Did You Notice? Two races headed in two markedly different directions? While the Indianapolis 500 went through its third straight ratings increase, reaching Nielsen numbers it hasn’t touched since 2008, NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 hit a new low. The Sunday overnight of 3.6 was the worst since FOX started covering the event in 2001; it was also 16% behind the 4.3 Indy achieved.
Yes, INDYCAR’s signature staple still pales in comparison to Daytona 500 ratings. But there was once a time where its direct rival, the Sunday race at Charlotte, had both more viewers and a larger audience overall than the Indy 500. The trends are clearly in two different directions; NASCAR down, INDYCAR slow but steady gains on the final weekend in May.
Figuring out why is as easy as one simple stat. The Indianapolis 500, beaten down in recent years by a poor car count, few familiar faces and a lack of ingenuity, has found a spark in on-track competition. New aero kits have led to higher speeds, better chassis have led to drafting and it’s been the perfect mix of unpredictability combined with hard racing at the front. The last four Indy 500s have produced the four highest lead changes in the history of the event (34, 68, 34, and 37 on Sunday). That’s impressive when you consider the race has been run a total of 99 times.
The drivers also have showcased a high degree of skill, giving 110% in a way the fans in the stands can physically see it. Winner Juan Pablo Montoya, despite being teammates with his biggest rival, engaged in a heated duel with second-place Will Power over the final laps. There were three lead changes between them over the final 20-plus miles, Montoya edging it out by just a little less than two-tenths of a second at the checkered flag.
Certainly, INDYCAR has its problems. Years of damage from the 1990s open-wheel split takes a long time to repair itself; it’s so much easier to roll down the hill than commit to climbing back up. The vast majority of the cars Sunday were also fielded by just three owners: Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti. There need to be more competitive names on that list, both to up the car count and result in greater parity within the sport. The series has also struggled to maintain momentum as little as a week beyond its signature race, has trouble promoting itself and toes the line more than NASCAR on issues of safety.
But people don’t become fans of racing over safety. They get glued to the television over side-by-side competition, emotional rivalries and fantastic finishes. Compared to Indy, NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 fell a rung below although it came with some drama in the form of fuel mileage. That’s right; well after 10:00 p.m. on a Sunday, the biggest draw for potential new stock car racing fans was whether someone would flat run out of gas. That’s a strategy plan any diehard might appreciate, especially with the atrocious competition in the All-Star event here the week before. But Sunday wasn’t “just another race” for NASCAR; it’s considered one of the sport’s crown jewels, held at the series’ “hometown” track. Add in the racing drama in other series and it’s a rare time of the year where a bunch of new eyes could be watching the Cup Series… and get addicted.
Instead, it was Indy that produced the addictive finish, continuing a slow but steady process of rebuilding. The trick for NASCAR now is to find a way to fix the racing at intermediate tracks, stopping this troubling trend of fans shutting off the television before they’re in the same serious rebuilding mode.
Did You Notice? The same faces in the same places at intermediate tracks? Yes, Carl Edwards broke through at Charlotte, but without the strategy gamble it would have been Martin Truex Jr. and perhaps Kevin Harvick battling it out at the front of the pack. Let’s take a look at who the lap leaders have been for the six intermediate races so far this year…
Kevin Harvick – 467 (1 win)
Jimmie Johnson – 275 (3 wins)
Kurt Busch – 248
Martin Truex Jr. – 234
Joey Logano – 196
Denny Hamlin – 123
Brad Keselowski – 85 (1 win)
Matt Kenseth – 81
Carl Edwards – 40 (1 win)
Ryan Newman – 14
Jamie McMurray – 9
Jeff Gordon – 6
Kasey Kahne – 6
Kyle Larson – 3
Mike Bliss – 2
David Gilliland – 2
Alex Bowman – 1
Clint Bowyer – 1
Erik Jones – 1
Paul Menard – 1
Brett Moffitt – 1
Joe Nemechek – 1
Notice the divide between the top nine drivers and everyone else. Those nine have combined to lead a whopping 97% of all laps run at “cookie-cutter ovals” so far this season. Since 1.5-mile intermediates make up half of the ten Chase events, it’s a good way to separate pretenders from contenders. You can also see that Hendrick chassis, through the success of Harvick, Johnson and Kurt Busch appears to remain the one to beat at these types of tracks. That trio alone has combined to lead 55% of all laps runs at the intermediates.
I think what’s notable is which drivers aren’t a part of the conversation. Any casual fan this season can tell you how much Harvick and Johnson have dominated. But how about Earnhardt, whose cars are built in the same shop as Johnson’s No. 48 leading only five circuits? It’s a reason why I still think new crew chief Greg Ives has a long way to go in order to match predecessor Steve Letarte. Gordon and Kahne are also virtually invisible on the list, while Roush Fenway Racing doesn’t even make an appearance. Looks like Greg Biffle could have really used that win, huh…
Let’s take a look at those statistics a different way, by organization. Here’s your results…
Stewart-Haas Racing: 715
Hendrick Motorsports: 292
Team Penske: 281
Joe Gibbs Racing: 245
Furniture Row Racing: 234
All Others: 35
Look at how top-heavy those numbers get. Add in the Hendrick-SHR alliance and suddenly, there’s just three teams (top Chevys, top Fords, top Toyotas) battling for all the marbles along with one giant underdog in Truex. There’s parity amongst manufacturers, alright but right now it’s only trickling down so far…
Did You Notice? Quick hits before taking off….
- What makes the victory by Edwards even more rewarding Sunday is both he and Biffle were behind Earnhardt Jr. on the race’s final restart. For Earnhardt to get passed by both men, considering the strength of Hendrick equipment on 1.5-mile ovals this season and his strength on restarts is mighty impressive.
- Want to know how much equipment makes a difference? Take a look at rookie Moffitt. Moffitt’s worst finish driving the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota: 29th in six starts. His best performance driving the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford? 31st in four starts. The difference, of course comes in Aaron’s sponsorship and the many millions both they and Toyota development money give to line the coffers at MWR.
- Ty Dillon will wait until at least 2017 to jump up to Sprint Cup full-time with owner (and grandfather) Richard Childress. Ryan Blaney’s only hope of full-time next season is sitting with the Wood Brothers and not two-car, powerhouse Team Penske. Anyone sensing a pattern here with big owners who want to expand… but can’t? Looking like the ARRIS situation with JGR, the big-money new backer that allowed it to grow to four cars is an exception in the NASCAR sponsorship market these days and not the rule. With new rides few and far between, expect another stale Silly Season as most drivers will wind up staying in place.
- Here’s Johnson’s pattern the last six races at Dover. Spring 2012: Good. (Win, 289 laps led, dominant). Fall 2012: Bad. (Fourth, 43 laps led, outrun by Chase rival Keselowski). Spring 2013: Bad. (17th, bit by a late-race restart). Fall 2013: Good. (Win, 243 laps led, competition destroyed). Spring 2014: Good. (Win, 272 laps led, it was like no one else knew how to drive there). Fall 2014: Bad. (Third, zero laps led, total shocker seeing as it was the Chase). If you’re counting at home that’s three Good, three Bad. Based on that pattern, Johnson has a 50/50 shot of stomping the field Sunday. Considering the 43-car fields we see each week, that type of percentage is simply incredible.