Column

NASCAR's circus sideshow hijacks prelude to Cup chase for championship

Perception is everything, and brand marketing adds an important element that drives the conversation in all businesses, including NASCAR.

Look out your window. That busted-up jalopy crawling up the highway reflects NASCAR’s current Q score, or the measure of familiarity with a brand.

The run-up to the playoffs in Richmond, Va., should have been a great opportunity for the sport to gain momentum going into the 16-driver, 10-race scramble for the 2017 Monster Energy Cup championship that starts Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.

Instead, it turned into a proverbial three-ring circus.

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1) Derrike Cope, who was a backpacker and brushed a wall with two laps left in the race, costing Martin Truex Jr. a victory and throwing all sorts of shade for NASCAR officials. They threw a caution flag despite no visual evidence that keeping the race under green would endanger any other cars.

2) The ambulance driver who stopped right at the entrance to the pits and ruined Matt Kenseth’s night.

3) The NASCAR official who threw a caution earlier in the night after Kenseth slammed on his brakes, giving off tire smoke. He didn’t hit anyone or spin, just threw “smoke.”

Smoke? That’s a good word to describe the haze of baffling decisions and events that transpired Saturday night in Richmond, where Kyle Larson emerged as the winner.

NASCAR Chairman Brian France, in pumping up another incarnation of a playoff system that used to be called the Chase, evoked the possibility of “Game Seven moments” in the buildup to the championship.

This was a moment, all right. Insert your snark here.

“I just think that’s ridiculous that a guy could cause a caution with one lap to go as bad as he’s running and just riding around there basically just making laps,” Truex said. “It’s pretty dumb.”

In the Richmond version of “Dumb and Dumber,” Kenseth ran into Clint Bowyer’s car when the ambulance got in his way. Fortunately, it didn’t cost Kenseth a berth in the playoffs, but it very well could have. Try explaining that to everyone.

NASCAR Vice President Steve O’Donnell tried. Sort of.

“That’s not something you ever want to see happen,” he said on SiriusXM radio Monday. “We don’t want to be part of the story.”

Unfortunately, the ambulance was. And it’s more collateral damage for a sport that already has alienated a strong segment of its traditional fan base by moving to bigger tracks, constantly revamping the playoff system and moving races from traditional networks to cable stations that are more difficult to find — and come with a pricier tab.

“We need to be consistent, and that wasn’t our best effort,” O’Donnell said. “As we approach the playoffs, we’re going to regroup and have a bunch of meetings and get it right.”

Yes, NASCAR needs consistency. Let’s get “common sense” on speed dial during that meeting and make sure it has the loudest voice of influence.

A circus can be entertaining. So can a NASCAR race.

You just never want them running concurrently.

Petty perturbed

NASCAR sponsorships continue to fluctuate moving into next season. The next to go: Smithfield Foods, which announced Tuesday that it is leaving Richard Petty Motorsports and moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018.

The move leaves Richard Petty without a driver or a sponsor, as it also announced that Aric Almirola, driver of the iconic No. 43, will not return. Insider speculation points to Almirola going to Stewart-Haas with Smithfield as a sponsor and RPM latching onto Bubba Wallace as a replacement.

RPM officials had hoped Smithfield would sign an extension to continue as a primary sponsor.

“Over the past few months, Smithfield had continually told me they wanted to be with us, and I recently shook hands on a deal to extend our relationship,” Petty said in a statement. “I come from a time when we did major deals with sponsors like STP on a handshake.

“I’m sad to see this is where we are now. This decision is very unexpected, and we are extremely disappointed in this late and abrupt change of direction.”

Nevertheless, Petty vowed to forge ahead in 2018.

“Losing a sponsor of this magnitude in September is a significant set-back to Richard Petty Motorsports, but Andy [Murstein] and I are committed to moving forward with the No. 43 team,” Petty said. “We’ve been around since 1949, and we’ll be around a lot longer.”

Homestead steady

Hurricane Irma will not impact the final race of the season in Homestead, Fla., despite some damage, track officials announced Monday in a statement:

“During the course of Hurricane Irma, Homestead-Miami Speedway sustained minor and cosmetic damage to non-essential parts of the speedway. None of this damage is expected to impact our ability to host Ford Championship Weekend, November 17-19.”

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