Talk about a perfect storm for a NASCAR TV ratings disaster. Start with an event slated to run on Saturday night, a time slot that has produced some of the lowest ratings of FOX’s tenure with NASCAR. Add in the fact the Kansas City event was to be run on FOX Sports 1. The first live Cup race scheduled on FS1 was an interesting experiment but one that went over like Betamax with a 2.5 Nielsen rating, off 34% from the same event on the FOX mothership in 2014. (But nowhere near as horrid at the rain delayed Bristol race broadcast moved to FS1 which drew a 1.4 Nielsen rating. That’s infomercial levels my friends.) Then add in a rain delay that halted the proceedings about two and a half hours and caused the race to end shortly after 1 a.m. Sunday morning (on Mother’s Day weekend to boot!) and they were doubtless installing steel grates over the windows of the corner offices at FOX Sports’ palatial corporate headquarters to keep top level execs from throwing themselves out those windows when the overnight TV ratings came in.
The grim reality is the overnight numbers released Monday have the Kansas City race at a lowly 1.5 in the Nielsens. For a sport that once boasted that it was second in popularity to the NFL and making a run at that big dog of sports TV broadcasts, we’re now talking ice hockey numbers. Fans might also recall Brian France boasting about how with the new TV deal in 2001, all NASCAR races would be on network TV. How’d that work out for ya’ll? Starting with Dover at the end of this month, the final four broadcasts of “NASCAR on FOX” will air on FS1. Once coverage switches to NBC in July, only the Daytona and Darlington “regular season” events will air on NBC itself. The rest will air on the lost island of NBCSN. The fall Richmond race that will finalize the field for the playoffs will also be on NBCSN, as will five of the 10 “playoff”races. Durn, Vern, you’d almost think the big networks have given up on stock car racing, huh? Pass the pork rinds, my brother.
Those who stuck it watching the entire TV broadcast Saturday night/Sunday morning will doubtless recall the Sponge-worthy 400 as the Cup debut of one Erik Jones, an 18-year-old tapped to take the wheel of Kyle Busch’s JGR ride this weekend. Most likely you’ve heard of this young man who started out the season as a relative unknown slated to compete for the Truck Series title. While the truck series was enjoying a Rip Van Winkle style nap between events Jones went ahead and won an Xfinity Series race, beating the likes of Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the line. Prior to a little reality check at Talladega in the AAA series, Jones had been clicking off a steady stream of top-five finishes in Saturday’s races. Had he declared that series as the one he wanted to run for points this year, Jones would currently be third in the Xfinity Series standings. On Friday night, the young man dominated the Truck Series race at Kansas before running out of gas with five laps to go. So, yeah, this is a young driver that bears watching.
But the way the FOX team focused on him during the race, one might have expected the Parousia was about to occur live on TV (with only a handful of folks left watching to boot.) Heck, not only did they interview Jones during the rain delay they interviewed his mom, too! Were two drivers battling it out for the lead? Perhaps, but the FOX cameras were hypnotized by the No. 18 caught in the midst of a maelstrom after the restarts with the broadcast team singing hosannas and pontificating about Jones’s brilliance at the wheel. Yep, I saw that. The kid didn’t run into anyone on a restart. That’s always a good thing.
To give credit where credit is due, Jones did indeed acquit himself well on Saturday night prior to an unforced error which put him into the wall on lap 196. “Too bad,” most fans were probably thinking. Meanwhile back in the booth, two out of its three denizens were probably placed on suicide watch, so overwhelming was their anguish that Jones’ night was over. (Of course we had an intriguing discussion about the meaning of the word “over” between Mike Joy and DW, clearly up past his bedtime, as the still-hypnotized cameras focused on Jones’s slow drive to the garage area for repairs). Tissues were being passed around the booth as the hearty threesome lamented the worst thing that had ever happened in the history of motorsport and grappled with a deep theological question: given the presence of a kind and benevolent God in Heaven, how had such a thing been allowed to happen? Could not one of the heavenly hosts have grabbed the steering wheel of the No. 18 car just for that few seconds, lest it dash its fender against the wall? Poor DW, who ought to be transported back to the home and given his meds if a race runs past 10 at night, just couldn’t let go of it. Not only was Jones a brilliant driver, but he was of high moral character, having listened to his “mama” while growing up. (As opposed to that other sort that turned 21 in prison doing life without parole, though Mama tried…)
Oddly enough, despite having a race broadcasters benediction, Jones appeared to walk through the garage area rather than hover inches above the puddles. And yet out on the track, persons of known poor moral character, real slubberdegullions (sorry, skip the dictionary and go straight to Google) were still out there racing, without of course comment or cameras. My take on Jones’s wreck? He’s a rookie. This stuff happens. If stock car racing was easy, Chad Little would have won multiple championships. And that bit of information you were about to receive when Jones hit the wall is that Jamie McMurray won his first Cup race in just his second start. Let there be a lesson here for Jones on the fickle nature of immediate success. McMurray started four more races in that 2002 season and averaged a 21st-place finish. While McMurray is still out there plugging away at it (he’s won some high profile races time to time), the “wonder-kid” luster has long since been tarnished. (And I’ll add that Jim Roper won his very first start in NASCAR’s top division on June 19th, 1940. Someone had to. It was NASCAR’s very first Grand National/Cup race. Have you bought a box of Cheerios with Roper’s grinning mug on the front of it lately? This is a cruel sport.)
The actual turning point of the race turned out to be on lap 257, another single-car accident involving Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the No. 17 car. For those of you who taped the end of the race and haven’t seen it yet, the accident was similar to Jones’s, though the reaction to it was notably more subdued, with no hand-wringing and man-tears, though in fact at that very moment the entire complexion of the race changed from a strung out procession of cars, many of which likely would have run out of fuel prior to the checkers, to a six-lap dash for all the marbles. I have little interest in drivers’ personal lives. For all I know, Stenhouse was raised by a pack of hyenas in the Australian Outback, but for goodness sakes the guy is, after all, Danica Patrick’s boyfriend. Doesn’t that at least qualify him for some overwrought sympathy from the booth when he wrecks out of a race? OK, he’s 24th in the points and only has one top-10 Cup finish in 11 starts this year, but damn it man, he and Danica got a dog together! That’s almost as special as “Junebug” hanging a picture of Farrah Fawcett Majors in his new luxury treehouse. (Yep. Some stuff you just can’t make up. No word yet on how the girlfriend feels about that iconic ’70s poster.)
“All right, Matt,” some of my snide readers are saying, “FOX goes into a broadcast with preset story lines they won’t deviate from and they play favorites when it comes to drivers, particularly those under the tutelage of the morally sound Rick Hendrick, so this isn’t exactly groundbreaking news. What’s it matter anyway?” Oh, my friends, it matters a good deal. Recall that even TV ratings take second seat in this sport to the Joyce Julius minutes generated during each race broadcast and pored over after the event by grim-faced statistician who were likely potty-trained too early. For newer readers, these Joyce Julius numbers are generated by a frame by frame analysis of the race broadcast, noting the duration down to the second during which each sponsors’ logo is shown “clearly and in focus.” It doesn’t matter if that sponsor’s name is on the side of the winning car or it’s shown on the back of a crew member’s uniform as he helps push a car wrecked during the pace laps back into the garage. Minutes are minutes. And the fine folks at Mars probably got more JJ minutes while the No. 18 was shown headed to the garage than some sponsors of drivers who finished in the top 10 got all night.
Sponsors use those minute reports to calculate the amount of airtime they received, the cost of their sponsorship and actualizing it, and compare that to what it would have cost them to run an advertisement during the same broadcast.If the number is positive, the sponsorship likely continues. If not, the corporate entity likely looks for a new avenue to spend their marketing dollars. That sort of decision can cost drivers their careers and teams’ very existences may hang in the balance. (You’ll note a bunch of sponsors bailed on Roush Fenway Racing prior to the team’s fall from grace. They decided that Roush just wanted too much money to continue their relationships and wouldn’t budge off those numbers even as other teams began offering fire sale pricing. So arguably it wasn’t the lack of success that triggered the sponsor flight, it was the sponsor flight that led to the lack of success.) It would seem then, the broadcasters, self-professed journalists knowing the influence they wield on a weekly basis, would devote their attention to the action on track to tell the story of the race, not create their own storylines to benefit their favorites. I can ramble on about pretty much anything I damn well please, but that’s because I’m no journalist, I write opinion columns. But among serious journalists, and you know who they are because they’ve likely reminded you many times, playing favorites is verboten. I seem to recall one such serious journalist was so incensed by the conduct of a Frontstretch staffer cheering the Wood Brothers’ and Trevor Bayne’s fairy-tale win at Daytona in 2011 in the press box that she insisted he be fired from his day job.
I wish Jones all the best in his nascent Cup career. My expectation is that he’ll occasionally run brilliantly and occasionally make some boneheaded mistakes so egregious fans will be left scratching their heads, wondering why the kid is allowed to run out there with the big dogs at all. That’s the nature of rookie drivers, and that’s why they put those gaudy yellow strips of tape on their rear bumpers. As we celebrate the impending retirement of four-time Cup champion and 92-time race winner Jeff Gordon, take a look back at his rookie season. 11 top-10 finishes were offset by the same number of DNFs in 1993. That year, Gordon finished 14th in the points and averaged an 18th-place finish. There were times that Gordon wrecked more than one car in a single weekend between practice and the race itself. Some people were wondering why Hendrick didn’t replace Gordon with someone a bit handier at stock car racing than him, like, say, a purple-ass baboon.
But like Gordon, my guess is that Jones turns enough heads that he’ll be around a while. And eventually he’ll likely win a Cup race, and everyone will say that they knew he was going to do so all along. As such he’ll likely end up with the luxuries afforded a Cup star: high-powered exotic cars, the NASCAR-issued blonde girlfriend, his own line of snack foods and a fine home with an in-ground cement pond in the back. But my guess is that he chooses to swim in that pool rather than attempting to walk across it. Let’s just hope the TV cameras are focused on some other overnight sensation that weekend.