Varied start times lead to confusion

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Before Kyle Busch sets his alarm clock Saturday night, he will check a copy of the schedule to see what time the race starts Sunday at Pocono Raceway.

Like everyone else in the sport, he's just as confused why NASCAR has so many different starting times that he has to keep a printout of the weekly schedule.

Sunday's Pennsylvania 500 will start at 2 p.m. That time has been popular for most of NASCAR's past, especially since the modern era that started in 1972.

This year there are 12 different starting times. Half still start at 2; the rest range from 1 to 8:30 p.m. Keeping up with all the times has led to a lot of confusion.

"It's very easy to recognize what time NFL games start -- it's 1 o'clock and 4 o'clock," Busch said. "We know that you look down the list of the 1 o'clock games; you look down the list of the 4 o'clock games and find out who you want to watch.

"The NASCAR races you always have to find the TV program or you have to find something you can look at to find out what time the races are going to start, or you're all confused."

Tracks generally set the starting time, although most insist they do it with some assistance from television networks and NASCAR. For years television took most of the blame for the different starting times, but one network official said she'd like to see all starts be more standard.

"With ratings being down, there's lots of factors that are contributing to that," said Julie Sobieski, ESPN vice president, programming and acquisitions. "Can consistent start times make a difference? Certainly that's possible. We'd be supportive of consistent start times with ESPN and we know that's also been a priority for NASCAR to try and look at. So if it's good for the fans, and we think it's going to benefit ratings, then certainly we're on board with that concept.

"It's ultimately NASCAR's call when it comes to the schedule of their races, and certainly the tracks as well."

The Chase for the Championship was created to build excitement for the last 10 races of the year. The Chase, however, also starts at the beginning of the college and NFL seasons. Instead of starting races before kickoff, nine of 10 races during the playoffs start after football games start.

There's also been a push to night races. Eleven of 38 races -- 36 regular season events and two all-star races -- start at 7 p.m. or later. But night races are ratings disasters. Four of the five lowest-rated races on Fox this year were night races.

Like his brother, Kurt Busch believes the confusion around starting times has contributed to declining attendance and television ratings. The NFL is the clear leader in sports ratings, and it's done it with consistent starting times. If it's good for professional football, it should be good for racing, too, he said.

"If we had a consistent time for our day races and a consistent time for our night races, that would be better for our fans, and I think that that would create more viewership, knowing that they knew when to find the race," Kurt Busch said.

Reach Don Coble at don.coble@morris.com.


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