Author: Phoenix

Phoenix is the snarky commentator for Start 'N' Park Blog on what is going on in NASCAR. For more snarkiness, be sure to follow him on Twitter @TightOff

Ratings Roundup: NASCAR’s First Quarter of the 2018 Season

To say that the 2017 NASCAR season was a disappointment in the TV ratings category would be an understatement. Despite the season getting off to a relatively decent start, with the 2017 Daytona 500 seeing a viewership increase over 2016, most of the season saw TV audience declines from 2016. In total, 26 of the 36 championship races in the Cup schedule saw a decline in TV viewership. To make matters worse, of the 10 races that saw viewership increases, five of them were up because the 2016 edition of the race was rain impacted (Texas 1, Pocono 1, Pocono 2, Bristol 2, Texas 2), and two more were races moved from cable to broadcast (Indianapolis, Talladega 2). In total, only three Cup championship races saw increases in viewership over 2016: the Daytona 500, Richmond 1 (moved to Sunday), and the Martinsville Playoff race. Suffice it to say, the 2017 season was not a kind one to NASCAR’s major broadcast partners, NBC and FOX. Continue reading “Ratings Roundup: NASCAR’s First Quarter of the 2018 Season”

Forza Motorsport 6 NASCAR Expansion Review

Following rumors of the impending release of a NASCAR expansion for Forza Motorsport 6, the DLC was released for $19.99. This expansion pack is not a replacement for the full-scale NASCAR games that are released by Dusenberry Martin Racing; however it is simply an expansion pack available to Xbox One owners that have Forza Motorsport 6. This review of the Expansion Pack will be tuned to the fact that this isn’t a full-scale $60 release but rather just a $20 expansion, that I happened to purchase for even less than the MSRP.

Right from the Start, You Notice Factual Problems
Right off the bat, you are immersed into the NASCAR world via a cutscene that lasts about 90 seconds. There’s a small tutorial before you are fully thrown into the game, but it’s in the introductory cutscene that you are first exposed to a very common theme with the expansion: minor details are incorrect. The opening cutscene features dialogue calling NASCAR “a sport as American as apple pie”- while it’s a minor complaint, NASCAR is not a sport (it’s a sanctioning body, much like the NFL, NBA, MLB, etc.), nor is apple pie American.

Following this cutscene, you are taken to Homestead-Miami Speedway, where you get your first taste of the new cars and tracks that are part of the NASCAR expansion. It is in this cutscene showcasing Homestead-Miami Speedway where you are conveniently left unaware of another aspect where this content is lacking. The developers claim that you get 24 cars, and sure, there are 24 cars that you can drive. However, this list of 24 cars includes a number of cars that are just alternative paint schemes, with there only being 16 different Sprint Cup cars available. The 16 drivers whose cars are featured in the expansion include: #1-Jamie McMurray, #2-Brad Keselowski, #4-Kevin Harvick, #5-Kasey Kahne, #10-Danica Patrick, #11-Denny Hamlin, #14-Tony Stewart, #18-Kyle Busch, #19-Carl Edwards, #20-Matt Kenseth, #22-Joey Logano, #24-Chase Elliott, #41-Kurt Busch, #42-Kyle Larson, #48-Jimmie Johnson, and #88-Dale Earnhardt Jr. The 8 other cars shown include second schemes for Keselowski, Harvick, Kahne, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Joey Logano, and a total of 3 different schemes for Carl Edwards’ #19 car. If your favorite driver isn’t from the Hendrick, Stewart-Haas, Ganassi, Gibbs, or Penske organizations, sorry, but they aren’t going to be in this game.

It’s at the end of the cutscene highlighting Homestead-Miami Speedway, right after the narrator says you’ll take over the #24 NAPA Chevrolet “driven in NASCAR by series champion Chase Elliott” (another inaccuracy!) that you finally are able to actually go racing in the NASCAR expansion- well over 5 minutes after you first load up everything. I would probably have been more forgiving about the introductory walkthrough if it hadn’t been full of inaccuracies, but I’m of the mindset that the basic things should really be what’s done correctly.

You get a 10-lap quick race at Homestead to get your feet wet with the car. The game takes your difficulty settings for this race, so depending on how you play you may either have some difficulty adjusting to the car or dominate the race. Either way, even on a high difficulty level, you should probably at least compete for the win. Oh, and don’t expect the AI to be intelligent; Forza’s AI is the game’s real weak point. The AI will take your line in the corner if you’re faster, and will be a pain sometimes. If you’ve played NASCAR 14, NASCAR Inside Line, or NASCAR The Game 2011, the AI in the Forza NASCAR expansion will feel right at home.

There’s A Good Amount of “Career Mode” Style Gameplay
Despite all of the factual inaccuracies, one area where the game excels is the amount of gameplay in the NASCAR World Tour. There are 9 different series to play through, and each one takes about an hour to complete from my experience, so Forza’s claim of 10 hours of new campaign gameplay is pretty accurate. Add in the time you’ll spend trying to race NASCAR vehicles with all the other cars in the game and you can really sink many hours into just the expansion.

The gameplay in this campaign is probably one of the strong suits. The introduction of “Quick Stops”, where you have to visit pit road a certain number of times in a race, definitely highlights the strategy aspect of races. There are a lot of tracks to race on and you’ll race at a large range of tracks from Daytona’s oval, to Mount Panorama in Australia, to a track set in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland, to tracks in South America. You’ll get to compete against IndyCars at Indianapolis, GT cars at tracks in Europe, V8 Supercars at Mount Panorama, and can learn how these cars compare to NASCAR racecars. These multi-class races can be a lot of fun, especially when you run the Indianapolis Cup/IndyCar combo and in 7-8 laps are not only fighting other NASCAR cars for the win, but also having to dodge IndyCar racers that are just that much faster than you. There’s a controlled chaos to everything that makes the races somehow more enjoyable, despite the fact that you’re racing with a nearly incompetent AI.

If there’s any real complaint to make about the gameplay, it’s that the NASCAR Sprint Cup tracks in the game are limited to Daytona, Homestead, Indianapolis, Watkins Glen, and Sonoma. Homestead is the only new oval track, so if you want your NASCAR oval fix, you’re probably looking at the wrong game unless you really like Daytona, Homestead, or Indianapolis.

I would love to review online gameplay, but after trying twice, I just gave up and went back to the campaign. The experience wasn’t terrible the first time, but I found the online players I was paired with to be on par with the AI in their intelligence level, as there was a giant pileup going into the first turn of the Rio de Janiero track. The second time I tried, I couldn’t actually connect to any race lobbies, and after trying to host a race myself, I gave up after 5 minutes of not getting enough players to start a race. Be prepared, when you do race online, to need a really good setup and upgraded car in order to compete online. One thing I noticed the race at the Rio de Janiero track was that many of the cars I raced against were heavily upgraded and tuned. Be prepared for disappointment racing online if you aren’t going to spend loads of time to learn how to set the cars up for certain tracks.

The Final Verdict
The good thing about the Forza Motorsport 6 NASCAR Expansion? Even when accounting for all of the minor details that are wrong, the game is still much better than any other full-fledged NASCAR game that has been released in recent years. For $20 you’re still getting something that’s better than the $60 NASCAR games released in recent years- you just don’t have a full field of cars to choose from. The graphics are better than recent NASCAR games and the gameplay is better. It’s not fair to dock NASCAR games for not allowing you to compete head-to-head with V8 Supercars, GT cars, IndyCars or the like, but if you’re someone that wants to give that a go, Forza Motorsport 6’s NASCAR expansion lets you have at it.

There are many worse ways that you could part with your $20 than to buy the NASCAR expansion. Just don’t go in expecting to have a perfect game. Hopefully, updates to fix some of the issues will be incorporated in the near future.

No, Audi Isn’t Joining NASCAR

It seems like there are a lot of things that are really predictable about NASCAR (and the NASCAR media) anymore. When the Cup Series takes to Sonoma in June or Watkins Glen in August, you prepare for the newest rehash of the same “Should the Chase have a road course?”, “Road Course Ringers Are Dead!” and the like from pretty much every news outlet that covers NASCAR.

With this week’s off week for NASCAR courtesy of the Easter holiday, we knew that some stories would come out of the woodwork as sites start getting desperate to attract readers that are looking for any NASCAR coverage this weekend. And without fail this week, we got one, but only after Brian France kind of egged things on a bit. This week’s out-of-the-woodwork story is that not only is there supposedly one new auto manufacturer that is interested in joining NASCAR, there are multiple, and one of them is Audi.

One of the media members to pick up the “Audi to NASCAR” rumor was Matt Dillner, which propelled many sites to pick up the rumor and run with it- all without any actual evidence beyond Dillner’s tweet and Brian France’s words on a SiriusXM interview.

To start, let me just say that this “Audi to NASCAR “ rumor isn’t exactly new. Audi or at least some part of the Volkswagen Group, has been linked to joining NASCAR for years- albeit without much evidence to ever support the idea. I can recall this rumor cropping up around the time that Toyota joined Cup, and that isn’t the earliest this rumor can be traced to- when Toyota was rumored to be joining the national NASCAR Series in the early 2000s, a rumor of VW joining with them was floated. It really begs the question: what’s special about having heard this rumor “for 2 years” when it dates back almost 15 years? But I digress. The “VW to NASCAR” rumor cropped up again when Dodge left NASCAR, because many people were optimistic that we would maintain the status quo of having 4 manufacturers, and none of the VW brands have joined NASCAR in the 4 years since Dodge left… or the 15 or so years that this rumor can be traced back. Now, here we are in the spring of 2016 and the rumor is back again.

What would be stopping Audi from joining NASCAR? The biggest roadblock would be the entire Volkswagen Group’s current emissions scandal, in which VW is accused of installing “defeat devices” in their diesel-powered cars to pass emissions tests while being tested, but once taken out of this test mode, they pollute many times higher than is allowed.

While this only covers around half a million passenger vehicles sold in the US, VW has admitted that the number of cars with these devices could be as high as 11 million worldwide for nitric oxide emissions and an additional 800,000 vehicles in Europe for carbon dioxide emissions. The scandal led to investigations by the German government, the European Union, China, a potential buyback of about 115,000 affected vehicles, and has set the company up for an estimated $18 billion in fines alone (though is number is outdated and could actually be much higher).

The question becomes why would VW join NASCAR with their Audi brand, when they’re facing billions of dollars in expenses relating to this scandal? It simply does not make any sense. The costs to compete in NASCAR are huge- Toyota’s entry to just the Truck Series was rumored to cost over $100 million, with their entry into Cup in 2017 possibly costing as much as an additional quarter of a billion (that’s $250 million) just to make it to Daytona in February 2017. Audi would be able to skip the Truck Series investments, but they have to either build teams up in-house or convince teams to switch from their current manufacturers, at a cost of several million dollars a year per car.

It takes years to develop the car, engine, and all of the parts and pieces needed to enter NASCAR. It took Toyota 3 years to jump from Trucks to Cup, and in 2017 it was a disaster for the manufacturer. Even if things were announced tomorrow for Audi to join NASCAR, they wouldn’t field a Cup team until probably 2019 or 2020 at the earliest. By then, the company will likely either be in the final stages of settling any lawsuits relating to this emissions scandal, or will have reached their settlements and begun paying any fines that come with their settlements. The only good news is that the 2019-2020 time frame is around when NASCAR is expected to have their next generation racecar developed, so it would be a good time to join since all of the manufacturers would likely have a new car design to deal with.

The big question still remains: Why would Audi even want to join NASCAR? The entire VW group is enjoying their success in the World Endurance Championship, IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and other series with their Audi, Porsche, and multitude of other brands. The investment costs to go run NASCAR don’t jive with what they would get in return. Audi would have to avoid taking the route Toyota did in joining Cup, and would have to attract a championship-caliber team from the start to avoid the disastrous results that Toyota had their first season. Although you can’t ever predict some of these wild manufacturer switches (did anyone see Stewart-Haas Racing switching to Ford coming?), who would Audi target? Hendrick is ingrained with Chevy. JGR is ingrained with Toyota. Ford has the new Penske/Stewart-Haas/Roush 3 team partnership. Penske would be the only championship-caliber team that could probably be convinced to switch, but they’re happy at Ford and will probably be in the middle of a new long-term deal with the manufacturer around the time this rumor would play out.

Bottom line, while NASCAR might be able to use a fourth manufacturer in Cup to make things a bit more competitive top-to-bottom, don’t expect it to come from the Volkswagen Auto Group, especially in light of all of the problems that the entire company faces, and don’t expect it to happen any time soon.

5 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Be Excited About the 2016 NASCAR Season

We’re just a few days away from the return of NASCAR racing for another season. There’s a lot to be excited about, and with good reason. There’s finally a rookie class that looks like it’ll produce a race-winning rookie driver for the first time since 2009. Picking an organization as the “best” team going into the season is problematic- while the usual suspects are almost all good choices for a preseason pick to be the Champion, picking one team that as a whole is the top dog right now is simply not easy.

While all of that is true, and on the one hand you can be excited for the 2016 NASCAR season, here are several reasons why you probably need to scale back that excitement.

Remember the new aero package to reduce downforce, the digital dashboard, and all those other improvements to the cars?

Yeah, probably not. And it’s forgivable if you’ve forgotten all of those changes to the cars, as they haven’t exactly been the talking point of the offseason (hi there, charter franchise system). But, the aero package being run in most races in 2016 was hyped up following Kentucky last year, and will hopefully bring about better racing in 2016.

However, we’ve heard that story before, and it’s rarely ever panned out. The issue isn’t that the setup isn’t conducive to better racing: it’s that the engineers employed by the teams are finding more and more ways to counter any changes that NASCAR makes in order to find that extra millisecond of speed in the cars. While there certainly is a chance that the racing will be better in 2016 (no more 10+ second leads on the intermediate tracks), if a team hits their setup and has an advantage, they’re still going to pull away from the pack.

The 2016 Olympics Impact the TV Schedule

Okay, so this probably should not be a concern, except it is. NASCAR fans have a habit of not being able to find the channel that the race is on, despite the entire schedule being posted on hundreds of websites. After so many complained about not being able to find a race on FOX, FS1, NBC, or NBCSN, with NBC covering the 2016 Olympics over the summer, the Watkins Glen Cup race as well as the Xfinity Series races at Mid-Ohio and Bristol will be moved to the USA Network, while the Xfinity Series race at Watkins Glen will air on CNBC.

While USA is available in more households than NBCSN as of November 2015, no one thinks of the channel as being where NASCAR will be found. Add in that these races were some of the lowest-viewed races in 2015, it’s safe to say right now that the ratings will be absolutely dreadful in 2016.

Bottom line, prepare for NASCAR fans to be complaining incessantly during those race weekends when suddenly NBCSN isn’t showing those races and they can’t find the channel that they’re on. The Olympics are a huge event, and I completely understand the move of NASCAR events to a channel that won’t be showing something related to the Olympics. That won’t stop NASCAR fans from being outraged. Plus, having to remember a different channel for one race is just annoying.

The TV Coverage Is Still Lacking… And Probably Won’t Be Getting (Much) Better in 2016

Warning: This is the long entry in the list.

This is one of those points that you will either agree wholeheartedly with or believe that I am absolutely wrong about. However, the TV coverage last year was absolutely awful, both on Fox and NBC. Fox’s strategy of having The Three Stooges in the commentary booth for their Cup events continued in 2015, as Darrell Waltrip, Larry MacReynolds, and Mike Joy polluted the airwaves through Fox’s 16 Cup races. On the bright side, Jeff Gordon is joining the booth for 2016 as Larry MacReynolds’ replacement, which should hopefully improve the commentary from the booth. The big concern though is that instead of improving the quality of the product being produced by Fox, Gordon will act just like Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip.

Their Xfinity Series coverage was made slightly more tolerable than Cup in 2015 by bringing in current Cup Series drivers to provide guest commentary. Having the insight of Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski added at least a new dimension to the broadcasts, though admittedly of the special guest commentators, Danica Patrick was certainly the weakest of the group. Seeing this continue in 2016 is one of the few good things about Fox’s television coverage.

Truck Series coverage is still a disaster in waiting. With a booth of Vince Welch, Phil Parsons, and Michael Waltrip, it’s almost as if Fox Sports has decided to punish NASCAR fans that tune in to the Truck races. The coverage was already bad in 2015, but this trio has absolutely no redeeming qualities.

While I clearly give Fox some flak for their coverage, NBC isn’t innocent. The booth for NBC’s Cup events isn’t nearly as good as it was hyped up to be. It wasn’t necessarily bad. It was just… mediocre. Hopefully year two of NBC’s Cup coverage means that the trio has more time to mesh together and for each member to find their role.

For Xfinity, NBC’s coverage is… dismal. The rotating cast of characters often led to disappointment. Ralph Sheheen, Dale Jarrett, Leigh Diffey, Frank Stoddard, and Ray Evernham rotating in for the Cup commentators simply made things feel disjointed more often than not. Whenever NBC’s “B” team (or “C” team, as it sometimes felt) was calling a standalone Xfinity race, there just wasn’t any excitement; instead of engaging the viewer I sometimes felt like NBC was actively working to drive away viewers. In 2016, I expect this cast to rotate just as much, if not more, for the standalone races.

I’m not even going to really get into the whole “let’s move stuff to FS2 or CNBC or whatnot”. Neither network is innocent at this, and the trend of moving things off a main channel will continue as TV ratings continue their freefall. Get used to either finding these more obscure networks or simply doing without the coverage if you don’t get the channel.

NASCAR Has Now Locked Most Tracks Into 5-Year Agreements

Yep, if you’re one of those people that want to see new tracks added to the Cup schedule… good luck. All of the Cup tracks are now locked into sanctioning agreements with NASCAR through the 2020 season. So no, Iowa isn’t getting a Cup date any time soon, nor is NASCAR going to add more road courses to the Cup schedule (and I’m *definitely* looking forward to that debate cropping up during the Sonoma and Watkins Glen weekends like it always does).

Not that ISC or SMI were ever in much danger of losing a race date, but now it’s basically guaranteed until 2020 unless a track goes bankrupt that no one is losing a date. Get used to the Cup schedule you saw in 2015 because, aside from minor changes due to events like Easter, that schedule is here to stay through 2020. That means two Cup races at Pocono, two races at Texas, two races at New Hampshire, two races at Kansas, zero races at Iowa, pretty much the same Chase schedule, and Homestead holding the season finale for the next five seasons.

So even if these tracks put on absolute snorefests of races this season, they’re even less likely to get booted off the schedule than before

There Are Still Rules That NASCAR Has Not Yet Figured Out

Daytona 500 qualifying is on Sunday. NASCAR is expected to announce their qualifying format for the four “open” spots in Cup for the teams that do not have a charter on Thursday. There’s still no decision on how NASCAR will alter the green-white-checkered finish rule for plate races, how the Can-Am Duel 150 races will determine the 4 “open” spots in the 40 car field, how the four spots will be field if qualifying is canceled, whether there will be a Champion’s Provisional (the belief is that no, there won’t be), and a plethora of other rules. Heck, with the drop to 40 cars in the field now for a Cup race, there’s the expectation that NASCAR will adjust the current point system. Yep, we’re under two weeks to the season’s first race and we have no idea how the points are going to work this year.

And the best part? NASCAR’s probably going to change some stuff around just because they can in the middle of the season. There’s a reason that the joke of NASCAR’s rulebook being written in pencil is a real joke: sometimes, it feels like that is actually true.

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