NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: A Sneak Peek at What NASCAR Could Look Like in 2011

It would be difficult to tout 2010 as a winning year for NASCAR. Television ratings continue their steady decline, and events that at one time never saw empty seats now have huge advertising panels covering them. The playoff races especially have been whitewashed by the NFL, ratings down well over 20% on most weekends even as the customary points reset has somehow miraculously produced a close championship battle.

The continuing decline seems to have the sport in a mild panic. One wonders if Brian France really believes what he says about, “the racing is great and will carry the day,” which has replaced “People are watching on the Internet” as his blanket ratings comment. More changes are being discussed to spice up the package, with the hope that these adjustment will bring a new buzz to a sport decidedly lacking it at the moment— despite that very little recent legislation has helped much.

It doesn’t seem difficult to imagine what 2011 will be like. The ratings and attendance slide will probably continue as it has in the last five years, although that depends on a number of things. The economy is probably a factor in folks not attending races, so whether things improve may make a difference in attendance.

But I’m still of the conviction that it’s not the economy so much. The television ratings have almost been proportionate to the slide in attendance, and watching on TV doesn’t require gas money.

A Dale Earnhardt Jr. resurgence would likely lead to a small bump in the ratings, no doubt. NASCAR enjoyed one of its few recent upticks in interest in the first half of the 2008 season, when Junior was running reasonably well in his first year with Hendrick Motorsports. But this change in course is not likely. Rick Hendrick has replaced just about everyone on the No. 88 team with the same results, and even a new crew chief shouldn’t be expected to make much difference. There is always the public statement that “getting the No. 88 running well is the top priority for this team” (they said the exact same thing about Casey Mears, too), but if everything they’ve thrown at it hasn’t worked yet, it’s probably not going to.

Of course, it’s a shame NASCAR should probably not count on a renewed No. 88 team gathering back a lost audience. Remember that Junior led 90 laps at Martinsville and brought many in the crowd to their feet; more than ever, there are Junior fans still going to races.

Richard Petty Motorsports, the last bastion of the Petty name in NASCAR, is in dire straits, to say the least. No one doubts that King Richard is a figurehead at the company, but that doesn’t mean there still isn’t sentiment among fans for the organization bearing his name. If they’re struggling to finish out this year, they will need a lot of luck to get going in 2011, already having given up two cars.

Not only would the loss of RPM bring out a slew of articles bemoaning the long, agonizing disappearance of the Pettys from racing, it leaves the field with a tiny few blue ovals on the track. There is talk of an Earnhardt-Ganassi switch to Fords, but for the moment that is just talk – the team has publicly announced they will stay with Chevrolet. Brand loyalty in NASCAR isn’t what it once was, but if it didn’t matter at all, Ford probably would have pulled out by now.

Is any other team going to experience similar troubles? At the moment, most established teams appear solid even with the sponsorship difficulties for Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. But if two sure Hall of Fame drivers with six titles between them have trouble landing sponsorship, it is not going to be easy out there.

If there are at least four fewer full-time teams fielding cars, it stands to reason that there will be more field fillers and start-and-parks. It might be a good time for NASCAR to blow up the Top-35 rule, since it isn’t likely to be needed. Or a good move might be to reduce the size of the fields if the networks allow it… although NASCAR admitting to shrinking isn’t likely to happen either.

NASCAR will race Sprint Cup cars at Kentucky Speedway next year for the first time, which will probably be one of the highest attended races of the season. A race moving from California to Kentucky will have some short-term goodwill impact in 2011. It probably won’t last too long once people see that Kentucky is another 1.5-miler, but at least the demographic is there and the first event will probably sell out.

There will also be another race in Kansas next year, and the Chase will open at Chicagoland. Will Kansas fill seats for two dates like it does for one? Doubtful. Nor do I think Chicagoland will see a bump in interest due to it being the opening playoff race. It certainly didn’t help the ratings for Loudon this year. Will fans miss two races at Atlanta Motor Speedway? Probably not; in fact, Atlanta should see a boost in attendance having only its Labor Day event.

Declining ratings of 2010 will probably continue to do more damage to the quality of races and broadcasts. The current television contracts pose a big problem for NASCAR. The networks paid huge money for the rights to broadcast races, and as lower ratings lead to lower advertising rates, they will need to saturate their coverage with marketing to make them profitable. That, in turn, has been a reason for ratings dipping in the first place. Moreover, as fewer people watch and marketing budget dollars become scarcer, potential sponsors will need serious coaxing to put their logos on racecars. The timing couldn’t be worse.

The lack of sponsorship problem is already bad enough in the Nationwide Series. Justin Allgaier has been running with the Cup boys all season long and has lost his sponsor with no known prospects of a replacement. Steve Wallace has the benefit of his father’s backing, and there isn’t anything wrong with that, but few other Nationwide-only participants are that assured of staying in the race. We’ll probably see more Cup drivers in a series with too many of them in 2011, when the Danica Show is not in town. In an era where the once hardcore fan is tuning out, two days of Kyle Busch racing Carl Edwards for 34 weeks with no future prospects for them to race against may be too much even for Kyle and Carl fans.

Then there is the matter of dropping ratings as the playoffs commence, unheard of in any other sport. ESPN/ABC has already moved Chase races to its cable network, one year after most of them were featured on ABC. The network insists that the switch has not been a factor in declining ratings, even though cable television is one thing people scale back in tough times. The question now is what ESPN is going to tell NASCAR with regards to the Chase. Will there be pressure to change it?

Pressure or not, Brian France is already talking about it, meaning a 15-driver, elimination format playoff with just two drivers standing at Homestead may be on the horizon. I can’t tell you how accurate most of the predictions in this article will be, but I can almost assure you that such a format will be met with derision and further egress of NASCAR fans.

My guess is that the Chase isn’t changing. If there’s anyone up high in NASCAR with some sway with France, he’ll let him know that the sport would be best served not reminding people how they perverted the championship. Unfortunately, it is going to stay, as NASCAR continues to entrench it and promote it no matter how much the dogs don’t like the dog food. If Kevin Harvick fans watch their driver lose a title to Jimmie Johnson, who once again got hot at the right time, chances are NASCAR may lose a few of them, too.

So we’ve got all that as a landslide of potential possibilities, not to mention the rumblings that may be heard surrounding the future schedule and the annual rumors of Martinsville possibly losing an event in 2012.

Between a hugely popular driver not making any splashes, a vicious cycle of declining ratings leading to decreased sponsorship, no future stars on the horizon, and the perception that the sport is worse off than it actually is, it’s doubtful that 2011 will be better for NASCAR than 2010.

But who knows. Maybe the sport really has bottomed out. Maybe Junior will make a comeback. Maybe the economy will improve. Maybe NASCAR has taken enough of a beating, although, like with the Democrats this last Tuesday, for some it won’t be enough.

Time will tell.

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