NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Tough Sledding, Payback Time And Penalty Free

Did You Notice?… How ratings keep declining in this Chase? Talladega, the Russian Roulette 500-miler of the playoffs should have been a “can’t miss” race for those interested in the sport’s new format. There’s no event more unpredictable for an “elimination” event, whereby the checkered flag Sprint Cup’s postseason field was trimmed from twelve to a more manageable eight.

Credit: CIA Stock Photography
The racing at Talladega Superspeedway was an important Chase event, but the ratings were the lowest in quite some time for a restrictor plate race. Credit: CIA Stock Photography

Instead, what we found most notably trimmed was the audience sitting in front of their television sets. Viewership declined half a million compared to the Talladega race a year ago, with the GEICO 500 drawing only a 2.7 Nielsen rating. That’s not only a 13 percent decline from last year, when NASCAR used a more conventional Chase, but it’s the smallest audience for a plate race in eight years. Only a rain-delayed Talladega event, held on a Monday in 2006 has pulled fewer viewers since NASCAR went to a national TV contract in 2001.

Those hard numbers, the type that make the sport and its television partners money (it is a business, after all) contradict the endless stories written proclaiming the “excitement” of NASCAR’s elimination system. Sure, there are plenty of media members who have warmed up to the way things have changed, but doesn’t the bottom line point to the bottom falling out? Somebody better remind half the media center of facts, the type that print out on paper because too many stories these days call this new format an unparalleled success.

Here’s what I see: for those who stuck with it, NASCAR’s changes have delivered an interesting twist on what otherwise would be some boring races at tracks like Dover, Charlotte, and even Loudon. But for the fans who didn’t care, in the first place playing “math” and “strategy” over a title they feel is permanently cheapened has them turning off the television in record numbers. The sport’s decline hasn’t stopped, according to the stats sheet; if anything, it’s going at a faster pace.

Unfortunately, there’s going to be a subset of fans that believe Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson, and Kyle Busch were eliminated somewhat unfairly. Busch had five straight top-10 finishes, this Chase for the first time in his career before one ‘Dega wreck snuffed out his chances. Johnson, meanwhile, along with Earnhardt, Jr., had three wins apiece before seeing their playoff bids go up in smoke. Both dominated Sunday’s restrictor plate race, running like men on a mission but wind up on the outside looking in, this week despite remaining title contenders Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, and Denny Hamlin totaling three 2014 wins combined. Newman has one more top-5 finish (three) all season than Mr. Johnson earned throughout the first six Chase races.

Some within that group will turn off NASCAR the rest of the season while building anger over their driver getting knocked out. And what if a winless driver, like Newman or Kenseth wins the title? There’s officially a 25 percent chance of that happening. Will those remaining fans in front of the television be “sucked into” the drama of the sport?

The answer, of course, is probably not, while the bigger problems surely remain. Fake debris cautions, done simply to bunch up the field at random are more prominent than ever, to the point one feels like a green-white-checkered finish is already preordained come Homestead. The dreaded “aero push” still makes passing near-impossible, especially at the beginning of a green-flag run and is more noticeable than ever when cars battle for the lead. Double-file restarts, once a nice perk, are now a necessity in order to keep fans – and teams – on their toes.

Give NASCAR this much credit; they’ve done a great job of pushing positive public perception. But officials down in Daytona Beach, especially the ones in charge of bookkeeping, can’t be looking at these trends through rose-colored glasses. Should the Chase audience decline by 10 percent or more, are we facing a whole new round of playoff changes in 2015? Or even the system scrapped completely altogether? My gut says no, that the sport will stubbornly stick with its decision even if the unthinkable happens – like Newman winning the title.

I hope I’m right.

Did You Notice?… It was much ado about nothing in terms of Ryan Newman’s car failing post-race inspection at Talladega? With crash damage altering the No. 31 Chevy, the car was measured in as too low Sunday night. Past history, especially recently has tabbed that penalty as 15 points.

NASCAR could have done the same, to make a statement toward Newman’s team but the final results would not have changed. Newman would be comfortably in the Chase, still with a 12-point lead on Kasey Kahne so there’s little they could do, apart from a fine to truly harm Richard Childress Racing. Not only that, but a penalty would get the critics out in force; any belief the team had altered the car, to the point it was raced illegally would cause a large group of individuals crying foul Newman was allowed to advance. In this case, I actually agree with NASCAR… why risk it? Why paint a picture of wrongdoing if crash damage was actually the cause of the problem? Officials made the right call on this one, and I commend them for it.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off…

– Don’t think those underdogs, led by Hamlin, Kenseth, Edwards and Newman can advance to the Final Four? Each one has won a race at Martinsville, Texas, or Phoenix within the last two seasons. Hamlin owns this weekend’s Virginia short track, while Kenseth was the king of 1.5-milers last season. Add in an Edwards victory at Phoenix and suddenly, it’s not so hard to see three of these underdogs keeping these hopes alive until Homestead.

Roush Fenway Racing? What is happening? Yes, Edwards remains in title contention but Greg Biffle has been a wrecking ball this Chase while Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. failed to qualify at Talladega. New Cup teammate Trevor Bayne? He DNQ’d, too turning the return of the No. 6 car into a nightmare. Is it time for Mark Martin to travel up from Florida, get into the shop and give out his motivational speech yet? There’s a lot of work that needs to be done here for 2015.

– Martinsville has always been the track to settle feuds. The one right now, on everyone’s mind concerns the Chaser saga surrounding Kenseth, Keselowski, and Hamlin. But remember, each one of those guys is running for a title, in a format that doesn’t really allow for mulligans. Chances are everyone will play nice. And that whole Joey Logano – Danica Patrick thing? The two claim to have kissed and made up.

Instead, I have my eye on two feuds that no longer have anything to do with the postseason. Kyle Busch, still livid over having his title dreams crushed might go seeking out rookie Austin Dillon. After all, with a new crew chief coming in 2015 Rowdy has nothing to lose by enacting payback, right? Ditto for Marcos Ambrose, winding down his Cup career before heading back to Australia to run stock cars there. We’ve seen him spar with Casey Mears and Ambrose typically gets himself into trouble at the paperclip. It makes Sunday’s race much more intriguing to watch beyond simple championship implications.

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Bill B

“Give NASCAR this much credit; they’ve done a great job of pushing positive public perception.”

That’s a huge part of the problem. Fans see this as arrogance and a lack of listening to their customers. We know when someone is pissing on our head and telling us it’s raining and it’s very insulting. NASCAR can tout all the fake polls they want, the real poll is taking place in tv ratings and track attendance and the numbers show the truth.

“My gut says no, that the sport will stubbornly stick with its decision even if the unthinkable happens ”

I think you were too kind by not calling Brian France out by name. The sentence would be more accurate if it read; “My gut says no, that BRIAN FRANCE will stubbornly stick with its decision even if the unthinkable happens “

rg72

The fans have spoken. They have tired of the season being treated like the All-Star Race or Bud Shootout. If the Chase has been so good, why is this the 5th different format since its inception? The only thing that can be said is it that each format has been worse than the one that preceded it. What’s next, a field of 24? 32? A fan vote?
The focus has gone from the event each week to Points As They Run 10 laps into a plate race. I can’t believe we weren’t falling out of our chairs during a battle for 20th place at Dover. Anytime a non-Chaser gets out in front or nears the front, it is amazing how debris makes an appearance.
I’ve said it before, please let Kenseth win this thing without a win to bring this whole atrocity full circle, eleven years later.

Carl D.

As much as I hate the chase, I’m not going to say it’s the reason that viewership and attendance is down, even in during the chase races. There are many reasons, but the biggest one, in my opinion, is that the racing over the last ten years or so, has been dreadful. Many of the fans that joined the bandwagon during the heyday of the late nineties left the sport when the COT, the growth of boring intermediate tracks, and the aero push turned the races into parades. The racing was a little better this year, but the damage was already done and those fans are long gone. Chase or no chase, they aren’t coming back. NASCAR is back to being a niche sport, and it has only it’s gross mismanagement to blame.

JohnQ

There really isn’t much to add here, the column and the posts pretty much sum it up. I am at the point where I believe the fan deafness is not so much incompetence as it is the take it or leave it high hat arrogance of the France family. PS: I agree that Kryle may go after Dillion at Martinsville, he is too much of a lady part to do it man to man.

RussThe

Follow the money. It’s not coming from attendance, and the networks have to have something to air. I think people underestimate the value($) of the B_Brelationships that Nascar, as well as the teams have.
I don’t look for things to change.

Robin1

I think the current Chase format is horse manure. All Mr. France does is throw things at the wall to see if anything sticks. How many Dale, Jr. fans or JJ fans are going to tune in the rest of the year? If my driver was out, I wouldn’t be watching. And the fact that there are drivers that have won races this year that are out of the Chase is complete insanity. IMO, the decline of NASCAR will continue until “King” France is out of the decision making process.

phil h

If they are true fans of Dale Jr and JJ, they’d still watch to see if they can win the race regardless of whether they are out of the championship hunt. Jr hasn’t been in any championship since all this started back in 2004, but he still has the most fans and popularity.

Bill B

Why should they tune in. The only drivers that will be covered are the chase guys. Everyone else is just an also ran (unless they happen to win and that coverage will be fleeting).

kb

Imo, Dale Jr, and JJ (not Kasey) will be mentioned more than any other “non chasers” in the history of “The Chase”. They will worm them into their storylines as spoilers etc. Plus they run decent enough to be up front, it will impossible not to mention them. In a way this is another layer of juicy reality show drama Nascar craves.

SR37212

Good read on the situation. I’d like to add that as bad as the TV ratings were it’s will get even worse when you consider Nascar’s PR push towards northern markets and diversity while the top ten cities were all Southern ones. Lose the South and it’s ‘ Nascar ???’.

I doubt Kyle will do anything. When it comes to Austin you can’t fix stupid or paternalism.

Gary A

Makes me long for the days when the championship was separate and each individual race had the same weight and meaning instead of it being all about the chasers.

Upstate24fan

We NASCAR fans are a bit too guilty of “living in a bubble” sometimes. NASCAR is not the only sport to see attendance and ratings declines over the last decade. The same thing is happening in baseball, hockey and other sports. Not even the NFL has been immune to attendance issues. No doubt the “NASCAR fad” ended with the recession in 2008 and unless they have “Death Races” with guns on the car, it will never rival the NFL for ratings and attendance again. Us NASCAR fans got high on the “fastest growing spectator sport” propaganda for too long, and now that there has been a decline it like the “sky is falling down”. There is still 4-5 million people watching this sport on a weekly basis, and depending on track size 40-100,000+ people attending races. Some NBA, MLB and NHL teams would kill for that attendance over a week.

Do I love the Chase in all its forms, No, but before it people complained about winning races not meaning enough and championships all but done by this point in the year. I commend NASCAR for trying with this new format, and making an effort to improve passing/reduce the aeropush. Is everything perfect no, but I still enjoy watching and attending races more than any other sport. Our drivers, even the worst are saints compared to players in other sports. From my interactions at the track, they are all generally good people (even the Busch brothers). I Listen to a lot of sports talk radio, and NASCAR fans unfortunately complain more and make more ignorant comments than fans of any other sport. The sport has issues, but I get tired of the constant complaining, pessimism, misplaced nostalgia and “black helicopter/Info Wars” conspiracy theories I hear sometimes. Dave Moody must be a saint for putting up with all this on a daily basis.

Carl D.

You make quite a few valid points and agree with you to some degree on all of them. However, I don’t think too many fans complained because the championships sometimes were decided before the final race was run. I do think wins should matter more than they used to; a five point bonus for winning a race, as opposed to the current three points, would emphasize winning a little more without devaluing consistency as an important component when determine a championship. I think fans would overwhelmingly prefer that over the chase any day.

salb

I fondly remember the days when each race was important, and who won the championship wasn’t the be-all and end-all for the entire year. Putting so much emphasis on that just drains the excitement out of the majority of the season. And having to watch endless ads for the ‘new and improved’ chase format while trying to watch a race…a grand way to turn fans off even faster.

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