So I’ve been having one of those waxing nostalgic types of weeks. You know, the ones where you sit and take stock of where you are, where you’ve been, and where you’ve going; a look at history is always healthy when you’re trying to plan out your future. It’s the type of moment that hits most stock car folk in the ninth month of a grueling season, the November ending to a 36-race marathon that always seems to have fans, drivers, everyone involved ready to drop heading to the finish line. (A topic for another day.)
Anyways, a little self-evaluation is the type of “stop and think” moment NASCAR should have more often, especially in the midst of ratings that, barring a turnaround will rank as the worst for their postseason in the eight-year history of the format. While the sport still ranks as highly popular within the grand scheme of American sports, the numbers are what no one would have ever dreamed of as little as, say, ten years ago.
Ten years. It’s a decade, but looking back it’s amazing to see how much has changed within a sport that, back then appeared to be growing so fast its numbers were poised to challenge an opponent they can’t even get on the radar screen with these days: the NFL. How different was the sport back then? I thought it would be fun to do a little comparison to remind everyone what was going right at the height of NASCAR’s popularity; maybe, it’ll spur some thinking as to what to do to recapture that magic.
Here goes nothing…
*In 2012…* Two drivers, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, head into the final three races virtually neck-and-neck, with three races left after a points reset pushed them closer together.
*In 2002…* Tony Stewart had what appeared to be a commanding, 146-point lead on Mark Martin under the old point system, leading rookie Jimmie Johnson in third by 150. But after failing to lead a lap in the final three events, posting just one top-5 finish Stewart flirted with losing the title, leaving Homestead a nail-biter before beating Martin by 38.
*What We Learn:* You don’t need the Chase for a close points battle down the stretch after all.
*In 2012…* The Cup Series’ two main rookie candidates, Stephen Leicht and Jpsh Wise, have completed an astounding one of 41 races this season. Without real funding to compete, their experience typically consists of running a car a handful of laps before parking, becoming a “guinea pig” for bigger teams to test setups or car owners to collect a little bit of extra money while turning the sport into a “business.”
*In 2002…* Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman were neck-and-neck in the rookie chase with three races to go. Only 53 points separated them in the standings; J.J. still eked out Newman, staying ahead through Homestead but Newman won the honor based on slightly better consistency. Combined, the duo won four races and fascinated fans who were still struggling to even learn their names a year ago.
*What We Learn:* Fresh faces, especially when successful almost always ignite fresh interest. We’re taught athletes’ lifespans are short; seeing the same successful people up front, all the time can wear thin.
*In 2012…* Roughly half of the top 10 drivers have one primary sponsor footing the bill for all 36 events. Others, like Jeff Gordon rely on two main backers, like DuPont and AARP while Matt Kenseth has relied on a potpourri of different companies to keep heading to the track each week.
*In 2002…* Each of the top 10 drivers in points, from Stewart down to Yates Racing’s Ricky Rudd had one major company serving as primary sponsor for each of the 36 events. Special paint schemes? Yes, they were around but still involved the same corporation sitting somewhere on the hood.
*What We Learn:* Consistency on the hood makes it easy for fans to spot these drivers and companies to establish brand identity. Somehow, some way the sport needs to work itself back to that and control skyrocketing costs that force the alternative option of, well, as many primary sponsors as possible.
*In 2012…* None of NASCAR’s Chase ratings have come remotely close to the 4.9 Nielsen average posted by FOX. The network covered the first 13 Cup races this season, including the Daytona 500.
*In 2002…* The Atlanta Fall race, held in mid-October posted a 5.1 rating, making it highly competitive with most of the events covered by FOX early on in the season and outpacing their viewership.
*What We Learn:* NASCAR used to have the longevity to keep fans intrigued … competing strongly against the NFL in the process. It’s hard to ignore the only difference in that equation these days is the Chase.
*In 2012…* 11 of the top 12 drivers in the standings have at least seven full seasons of Cup Series experience.
*In 2002…* 6 of the top 12 drivers in the standings had at least seven full seasons of Cup Series experience. The rest? Four seasons or less, including two third-year drivers, two rookies and a sophomore.
*What We Learn:* A mix of veterans and “young guns” can often produce the most exciting storylines.
*In 2012…* 45 drivers attempted to qualify for the 33rd Cup race of the season at Martinsville. Only 33-34 realistically planned to go the distance; the rest? They didn’t even buy enough tires for more than 300 laps. A quarter of the field, then, started and parked to collect roughly $700,000 out of the purse.
*In 2002…* 51 drivers attempted to qualify for the 33rd Cup race of the season at Atlanta. All would have gone the distance; with no top 35 rule, that put the pressure on even the sport’s top drivers to qualify as strongly as possible. Two years later, full-timers failing to qualify at this event (Scott Riggs, Scott Wimmer) would lead to the institution of the top 35 spots in owner points rule.
*What We Learn:* Competition at the back of the field forces everyone to be better in qualifying, especially when there’s no “locked in” spots. The more people who feel pressured to race hard, giving 110 percent the better.
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