Three races are in the books for the 2010 season and each has proved that NASCAR has a lot of work to do. Potholes at Daytona, few fans in the stands in Fontana and malfunctioning caution lights in Las Vegas have taken away from what has been exciting action on the track. Throw in poor television coverage and back-to-back wins by Jimmie Johnson and fans are starting to change the channel.

With another track that struggles to fill the stands coming up next week, what will NASCAR do to keep the fans interested and tuning in?

The craziness of the 2010 season continued on Sunday when the caution lights malfunctioned not once, but twice during the Shelby American at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

After the field went back to green on Lap 54, the caution lights failed to turn off. Drivers were confused and NASCAR was forced to throw the yellow flag to get the situation under control. Roughly a hundred laps later the lights unexpectedly came on once again, this time under green flag conditions.

“I saw it come out the first time. Nobody said anything. Nobody was slowing down. Well, we’ll just keep going till somebody tells me to slow down,” runner-up Kevin Harvick said. “Second one they came on, spotter didn’t see the flag come out of the flag stand. The flagman turned backwards, ‘What’s going on?’ We knew they were having some issues.”

Two out of three weeks and NASCAR’s top division has experienced problems with the facilities they are racing at. The pothole at Daytona and the malfunctioning lights in Las Vegas illustrate that NASCAR must do more to ensure the venues they are racing at are up to the task. In each instance, there was no issue throughout the entire weekend, but when it mattered most the track failed in one way or another.

If NASCAR is to be considered among the top sports in the nation, these issues need to be addressed. This is like the hash mark on the 50-yard line falling in during the Super Bowl or the shot clock uncontrollably going off during an NBA game. These issues are not the sole responsibility of NASCAR, but also fall on the track owners and operators; and they need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

To make matters worse for NASCAR on Sunday, Jeff Gordon dominated the event. Leading seven times for 219 laps – all but 48 laps – Gordon seemed to have this thing in the bag. As the four-time champ put the majority of the field laps down, fans and media alike started turning on the Gold Medal hockey game between the United States and Canada.

As Canada scored the win in overtime and the viewers – hopefully – turned back to the action on FOX, they saw a heated battled between Gordon and teammate Jimmie Johnson. With less than 20 laps to go, Gordon on two tires and Johnson on four, the best action of the day was finally on the screen when FOX did the unthinkable. With Johnson peaking under the No. 24 Chevrolet in each corner, the coverage ducked away for a commercial, leaving fans on Twitter and other social networking sites livid.

@theNASCARdad: “… commerical with 20 laps to go and a fight for the lead? Are you guys #%&$ nuts?”

@justinsmith13: “did FOX seriously just take a commercial break in the tightest race for the lead of the day? wtf!”

Johnson dove under Gordon and made it stick to capture the lead for the final time of the day – all while fans were left in the dark. As FOX came back from its break, it showed a “live” clip of Johnson’s pass, but for all those following online it was clear this was anything but a live shot.

With NASCAR placing such an emphasis on the fans the last few years, thhave done little to hear the concerns of those watching the sport from the comfort of their couches. Declining television ratings have haunted NASCAR for years, yet little progress has been made to make the coverage any better – and fans are starting to get fed up.

Following the race, comments on the media-related racing blog The Daly Planet exploded about what fans saw as terrible coverage.

One fan named Sam wrote:

“No excuse at all to miss the winning pass..even if it is freakin’ Johnson making it.

Do we miss winning touchdown passes, basketball shots, goals, etc? No…only racing misses the important stuff to bring us a commercial we’ve already seen 44 times today.”

Another fan left an anonymous comment reading:

“I am absolutely at a loss for words. The Canada-U.S. hockey game just ends, they update the score for all the viewers that flipped over, there’s a thrilling battle for the lead with 20 or so to go… AND THEY GO TO COMMERCIAL AND MISS THE WINNING PASS!!!!?????

I don’t give a damn about commercial obligations. There shouldn’t be any full screen ads to begin with, but that not withstanding the producer is supposed to plan them out so they don’t interfere with a battle for the lead with 20 laps to go.”

David added:

“FOX was a mess all day. Lost, disjointed, confused, disinterested, you name it. Finally did a through the field, with 10 to go. Commercials were ill timed, no explanation of the caution light problem or how they solved it, missed THE pass for the lead, it was just a mess.”

As a journalist who covers the sport both from the track and from my home, I am well aware of the shortcomings of NASCAR broadcasts. The coverage shown to those at home often focuses on the leaders regardless of the quality of racing behind them, which can give the false sense that a race is "boring." Also, already in this short season, FOX has missed numerous caution flags while away at commercial break. For those trying to keep up with the action at home, this can be extremely frustrating.

Going back through my archives of VHS tapes, races from the early 1990s did a much better job of bringing the action seen at the track into the home of the race fan tuning in. Today, however, there seems to be such an emphasis on utilizing every new technology possible, fulfilling the needs of the corporate sponsors over those of the fans at home and camera work that shows limited racing throughout the entire event. In the process fans lose interest and NASCAR loses viewers.

The racing thus far in 2010 has been exciting and competitive – despite the fact Johnson has won the last two races. Yet the problems with the tracks and with FOX’s coverage have taken away from that competitiveness and left NASCAR fans once again upset and ready to change the channel. Now it is up to NASCAR to fix this issue and to do so fast.

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