Did You Notice? It took just four races for NASCAR’s television audience to decline? It’s a concern, considering healthy Daytona TV ratings gave the sport its expected bounce to start 2015. After the “12 Hours of Daytona” last year, no rain delay meant a stronger audience for NASCAR’s season opener; Nielsen numbers were up over 30% from their 2014 all-time low.
With that type of head start, the sport should have been able to ride momentum throughout most of the early spring. Instead? The Cup Series dropped to a six percent increase for the season’s second race, then 2.2 percent for the third and now we’re on the decline after Phoenix. The new Xfinity Series, its second-tier division, has also suffered through a smaller audience in recent weeks.
How did it all peter out so quickly? Simple: the new rules package isn’t leading to better racing up front. Lead changes are down 16% to an average of just over 20 per race, and most of those have occurred during green- or yellow-flag pit stops. Each of the last three races has also suffered from a driver a step above the rest of the field (Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, twice). A driver-adjusted track bar, among other changes, hasn’t done enough to spark action after the first few laps of a green-flag restart. Pit-road violations, while unique under the new system of video replay, haven’t been so radically different it’s handicapped the entire field. Long story short… there’s been a lack of compelling competition up front.
It’s also important to note we’re in year two of the new Chase format. Nearly half the competitive field of drivers will wind up making the postseason; almost all of them sit inside the comfy top 30 in points. That means all it takes is for a fan’s favorite to win just one race and then their season turns into one giant test session. There’s a plus side to that, green-lighting aggression for drivers like Harvick and Johnson who have already won. But the negatives? It can cause fans to tune out if they know their driver is already “in” to the 10-race season that actually matters.
Fontana looms large on the schedule, the series’ best intermediate in recent years popping up this weekend. Then you’ve got Martinsville, a competitive short track, so you’d hope sparks would start flying real soon. Otherwise… if not now, when?
Did You Notice? Just eight of 20 top-five finishes have been collected by Xfinity Series regulars? It’s an old story getting old for fans, who as I’ve mentioned above, have been turning off the television this season. Three of those eight top fives were collected at Daytona, the season’s first race where restrictor plates bunch up the field and play a larger role.
Phoenix was the low point for regulars, as the top-five positions were swept by Sprint Cup regulars and Kyle Busch fill-in, full-time Truck Series driver Erik Jones. How “bleh” was Saturday’s race? The top-12 qualifiers all finished inside the top 12 in some way, shape or form. The top-five finishers consisted of, guess what? The weekend’s top-five qualifiers.
That’s because the speed difference between the best Xfinity Series cars and the back half of its field is far too great. It’s hard for the 25th-place qualifier to move up when they’re running a three-year-old jalopy compared to its other competition. Some NXS sponsorships have reached upwards of $10 million. $10 million?! For a series that, in some ways resembles NASCAR’s version of AAA baseball? The sport has to find a way to cut down costs so new faces, fresh owners and more parity comes into play here.
Did You Notice? Quick hits before taking off….
- Being able to choose what series you run for points is helping drivers who missed races, like Brian Vickers and Kurt Busch immensely this season. With Landon Cassill, JJ Yeley, Regan Smith, Brendan Gaughan and several others running for the Xfinity Series title, they’ve scored exactly zero Cup points all season. That leaves 38 drivers, Vickers and Busch included running full-time and collecting points toward the championship, minimizing the number they have to pass to enter the Sprint Cup top 30. Why is that important? Once there, all each driver has to do is win a race and they’ll be included in this year’s Chase. At the rate each driver is going, expect them to have climbed that mountain as soon as the end of April; Busch is just 17 points behind 30th-place Brett Moffitt while Vickers sits just 24 back.
- This weekend is big for Carl Edwards. His career average finish at Fontana (8.5) is his best on an oval, a place where he has 14 top-10 finishes in 17 starts. So far, his new team has struggled to keep up as the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has run no better than 12th during the season’s first four events. JGR as a whole has struggled, but Edwards was the reason for its expansion. He knows it’s time to get on track.
- Kurt Busch will officially appeal Delaware’s family protective order against him after the court Wednesday refused to reopen the case involving ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll. I understand Busch’s desire to clear his name; but since this weekend, he’s been on the offensive, a fiery FOX Sports interview combined with brazen statements about how he was falsely accused. At what point, though do you calm down and let sleeping dogs lie? Right now, Busch has his ride back, his livelihood and an opportunity to rebuild a reputation. He also has no desire to contact or be near his ex-girlfriend. So how much does overturning this order matter? Just food for thought.