've been adamantly opposed to moving the Daytona 500 away from the start of the season. There was no better way to start the year than two weeks of 80-degree temperatures and exciting on-track action.
But the time has come to do some major reconstruction of the season opener and the season finale. And yes, the time has come for me to change my mind -- I'm allowed to do so once every 10 years or so -- and hopefully the minds of many others, as well.
The way I see it, NASCAR needs to switch the Daytona 500 from the first to last race of the season. If we're going to continually refer to the Daytona 500 as NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl – I cringe every time I hear it referred to as that – then let's make it a race that really counts in the biggest way of all: a championship-deciding event.
In turn, let's move Homestead to the season opener. We can still have some semblance of Speedweeks, albeit in perhaps some abbreviated form.
And, then, let's leave an off-week between the second-to-last race of the season and the season finale at Daytona to build momentum, excitement and anticipation – just the way the NFL does.
Don't forget that for many years, the Daytona 500 was NOT the first race on the NASCAR schedule, being pushed back to second, third or even deeper on stock car racing's dance card. In fact, the 500 did not serve as the opening to a season until 1982 -- and it's been the first race on each Cup season schedule ever since.
Another idea would be to switch the Coca-Cola 400 (previously the Pepsi 400 and before that, the Firecracker 400) to the start of the season and replace it in early July with Homestead.
But if you're going to make a complete break with tradition to start the season, then let's not replace one event at Daytona International Speedway with another at the same place.
Many of you might argue that why should a season finale be decided on a restrictor plate track, with the uncertainty and big wrecks inherent with it.
That's a point well-taken.
But let me ask you this: where have some of the most exciting race finishes we've seen in recent years been at?
That's right, at that little old 2.5-mile racetrack, otherwise known as the home of the Daytona 500.
How about the late Dale Earnhardt finally snapping a 20-year streak to win his first – and only 500 – in 1998?
How about Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s "one for my daddy" win in 2004?
How about Kevin Harvick's win by less than a half-fender over Mark Martin in 2007?
And what about Ryan Newman being in the right place at the right time, pushed by then-teammate Kurt Busch, to victory in last year's season-opener?
Do you see a trend here? All those exciting, nail-biting finishes came in the one, the only Daytona 500.
Racing at Daytona means excitement, and if NASCAR's hallmark race was shifted to season's end, it potentially could make for some of the best theater the sport has seen in many years.
Sure, it might make it harder for Johnson to win another championship. But at the same time, we would finally have something to truly cheer about -- and hopefully draw a lot more bigger names in the stands than Nick Frickin' Lachey.
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