*Did You Notice?…* As the dust begins to settle on the 2012 Sprint Cup season, a look inside the numbers tells you the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on the state of the sport. Let’s get right to it:
*The Good:* A total of fifteen different drivers won a race this season, roughly one-third of what would compose a 43-car grid in a total that’s roughly in line with previous years. Also, for the second straight season parity took center stage as no driver got more than five wins apiece. Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin, drivers from three different organizations _and_ manufacturers shared the honor. It’s hard to get competition any closer than that; NASCAR hasn’t had league-leading victory totals this low in back-to-back years since 1991-92.
*The Bad:* None of those fifteen different drivers were first-time Sprint Cup winners. None of them drove for a car owner that had never visited Victory Lane, either. Other than perhaps Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s name, ending a drought that had extended all the way back to Michigan in 2008 none of them are huge surprises, either. Perhaps the biggest stretch would be Joey Logano, whose Pocono victory legitimized his Cup career to an extent, but those “upsets” were few and far between.
So who’s left as a full-time driver who has yet to win a Cup race? Of those who ran full-time in 2012, the short list includes Travis Kvapil, Aric Almirola, David Gilliland, AJ Allmendinger, Sam Hornish, Jr., Dave Blaney and Landon Cassill. None of those drivers, after the ‘Dinger’s release from Roger Penske’s team, were in position to cash in with the exception of maybe Almirola at Kansas. Combined, they had a total of one top-5 finish between them in 2012. Where are NASCAR’s new stars?
*The Ugly:* The two combatants for this season’s Rookie of the Year Award, Stephen Leicht and Josh Wise finished a _grand total_ of one race in 45 Sprint Cup starts this season. Neither one was driving for a funded operation, making this season the first in the modern era where no real “rookie” truly competed within the sport’s top level. With the addition of Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., that changes entering 2013. But no healthy sport, even during down times, stops evolving. The fact NASCAR has now gone three full seasons without a major-impact rookie (even Trevor Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner, remains without a full-time Cup ride) should sound alarm bells everywhere.
*The Good:* NASCAR has a new champion, in Brad Keselowski, who’s a big departure from the politically correct robot-human who goes by the name Jimmie Johnson in private. Need proof? Look no further than Keselowski doing a championship interview “drunk off his ass”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBTTN0mrehM less than 24 hours after Homestead. If Johnson ever got caught dead with that, five apology letters, a random charity donation from Hendrick Motorsports and some sort of “Men In Black” flash to try and erase the incident from the public’s memory would surely follow.
Keselowski, just 28, is the youngest titlist since Kurt Busch in 2004, the one auto-connect to a blue-collar, 18-to-34 male fan base in a list of star drivers that’s rapidly aging out of it. Of the up-and-coming driver sect, he’s got the most social media marketability, the most engaging personality and perhaps the best upside in terms of on-track potential.
*The Bad:* Every driver who made the Chase this season had been there at least once before. Only Martin Truex, Jr., who went winless this season and finished an all-but-invisible 11th in the playoffs had gone longer than three years without a postseason appearance. The teams involved, with the exception of Michael Waltrip Racing, had also been there before, a cadre of predictability in a postseason that’s supposed to generate the exact opposite. How can you be excited when you know going into the season it’s the same handful of drivers who will wait 26 races to _really_ compete for the hardware?
*The Ugly:* NASCAR’s television audience in the Chase, in particular the season finale, reached an alarming decline. The viewership for the 36th and final race, on ESPN was just 3.44 million, a dropoff of nearly _50 percent_ from the record high of the Carl Edwards-Tony Stewart battle last season. The average number of people watching on television, throughout the 10 races of the Chase was the lowest since the current postseason format debuted in 2004.
A couple of thoughts here. First, of course, the numbers were going to go down when Keselowski all but had the title wrapped up entering Florida. But as NASCAR looks to sell the second half of its schedule for 2015 and beyond – far more difficult to price out than the FOX deal – it’s now made its season finale as volatile as any stick ‘n’ ball sport. While you used to be guaranteed a ratings number for Homestead under the old “pre-Chase” points system, everything has officially changed. Now it depends on this ridiculous ten-race postseason concept, one which also fails to gain any traction throughout the first nine weeks of its existence.
Any talk of ditching the postseason format has died down for the foreseeable future. But I don’t think it’s a given it sticks beyond the 2014 season. I’m calling it now… TV networks will have a say here, and no exec is going to look at a line graph slanted downward and want to pay more money. Thankfully for fans, it’s a business decision as much as a sports/entertainment value one and the Chase, at the moment, is clearly not good for business.
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