NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Distinguishing NASCAR Dreams From Reality

Did You Notice? … The audience increased for this year’s version of the Chase? Homestead ratings, released Tuesday wrapped up the latest ten-race version of NASCAR’s playoff, a 3.1 Nielsen number flat year-to-year but still good enough to keep the audience rising. Yes, executives around the sport are trumpeting how much this postseason boosted interest.

How much, you ask? .3. No, that’s not some weird version of honoring the Intimidator. I’m talking a whopping three-tenths of a percent.

2014 Texas II NNS fans CIA
Better attendance during the second half of NASCAR’s Chase, along with better ratings begs the question… is the glass half-empty or half-full? (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the final Chase numbers. Simply add up the Nielsen ratings from the ten races of 2013, compare them with the ten races this year and come up with the average. What you get is a total just a tick higher than last year (26.9 to 26.8), the smallest of victories during a season where nearly every race had a decrease in television ratings across the board. In fact, considering the 2013 Chicagoland event was rain-delayed, sinking that audience to a 1.8 in the Nielsens one could make the argument this Chase, at least in the beginning had a smaller audience than last year’s version.

I say that not to discredit NASCAR’s product but to build on Brett Poirier’s column yesterday that this playoff system is far from a dominating, Republicans romping through the midterms style victory. Far from it. In reality, the outcome Sunday could have gone so many different ways, with Denny Hamlin or Ryan Newman holding the trophy just as easily as Harvick. Did it happen? No. Could it have happened? Yes, and its mere possibility was generating a small uproar from those who knew neither one had a “championship” season once their results were spread out over a nine-month, 36-race Cup marathon. Hamlin even missed a race, meaning he’d fail at the one thing a Sprint Cup titlist is supposed to have, under any system: perfect attendance.

With the bulk of NASCAR’s postseason audience tuning in those final few weeks, the hope is some new fans were made along with old ones creeping back to see the old system. One could also make the argument that, with the heavy emphasis on the Final Four Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Brad Keselowski fans tuned out, chipping away at the final Homestead numbers. NASCAR playoff supporters can say for certain there was a lot of energy both at Homestead-Miami and surrounding the last month of competition. Two races in a row sold out, a reminder of the old days and a promising trend no matter how many seats were reconfigured at each venue.

But to say NASCAR has turned the corner, after several difficult seasons fighting for relevance? I think that’s a bit premature. That has merit only if the close competition, the kind we saw at the beginning and end of 2014 returns on a more consistent basis next season. It has merit if the ratings stay up, not just through the Daytona 500 (virtually guaranteed an increase) but throughout the next several races of 2015. It has merit if new teams show up at Daytona, from Mark Beard’s little No. 75 to new multi-million investors (Michael Jordan? After all, he was a Homestead attendee). They must come armed with hopes and dreams, paired with a vision they pray will one day push Rick Hendrick and Joe Gibbs back through the field and potentially into retirement. (When Kyle Busch comes out and says JGR doesn’t have enough information-sharing, that they need another alliance so their organization acts like a group of eight or more cars you know NASCAR has a very, very serious problem when it comes to top ownership consolidating power).

If all these dominoes fall, along with a second straight exciting Chase you could say the sport has turned a corner. But don’t take one great title fight, a brawl heard round the world and a first-time champion as a sign that the worst is over in NASCAR. The hole they dug was deep; it’s very easy to slip back down whilst climbing out. It’s a long, hard road ahead and hopefully the sanctioning body, in whatever decisions they choose will stay the course and at least see what pans out and what doesn’t. 2015 can’t start with all of us learning a brand new everything all over again; like it or not, race fans, this system needs a second year.

Did You Notice? … There are a few random statistical oddities to examine now that the 2014 season is complete. Unearthed now that the Chase is over, they’re a nice way to bookend a year filled with surprises.

0 – That’s the number of laps Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. led during his sophomore season racing at the Cup level. Keep in mind Stenhouse races for Roush Fenway Racing, driving a fully-funded No. 17 car that was top 5 in the championship standings just two years ago. Among those drivers who passed Stenhouse on the laps led list: girlfriend Danica Patrick (15), Michael Waltrip (4), Blake Koch (1), David Reutimann (1 – in only three starts). Among those tied with Stenhouse in this category: Barack Obama, Jeremy Mayfield, you.

Stenhouse better be looking over his shoulder at Chris Buescher, an up-and-coming star on RFR’s Nationwide Series squad. With Buescher and newcomer Elliott Sadler now set up in the “minors,” Stenhouse is as good as gone if his 2015 season even comes close to resembling this one. (27th in points, he was a whopping 333 behind 17th-place Kyle Larson for best of the non-Chasers.)

13,872.87 – The most miles run this season, out of 36 races which is an accomplishment attached to an unlikely hero: a Sprint Cup rookie. Austin Dillon took the honor, a small consolation in what was on paper a disappointing rookie season. Ninth in the Daytona 500, Dillon would crack the top 10 just three more times this season while slumping to 20th in points, far below where his championship-contending team was in 2013. Yes, bringing back the No. 3 was cool but it was hard to judge fan reaction if the car’s never shown on TV.

There’s a silver lining, though in what was a difficult season for Dillon. Logging all these miles as a rookie certainly can’t hurt his development. Neither can finishing all 36 races, a feat Dillon accomplished along with Jeff Gordon. Next season, expectations will rise but expect this oldest Dillon brother to rise along with them due to the patient, persistent performance he exhibited in 2014.

32 – Drivers to score a top-10 finish this season. That’s down from 36 a season ago and 45 near the turn of the century (2001). What’s worse is only four top-10 results, overall came from teams outside the 28 well-funded Sprint Cup operations. Here’s a quick breakdown of those 28…

Hendrick Motorsports: 4

Stewart-Haas Racing: 4

Chip Ganassi Racing: 2

Joe Gibbs Racing: 3

Michael Waltrip Racing: 2 (technically, Jay Robinson’s test team is not owner by MWR)

Richard Childress Racing: 3

RCR-Aligned Single-Car Teams (Furniture Row, JTG-Daugherty, Germain): 3

Roush Fenway Racing: 3

Richard Petty Motorsports: 2

Penske Racing: 2

Note how I grouped these operations: paired by the alliances and information they share with each other. Outside these four “super-pairings,” the only teams to break through were: Circle Sport (Landon Cassill, one top-5 finish; Travis Kvapil, one top 10), Leavine Family Racing (Michael McDowell, one top 10), and Front Row Motorsports (David Ragan, one top 10). Ragan was the only one whose result came without the use of restrictor plates. In fact, remove Daytona and Talladega off the schedule and the number of drivers to score a top-10 finish this season falls to just 27.

That’s not more parity in the sport, it’s less as the same drivers and teams battle for the same airtime up front. Lapped cars, pushed to the back by double-file restarts struggle for TV time, for finishing positions and for any hope to move up the ladder when their multi-million dollar counterparts hold all the chips.

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

–  So Jamie McMurray gets a new crew chief, eh? Matt McCall was hired over from Richard Childress Racing to fill a void left by outgoing crew chief Keith Rodden. Turns out Kasey Kahne was in need of some help, see and the relationship with Kenny Francis is about to come to an end, one of the longest driver-crew chief marriages in the industry. It’s a shame for McMurray, who showed vast improvement during the second half of 2014 but got the short end of the stick. You don’t see Hendrick reaching in the bucket for Kyle Larson’s head wrench Chris Heroy now, do you?

–  After eight announced rookies this season, creating a spirited fight for the Rookie of the Year award just one has been currently announced for 2015: Trevor Bayne. Looks like we’re back to just engraving the trophy before the season starts, huh. 2016, though is looking better each week: Chase Elliott, Ty Dillon and Brian Scott (yes, that Brian Scott) are all expected to be among those moving up after one more year of experience.

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rg72

I could see Kasey Kahne being in one of the Roush cars in 2016

Glen H.

rg72 – Kahne just got a three year contract extension to stay with Hendricks through the 2018 season.

With Kahne’s extension, I wonder if 2015 or 2016 will be the Gordon’s “Farewell Tour” so they’ll have an open seat for Chase Elliot in 2016 or 2017.

GinaV24

Hard to know, these days contracts are only paper, but then again, maybe Gordon has or will decide that he’s just not that interested in continuing to spend any more time on Brian’s crapshoot.

rg72

The biggest problem (well, one of them anyway) with the Chase is that the majority of fans see any champion in the last eleven years as a 10-race champion, not on the same plain as Petty, Earnhardt, Gordon, etc, who won full-season titles.
How can you explain that 2003 finale (with the championship already clinched) drew a 4.5 rating while this year a flat rating of 3.1 is cause for celebration among the Chase cheerleaders in NASCAR and the in the tank for NASCAR media?

Brian

rg72,
This is exactly to Dennis’s point on fans impacting the teams. The ratings are no where near what they used to be 10ish years ago.
While part of that is driver driven a big part of it is NASCAR itself as pointed out by many. The sport went about 30 years with little to no changes in how the season championship was determined. We have had 4-5 changes in 11 seasons. Yes the sport changed over the 30 years but the basics really never did. The races were the show not the season championship. It was the races that mattered. David Pearson won 105 races running what about 60% of the possible races over the years he competed. The championship for the season was essentially meaningless but winning the races was the end all be all for the teams. This started to change when the season ending standing money got bigger than the race purses and more and more emphasis was put on who was best over the entire schedule. Popularity grew, racing become a national sport and Big Bill and Bill Jr. knew exactly how to run the whole shebang. Brian France knows how to market stuff but is completely clueless on how to run a racing organization.

Dennis

As a NASCAR fan for over 4 decades I think there are some truths that we all have to accept. Firstly, that there are not as many gear heads/race fans/car enthusiasts within the newer generations as there used to be. There are far more things to entertain people than when I was a youth. Gaming, computers, X games, lots of specialty TV channels, NetFlix, etc.. The day I turned 16, my friends drove me down to the DMV to write my beginners license test. Now, I have a niece and nephews who were in no hurry to get theirs. It’s a different world.

We also are still suffering from the artificial bump in viewership NASCAR received when so many new tracks were built 10 plus years ago. They were built in new, large markets. Of course, people flocked to the new tracks and tuned in to see what all the fuss was about. Around this time Hollywood saw a good opportunity to cross-promote and celebrities starting showing up as well. This caught media attention and suddenly NASCAR was “cool”. So more tuned in. I believe the peak was 2006.

It couldn’t last. You can’t convert a lot of non-race fans and very casual fans into a long-term core. They saw several aero-push parades at their mile-and-a-half cookie cutter tracks and got bored. Quit buying tickets and quit watching the TV.

So, now the good news as I see it. There will always be race fans. Many will watch NASCAR. But, we will have to accept lower viewership numbers. And NASCAR and the teams/sponsors will have to come up with a business model that can survive a smaller fan base.

Russ

You make some good points in your analysis. One I would like to dispute is the teams relying on a fan base. While its true that souvenir sales are nice, the fan base hardly a basis for financing a team. Thats built on sponsorships, particularly business to business deals. An example would be you fiance my race team and I exclusively sell your product, oil tires, etc. in my dealership. TV money.r support from a manufacturer. And selling there branded or second hand equipment amateur and semi pro racers.

Thats why the declining attendance haven’t hurt the remaining mega teams.

Bill B

I beg to differ. Don’t you think Earnhardt’s death in 2001 had a negative effect on the NASCAR numbers.?I wasn’t an Earnhardt fan but I sure think it did. Not right away but over a 3-5 year period. There were fans that were fans of the man first and the sport second.

Also, your view about declining attendance (and similarly, ratings) is very short-sighted. There is definitely a critical point where it will impact the tv contracts negatively. We may never get to that point but there is definitely a point somewhere.

GinaV24

Dennis, I have to disagree with you on a couple of points. IMO teams don’t rely on the fans for most of their financial support, they rely on sponsors and those sponsors want to be associated with strong, winning teams. The fans do impact sponsors because they are more likely to buy a product if they like the driver and therefore sales are better for the sponsors. There have been a lot of articles about how difficult it is to fund the teams. Very few teams have a full time full year sponsor. They’ve had to backfill with multiple sponsorships & that is with drivers who are successful & get lots of tv time. How much more difficult is it for the smaller teams?

Also as NASCAR continues to alienate the fans and loses a bunch, who is going to replace them? The casual fans? I doubt it.

Also to Bill B’s point, I think there is a tipping point for NASCAR with its fans that may have already been reached. There are less fans in the stands, there are also less fans watching (partly because the TV partners don’t cover the race – they cover the select few and ignore the rest). While NASCAR has always tried to blame low attendance & everything else on the economy, but that was only because they never admit they make mistakes. A big mistake was moving Darlington’s date, another big one was implementing the ugly car – the manufacturer’s weren’t happy with it, the drivers weren’t happy with it and the fans didn’t like it. The 1 race champion format may be the final mistake for many fans.

Let’s face it, the minor uptick in ratings that NASCAR gets for a couple of races because they decided to go to a crapshoot doesn’t mean that those fans who may have tuned in for 2 races will watch or go to races at any other time.

NASCAR has always taken the point of view that they can do whatever they want and the fans will go along with it. Guess time will tell.

GinaV24

Thanks, Tom, for pointing out the difference between NASCAR’s dreams vs the reality. It is simply NOT that big a bump for the amount of press, so to speak, that it is getting. I also agree with rg72 about how many fans view all of the “chase” winners. I also recognize my bias toward what Gordon would have in the number of championships had the chase not been in play.

I also agree that NASCAR is lucky that it wasn’t Newman or Hamlin who pulled off winning the crapshoot to hoist the trophy. They lucked into being one of the final 4, not due to their total season performance at all, yet, they will be honored at the banquet as par of the top 4. It makes me gag. Also, the harrassment that fans who don’t like the system are being subjected to by the various media personalities, whether it is on radio, internet and twitter is ridiculous and uncalled for and is certainly not a good way to win over people’s opinion. Attempts to beat fans into submission by saying they are stupid because they don’t like the new format won’t do it. You can drive fans away with that method but in general, abuse isn’t a good way to persuade someone to agree with your point of view.

Dennis, to your point about “there will always be race fans”. There is a point coming where many of the drivers who have big fan bases and in that I count Gordon, Jr and Stewart, will be retiring. Not sure when, but it is going to happen. Maybe it is only my point of view, but I doubt very much that the number of new fans will equal the ones leaving at that time and having casual fans who only watch the last 2 or 3 races will be enough.

I have always said that I’d follow NASCAR until Gordon retires, but I’m not sure now that I am going to hold out for that. I may change my mind by Daytona, after all hope seems to spring eternal when the new season starts, but each year my enthusiasm for this gets to be less and less.

Oldsmo-Bill

I agree with rg72 and GinaV24: The past ten years have produced “10-race champions”. To extrapolate, this year’s “Champion” is a ONE RACE CHAMPION. Consider that. I’ve always thought it rather strange that the winner of the Daytona 500 is called the “Daytona 500 champion”, when, in reality they have merely won a single race, albeit a very big and important one. Will we now begin calling each race’s winner “The Martinsville Champion”, or “The Dover Champion”, etc.? The mind boggles. Back to my main point: I’ve always considered a “chase” champion to have a big, red asterisk after his title(s). But now this year, in spite of the fact that Harvick is definitely one of the more deserving drivers to have vied for the title, Because of how it was determined, in my mind it will always have TWO of those little pesky asterisks beside it. Sorry, Happy.

Ray Miller

Sort of short sightedness to call this years happenings a 10 or 1 race championship.
If true, the final game in all pro sports are simply a 1 game championship. Seems like all start with the same knowledge and rules and long to reach that lap, inning, basket, TD , etc. Each had equal opportunity, some did it better when it really mattered. Luck is always a factor. $$$$$$$$$$$$$$ is the purpose.
If I were a new face tuned in for the last race, I would have watched the end. If the trophy was already engraved, I would changed channels. Homestead is our super bowl now and forever. Who won our superbowl in 2013 ???.

Don in CT

Ray tell me how many other sports have a free for all in the championship game with every other team. You are comparing apples to oranges. Secondly, the teams that reach the finals did so by winning their divisions FOR A WHOLE SEASON, not some abortive short run. Maybe its your Super Bowl, its not mine. I didn’t watch it because I simply didn’t care. I don’t watch anymore the way I used too when the whole season had some relevance. I’m a road racer so those are my only priority and of course Ill watch Daytona because its too damn cold to do anything else besides curl up with a book.

The Mad Man

The only thing missing in this season’s play-offs was Hulk Hogan smacking somebody with a folding chair and Vince McMahon making an appearance in the media center saying he’s the real owner of the WWE on Wheels and not Brainless Brian.

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