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.
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.