The Frontstretch: Did You Notice?... What's New Is Old, Ratings Mean Money And NASCAR Quick Hits by Thomas Bowles -- Tuesday June 25, 2013

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Did You Notice?… The more things change, the more they stay the same? 16 races in, the jury’s out on NASCAR’s Gen-6 chassis. The common school of thought is over the long-term, it’ll be a substantial improvement over the Car of Tomorrow, more competitive on intermediates and producing exciting, entertaining races.

The hope that the new Gen 6 car would put some new faces up front seems to fade as drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Greg Biffle are still the ones up front every week.

But the new chassis was also designed with a better degree of parity in mind. How much has the balance of power in NASCAR changed? As we approach the season’s halfway point, in a year where increased fan interest at the start has dimmed, the answer I’ve discovered is “not much.” Direct, year-to-year comparisons show us the same drivers are up front, competing for the same Chase positions and few, if any new faces have shown up to challenge them.

Here’s the race winner list through 16 races this season:

Joe Gibbs Racing – 5 (Matt Kenseth 3, Kyle Busch 2)
Hendrick Motorsports – 4 (Jimmie Johnson 3, Kasey Kahne 1)
Roush Fenway Racing – 2 (Greg Biffle 1, Carl Edwards 1)
Richard Childress Racing – 2 (Kevin Harvick 2)
Michael Waltrip Racing – 1 (Martin Truex, Jr. 1)
Stewart-Haas Racing – 1 (Tony Stewart 1)
Front Row Motorsports – 1 (David Ragan 1)

Total Race Winners: 7 Car Owners, 10 Drivers

Now, let’s compare those totals to 2012:

(Through 16 Races)
Hendrick Motorsports – 4 (Jimmie Johnson 2, Kasey Kahne 1, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 1)
Joe Gibbs Racing – 4 (Denny Hamlin 2, Kyle Busch 1, Joey Logano 1)
Stewart-Haas Racing – 3 (Tony Stewart 2, Ryan Newman 1)
Penske Racing – 2 (Brad Keselowski 2)
Roush Fenway Racing – 2 (Greg Biffle 1, Matt Kenseth 1)
Michael Waltrip Racing – 1 (Clint Bowyer 1)

Total Race Winners: 6 Car Owners, 12 Drivers

As you can see, the names on the list are remarkably similar, with the exception of Front Row Motorsports and David Ragan. But most agree restrictor plate racing, no matter what type of car you drive, is this weird Russian Roulette anomaly that doesn’t really matter.

So how about NASCAR’s postseason? How do the Chase bids shake out? Let’s compare this season to last:

2013 – Chase Bids Through 16 Races
Hendrick Motorsports – 3 (Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne)
Joe Gibbs Racing – 2 (Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth)
Michael Waltrip Racing – 2 (Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex, Jr.)
Roush Fenway Racing – 2 (Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards)
Richard Childress Racing – 1 (Kevin Harvick)
Penske Racing – 1 (Brad Keselowski)
Stewart-Haas Racing – 1 (Tony Stewart)

2012 – Chase Bids Through 16 Races
Hendrick Motorsports – 2 (Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson)
Joe Gibbs Racing – 2 (Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch)
Stewart-Haas Racing – 2 (Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman)
Michael Waltrip Racing – 2 (Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex, Jr.)
Roush Fenway Racing – 2 (Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle)
Richard Childress Racing – 1 (Kevin Harvick)
Penske Racing – 1 (Brad Keselowski)

Notice what’s the same? All seven car owners from last year, through 16 races are in the Chase this year. In most cases, it’s with the exact same number of drivers. The only differences right now between last year and this one are Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards, respectively, bumping out the injured Denny Hamlin and free-agent-to-be Ryan Newman (who wouldn’t wind up making last year’s postseason, anyway).

This phenomenon, in my mind is equivalent to the same 12 NFL teams making the playoffs every year, an anomaly which would have caused panic down in their main offices. The reason football has grown so much is parity; a team 4-12 one year could be 12-4 and challenging for the Super Bowl the next. Right now, the sport’s regular season, even with the introduction of the Gen-6 car has led to the same names, teams, and crew members mastering the chassis. That’s not going to generate any new interest when it’s the same people seen running up front for the past six, seven, eight years.

This car was supposed to kickstart an evolution. But to do so, other factions of the sport have to evolve and it just hasn’t happened.

Did You Notice?… TNT is suffering major ratings declines over NASCAR’s summer stretch? Based on year-to-year comparisons, all three events they’ve covered have “gone downhill,” including a nine percent drop in the ratings for Sunday’s Sonoma event (according to both Jayski and Sports Media Watch).

TNT might know drama, but ratings say fans don’t think they know NASCAR.

To me, though, the bigger concern is the amount by which the total viewership (number of people watching – not the Nielsen number) has dropped off. Sunday brought in an audience of 4.7 million, a sizable amount that still translated to the third-most watched event on cable. (Trailing only the guy who walked across the Grand Canyon on a wire; um, I think that’s understandable). The problem is when you compare those numbers to FOX, which televised the sport’s first 13 races, it’s like NASCAR stepped down to the minor leagues. Consider the least-watched FOX points-paying race at Darlington still had 1.2 million more people watching. And that was on a Saturday night!

Was it always this way? Yes… but never this bad. It’s a sign fans were disinterested for a large portion of the season, including the tail end of the FOX schedule but, as creatures of habit kept tuning in to the same network every week. Once the coverage switched, the excuse was there to not “find” the new channel, turn on the grill and do something else fun with their summer instead.

It’s an interesting conundrum for TNT, faced with the weakest numbers and a production crew that is consistently behind the eight ball each season due to their coverage of the more popular NBA Conference Finals. They’re sitting at the negotiating table, looking for more races but will their strategy – and the money they’re willing to pay – change if this trend keeps going? As it is, Daytona’s “Wide Open” coverage, mostly commercial free, has been canceled, a surprise considering its popularity. Wouldn’t a network looking to expand its presence in the sport find any way possible to keep that going? Or enhance its marketing?

These numbers could very well cause TNT to lowball their offer, walking away from the bargaining table and causing one of two things. One: NBC swoops in, pays a truckload of money and the sport’s financial coffers are not affected. Two: no one does, meaning these last three Nielsen numbers may cost the sport millions with the 2015-22 television package.

Did You Notice?… Quick hits on a slow summer news week…

- Now that Bobby Labonte’s consecutive starts streak is over at 704 races, the next question is will JTG Daugherty simply pull the plug? Saying AJ Allmendinger couldn’t “properly evaluate” the team’s car at Michigan smelled like stale fish. Yeah, there were some mechanical issues but there’s no denying he ran 19th, tying the best run this car has had outside of a restrictor plate track in 2013. That’s a result you can’t ignore; and now, there’s no “need” to keep Labonte driving as he’s not pursuing some sort of record.

Certainly, Labonte hasn’t done himself any favors, crashing out at Michigan in James Finch’s No. 51 before his team let him down with a bizarre, blown engine at Sonoma that left him in the garage, dead last. My feeling is this job is Allmendinger’s to lose, and once James Finch’s team closes, supposedly after the Brickyard 400, late summer will be the time we’ll see a driver change.

- Who’s got the best average finish at Kentucky among active Sprint Cup drivers? Why, that would be Brad Keselowski’s 4.0. And did I mention he’s the defending champion? There’s no better time for this car and team to wake up than right here, right now. With so many drivers circling around like vultures, with a win to their credit it’s so important this team cashes in on one before the pressure ramps up. Do you see them winning Daytona, Loudon, Indianapolis, or Pocono these next four races? No, I really don’t either. And you don’t want to hit August, firmly on the Chase bubble and have those stories of “Are you even going to make the postseason?” start printing out.

- It’s not the fact Marcos Ambrose finished seventh that has me thinking he’s on his way out for 2014. It’s the fact he led only one lap, in any race this season prior to Sunday. If the No. 9 team can’t be competitive at the road courses, their driver’s bread and butter, how are they going to mesh anywhere else? I’m thinking a guy who could be a superstar back in Australia is beginning to get fed up with the whole NASCAR experiment.

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Bad Wolf
06/26/2013 02:23 AM
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Did you notice that the Go Daddy car has won 3 times in Indy Car this year with James Hinchcliffe at the wheel?

sal
06/26/2013 06:53 AM
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One of the problems for TNT might be that, with the exception of Sonoma, the races they have to cover are not known for offering the most compelling races of the year. I always wondered why Nascar offers such lackluster tracks during the summer months when most fans take vacation time.

Sue Rarick
06/26/2013 07:22 AM
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Although they have done sillier things, I see no reason why NBC would get involved with Nascar. Week in and week out the Indy cars have been the best race on TV. NBC got the INDY series on the cheap and if they put in half the PR work Nascar does they will eventually see a much bigger profit.

Dave N
06/26/2013 07:51 AM
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Could the ratings decline be due to the fact that the races are now on a cable network, TNT, as opposed to an over-the-air network, FOX? I refuse to pay for cable TV, so I don’t get TNT in my house. Surely I’m not the only NASCAR fan without cable, right? (Side note: there are ways to watch the races without cable TV, so I don’t necessarily miss the races).

jerseygirl
06/26/2013 09:00 AM
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As you say, I don’t see much difference in the racing (except for Fontana) than what was had with the COT. Quite honestly, the racing isn’t interesting enough to make me stop what I’m doing for the entire time AND the TV coverage in general is poor. I didn’t watch much of Fox’s coverage since I have no interest in the Waltrip Brothers show, the tracks where TNT has the coverage (except for the road course) simply don’t interest me that much since they are usually parades and ESPN will take over and bang the drum about the chase continually rather than actually cover the race they are broadcasting and that holds no excitement for me.

I follow the races using raceview, twitter and the radio feed. I can find out what is really going on, I’m not nearly as annoyed as when I try and follow the race on TV in between the inane commentary, bad camera work and commercials. It’s supposed to be fun & enjoyable for me to watch a race but it hasn’t been for several yrs now, so I have opted out.

NASCAR has produced a boring product along with a poor method of presentation by its TV partners.

If NASCAR wanted to do something to help the fans (which I doubt), they’d make sure when they renew the TV contracts that there are provisions for covering the entire field and the race, rather than the way it is done now.

I’m sure that TNT couldn’t get sponsorship for the Daytona coverage and bailed on it, just like NASCAR dropped the Pit Crew challenge. It’s all about the dollars – all of the fans know this.

JP
06/26/2013 09:14 AM
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How much is TNT really different when there’s still good ‘old Larry Mac with his Hendrick/48 love and DW yelling “boogity”?

And the rest of the crew are like amateurs new to nascar. Is there really no one better to get? Is this IT?

And what’s up with that STUPID lap counter?

Steve
06/26/2013 10:19 AM
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I have to agree with most posters. Take a cable channel, frustrated fans, poor racing and the crappiest part of the schedule to cover and you have a recipe for poor ratings.

Jersey girl, you hit the nail on the head describing each network. Are the fans the only ones that are noticing?

Plain and simple. Nascar is not exciting enough to have people waste 4 hours of their weekend on it. And this is from a guy who used to plan his weekends around Nascar. Not anymore. And it looks like I’m not the only one.

JD in NC
06/26/2013 11:32 AM
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I just watched the Indy race from Iowa yesterday. That’s right, watched it on a Tuesday because evidently Indycar cares enough about its fans to actually post a youtube link to the entire race on the front page of their website. The coverage was head and shoulders above what Fox does (I don’t know about TNT since I’ve never had cable and never will). They actually covered the racing, wherever it was happening throughout the field. They went though large blocks of time without showing the leader since Hinchcliffe was running away with the race by himself. I thought the announcers did a good job describing the action and there was no stupid boogity boogity boogity crap to start the race.

Carl D.
06/26/2013 12:49 PM
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Tom…

It’s not incidental that the same owners’ teams are winning year after year, but the underlying reason isn’t the chassis, the engine, or the to an extent, even the driver. The owners that are winning are the owners with the most money to spend. No common equipment is going to make Joe Nemechek challenge any of the Hendricks teams for number of wins. It’s the same reason the Yankees win so many baseball games. It’s the chasm between the haves and the have nots, and in Nascar, that’s not going to change any time soon.

Carl D.
06/26/2013 01:02 PM
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You gotta feel for the poor saps that run TV networks. All they wanna do is make boatloads of money, so they fill the broadcasts full of commercials, redundant commercials, bad commercials, and commercials for the next commercial-filled broadcast, and what do their ungrateful viewers do? DVR the damned race and fast-forward thru the commercials. Don’t they know that causes the ratings to fall? Don’t race fans have any compassion?

Dane
06/26/2013 01:36 PM
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Short tracks would even the playing field a bit. Less aero engineering and horsepower needed means less $$ spent.

jerseygirl
06/26/2013 01:45 PM
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Steve, I think NASCAR & the TV money guys may notice, but they don’t care because they have their money already in hand.

Carl D – your comment is great! Darn ungrateful fans indeed! Unfortunately I believe that is EXACTLY how the “leadership” of NASCAR & the TV types see all of us. I stopped watching ALL pre-race programming several years ago because of comments made by various noisy types on those shows making statements about how the fans are “stupid”, “don’t understand” or one time when Kyle Petty said that having race fans involved in NASCAR decisions would be like having “the inmates running the asylum”. I stopped listening to Kyle and Kenny Wallace after that.

I don’t think most race fans are crazy. Frustrated and annoyed? Yes. Tired of being told the racing is great when it’s not? Yes.

I vote with my remote; how I spend, or in this case, don’t spend my money and my time.If they want me back as a full time fan, make it worthwhile. It’s not rocket science, NASCAR was pretty darn successful (even as a “regional” sport) for many years before they forgot the basic principles – being unique is better than being like everything else, having fun is the reason people go or watch a race and parity is a dirty word!

Jacklegged Nascar Expert
06/26/2013 02:45 PM
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Can’t comment-don’t watch anymore.

Kevin in SoCal
06/26/2013 06:12 PM
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I was going to say the same as Dave N said: Is the reason for the ratings drop-off because TNT is cable and Fox is over-the-air? Even in 2013, not everyone has cable.
What are the numbers for TNT this year vs last year and the year before? That would be the true comparison.

Old Fan Bill
06/26/2013 07:19 PM
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Next year will the races be shown on the Fox Sport Network (cable) or the Fox Network (over the air)?

Dave N
06/26/2013 08:11 PM
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Old Fan Bill – I believe FOX is planning to air some of next year’s races on the FOXSports1 cable network.

It’s ironic – back in 2001, when NASCAR gave the TV rights to FOX and NBC, their rationale was that it was too difficult to find races on TV, since each track negotiated their own TV deals. Having the races on FOX and then NBC made it easier for the fans to find the races on TV, and they weren’t all over the cable realm. 12 years later, and we have FOX, TNT, ESPN, and ABC all televising races, with just about half of those races on cable.

The networks don’t care about the viewing fans – as long as they get their ad revenue and a 3 share on a Sunday afternoon, they’re happy. And we’ll continue to get “boogity boogity boogity” and commercials every 10 laps.

Russ
06/26/2013 08:53 PM
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Curious as to why anybody would think that any of these businesses, surprise they are really businesses, “care” about the audience? The litmus test is does it make money. End of story.

Ch
06/27/2013 11:17 AM
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Old Bill Fan- The races will not be on FOXSports1 until 2015. Even then, most races will be on FOX.

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