The Loudon race was one of the best NASCAR events we’ve seen in a long time. It had everything except a fight in turn 3, as drivers battled, shoved, and gambled from start to finish. On the last lap, the veteran champion who looked to be cruising to a win ran out of gas, a likable underdog driver took the checkered flag, and NASCAR at least waited until Wednesday to suck the joy out of it. The four-time, almost automatic champion’s hopes for a fifth took a hit with a disappointing 25th-place finish. Heck, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. even had a good day.
Unfortunately for NASCAR, not very many people saw it.
The Loudon race’s ratings were almost a full point lower than the same event last season, dropping from a 3.2 to a 2.3 – a loss of 28 percent. That’s close to being the kind of disparity that happens when a race is rained out and takes place on Monday instead; in fact, the overnight 2.1 rating actually matched two rain-delayed NASCAR races from this season on FOX (Martinsville and Texas). In the interest of not piling on, I’m not going to say how many lost viewers that is. But it’s a lot.
John Daly at the Daly Planet often speaks of the television coverage as the culprit, a common reason given for the sport’s decline. He compared it to the NFL, which doesn’t cut to commercials in the middle of the action.
Daly has a point, but excessive advertising on televised NASCAR events is not new. Fans have been complaining about endless green flag commercial breaks for as long as I can remember. They have good reason to; sometimes it’s brutal. But most fans understand that sometimes it’s inevitable in auto racing; after all, there isn’t an opportunity for television time outs as in other sports. The current situation certainly hasn’t helped NASCAR’s cause, and their resistance to moving to a side-by-side format — which always gets rave reviews when TNT does it once a year — is baffling. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine that they haven’t been hearing about that from the Fan Council. But it isn’t the only reason ratings are precipitously falling…
What has happened is that NASCAR continues to push a playoff system that few fans like and that has not attracted any new ones. Do you know anyone who used to think the sport was just hillbillies going in circles until the Chase came along? To say it doesn’t work wouldn’t even be accurate anymore. The Chase and its implications endlessly loom over NASCAR, reminding the sport’s fans that parity and ratings matter more than merit. Fans of a driver having a great season know now that it means nothing, while fans of a driver having a mediocre season don’t get any joy from a points reset like they would for a midseason comeback.
Read comments from the multitudes of disenchanted, displaced ex-NASCAR fans and the list of complaints is long, but the Big Points Giveaway is very often included. People know it’s contrived. People know it’s an attempt to force excitement. They remain unfooled. Fans said as much in 2003, before it even started, and they were ignored.
I’ve said it many times in these pages, but shunning your core base in the effort to excite the ADD crowd is poor business, and with the possible exception of the egress of the Labor Day race, NASCAR never made a bigger statement that its core fans didn’t matter than with the introduction of this current postseason format.
The ADD crowd has moved on— and who would expect it not to? Don’t ADD people, by definition, not stay interested for very long? And the core is still annoyed.
When NASCAR expanded the Chase to 12 drivers, it was a patently obvious measure to ensure that the most popular ones — many of whom had missed the 10-driver Chase in its first few years — would be included in a playoff where others are forgotten unless they win. If you recall, the initial Chase allowed for anyone within 400 points of the leader after 26 races to be eligible for the postseason. To come up with that number, NASCAR had to have recognized that there needed to be a realistic deficit that just couldn’t be overcome in ten races. After Junior and Jeff Gordon missed Chases and they took a ratings hit, officials no longer cared about what was realistic. Sure, a driver can make up 11 spots in ten races. Let’s move on.
Subconsciously or not, NASCAR probably thought that an expanded Chase format would keep Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and other fan favorites in the playoffs long enough to at least keep interest high for a few more races. What they probably didn’t consider was what if the fan favorites still didn’t make the Chase… as has been the case with the sport’s Ratings Superhero in three of the last four years. Did anyone believe that would happen when he signed on with Hendrick Motorsports? If you can make the Chase with just four top 5s these days, as Clint Bowyer did this year, you can’t be running too well if you don’t make it.
It’s very possible that the Chase, especially this year, could produce a Homestead race with as many as six drivers still eligible to win a title. That is, after all, what the Big Points Giveaway was designed to do. Great for Denny Hamlin fans, but disproportionately lousy for Kevin Harvick fans, who have watched their driver consistently race smart and hard to be the best driver out there for six months, only to have his lead wiped out not by other drivers stepping up but by a sanctioning body looking for ratings equalizing the top 12. Are Kevin Harvick fans going to appreciate the “excitement” created this year?
Even if there are six drivers with a chance to win a title at Homestead, do you think fans might prefer that there were three who had all earned it? That maybe the races leading up to it might provide a little more excitement setting the stage? We’ll never know. The Chase killed that possibility.
We may get exciting races towards the finish, but some drivers are going to have to points race. Is Matt Kenseth going to be taking risks now? How about Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart? If any of those drivers fall victim to another DNF, they will be in a big enough hole that they won’t be able to afford another bad finish. It’s all part of the box they’re painted in, as by definition a 10-race sprint puts limits on the risks drivers can take. As more of them use up their “mulligan” (I know that expression isn’t correct – a better one would be “margin of error”, but it’s the standard so I’m going with it) it’s likely that they’ll be keeping their distance from other drivers. Johnson and Stewart took risks last Sunday, and it made for exciting racing, but in the end they got burned. And I’m sure either of them would rather win a boring title.
Carl Edwards told the media that NASCAR would be wise to simply keep the Chase as it is, rather than muck with it some more changes as they have been openly discussing. He’s right in the sense that an adjustment to the Chase would be tantamount to an admission that it hadn’t worked as intended. But keeping the Chase as it is doesn’t seem to bode well, either. In the format’s seventh season, at a point where it should be at least semi-sanctified, and with commentators everywhere touting its renewed promise this time around, the opening event went up against the NFL’s regular season and got creamed.
NASCAR’s playoff has put the sport in a serious bind. To get rid of it now would also be to admit its unpopularity, and there’s more than just Brian France’s ego at stake. If the sport went back to a 36-race season, the first time a driver won the title before the last race, some would be yearning for a Chase format again.
But maybe NASCAR should just let ‘em yearn, because phony points resets aren’t the answer. That doesn’t need to be made more obvious now.
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