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ANDERS: NASCAR swimming upstream against football

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Jordan Anders

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By JORDAN ANDERS
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Well, here we are.

Tonight’s race at Richmond closes the book on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season, which — to me, at least — seems to have flown by.

The field of 16 drivers for NASCAR’s 10-race playoffs will be set after one final 400-mile tilt at the 3/4-mile short track in Virginia. There are plenty of questions that will be answered, and plenty more that will be set up for the 10 weeks ahead.

The question is, how many people will be watching?

This weekend features a slate of college football games as stacked as any in recent memory, with four games that pit ranked teams against each other. All four of those games — Auburn at Clemson, Oklahoma at Ohio State, Georgia at Notre Dame, Stanford at USC — kick off between 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., right in the time slot of the NASCAR race.

Couple that with the fact the sports world is abuzz with the excitement of Week 1 of the NFL season, and NASCAR’s regular-season finale ranks a distant third (if that) on the docket this weekend among casual sports fans.

As NASCAR grew throughout the 1990s and crammed more race weekends into what was already one of the longest seasons in professional sports, it left itself little wiggle room when it comes to the fall. I’ve never quite understood why a sport that competes almost exclusively on the same day as the most popular sport in America would want to have its championship battle lost in the shuffle once most of the country turns its eyes to the gridiron.

IndyCar’s season, which runs half the length of NASCAR’s at 17 races, ends next Sunday at Sonoma, meaning just one race of its season goes head-to-head with football. For all the things wrong with IndyCar, the fact it gets out of the way early in September is one thing it does right.

The Cup Series finale at Homestead is Nov. 19, during Week 11 of the NFL season.

By that point, football season is half over and division races will be in full swing. There’s virtually no way for NASCAR to make a dent in that audience.

NASCAR season starts about as early as it possibly can, with the opening weekend of Speedweeks at Daytona scheduled for the first weekend after the Super Bowl in February 2018. There’s practically no way to pare itself back to where the sport could get out of the way of football completely without shedding some races from the schedule, and we all know that won’t happen.

But steps like running a couple of races on weeknights in the summer, which I’ve advocated for in this column before, would help move the end of the season back closer to the end of November and would at least be a start.

This is the final year of the regular-season finale being at Richmond, where it has been since the playoffs/Chase/whatever you want to call it was implemented in 2004. Next year, NASCAR is snowing itself under even further by moving the 26th race of the year to Indianapolis, where it will be run on a Sunday afternoon.

The fact that there’s no race to get in on points doesn’t help. The three drivers currently in position to make it on points are essentially locked in as long as someone outside the top 16 doesn’t win tonight, but there’s always that chance someone could come from out of nowhere to win and race their way in, a la Jeremy Mayfield in the Chase’s first season.

Here’s hoping there is a decent audience to see it among the group of colossal matchups in college football.

PREDICTION

Matt Kenseth, Chase Elliott and Jamie McMurray are in position to point their way in assuming someone below them in points doesn’t win. I don’t think that will happen. Richmond has lent itself to first-time winners in the past, with Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart as examples, and I think another one joins that group tonight.

PICK: Chase Elliott.

Contact Jordan Anders at janders@reflector.com, 252-329-9594 or follow @ReflectorJordan on Twitter.

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