Home / Cup Series / Did You Notice? … Indy Takes a Bite Out of NASCAR

Did You Notice? … Indy Takes a Bite Out of NASCAR

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 percent 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+ 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

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – 5

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. Jeff Gordon and Kasey 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 Carl Edwards even more rewarding Sunday is both he and Greg Biffle were behind Dale 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 Brett 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 Joe Gibbs Racing, 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 Jimmie 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 Brad 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.
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About Tom Bowles

Tom Bowles
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

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36 comments

  1. Avatar

    GinaV24 – I was going to ask “why wait for Homestead to bolt?”, but I’m guessing the only reason you’re watching this year is due to being a Jeff Gordon fan (hence the 24 in your name)? If so, I wonder how many more “Rainbow Warrior” fans will be done with NA$CAR at the end of the season? That might really not bode well for the series!

    I’ll usually watch a few races in the spring, to see if anything has changed. Daytona because it’s the first taste of televised racing after winter, and I make it a point to watch Bristol (even after they ruined the track) and Martinsville. Other than those 3, I may watch parts of other races if I have nothing better to do, but usually fall asleep or go find something else to do (if I can’t get to sleep). At this point, I probably won’t watch but maybe 1 or 2 more races this year. Maybe none. But I’ll probably still read Jayski’s page and stay somewhat up on what is going on.

    As for IRL, I don’t generally get to watch too many of their races, but the last few years they have been putting on MUCH better shows than NA$CAR. Watch a few, it doesn’t take long to learn some new names, see some interviews, and pick a new favorite (or favorites, as I do).

    One thing the 2015 Indy 500 made me wonder… Juan Pablo simply REF– USED to be denied the lead at the end. I thought he was going to go full NA$CAR and bump Dixon out of the way the last pass he put on him! So the question is, why did we not see that intensity from Juan in NA$CAR? Is it because he was complacent in that series, lost his competitive edge and mellowed out in the ol’ hot rod family sedan? I doubt it. But I have to remember back quite a ways to recall the stock cars being driven to victory fueled by the driver’s desire to win and refusal to lose… like the epic finish between Craven and Busch at Darlington in 2003.

  2. Avatar

    GinaV24, you are so right about why they keep BZF around. And isn’t that what he’s there for? To make them money? Not for anything else, as much as we’d like to think so.

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      How can the France bottom line be growing when butts in seats along with TV viewership is shrinking. At the same time sponsor commitments have dropped. France sold out the sports integrity to keep the money coming in and maybe it’s working, I just don’t see it. A monkey could of taken over the reigns of the 800 pound gorilla when Brian did and it would still be making big money, probably more. Do monkeys have integrity? I think so.

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        P&L statements are available on line. Just Google “International Speedway Corporation earnings”. net earning in 1st quarter of 2015 were 15 million dollars on revenue of 136 million+.

        • Avatar

          Thanks, I Googled that and now I have a headache. Sounds like a strong Daytona carried Q1.

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            yes, $ talks, ISC and the France family don’t really care if anyone is watching the sport. The fan is the least important component of the operation. That isn’t what any of the NASCAR types will say, but the fans presence or absence affects the bottom line the least.

  3. Avatar

    As nas$car continues to totally ignore their fans or treat them like they’re stupid, one thing is clear. Anger is turning into apathy. That’s a death knell for some sports.

    • Avatar

      midas, as I posted above, IMO, NASCAR, the France family et al don’t actually care if the fans are there. That isn’t what they say, but the fans aren’t the money drivers. As long as TV and sponsors pony up big bucks, our participation isn’t really necessary.

      That is a major departure from the way the sport treated the fans when Big Bill and Bill Jr were in charge.

      Apathy is indeed becoming the major emotion for many fans. As I’ve said before, after next year, I won’t even be apathetic about it, I’ll be gone.

  4. Avatar

    Racing as I know it , is about passing cars in order to get the lead. Interesing racing is many cars passing each other in order to lead. Indy had both, that made it an interesting race to watch.
    After the indy race, watching a few laps of nascar, it became obvious that the race would be boring. On top of a boring race, I’m subjected to the waltrips which is enough to ruin any program.
    I don’t watch boring programs be it racing or any other program. I don’t think I’m in the minority.

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      paltex, bingo on what racing should be…. yet we hear over and over how great the racing is. I turn on a race and it is always mostly single file. It truly just makes me wonder how anyone could like it. I watched DW race. He was a hard charger for much of his career. Could he possibly think what we see is great racing? I think not. We are told that competition is greater than ever. That is just not so. The numbers being spun to back up that claim do not mask what we are seeing on track. We are told by some that anyone who gripes is a hater and should not watch if we don’t like it…well… i am not a hater, but i would love for racing to return to NA$CAR. BZF is without question a success in the boardroom because of the revenue he has brought in to NA$CAR. That said, in my and I think many’s opinion, he is a complete failure as the head of a racing body. I am like a lot of people one who used to plan weekends around the racing schedule in that I now just turn it on sometimes. As you said, I do not watch boring TV.

  5. Avatar

    If you take away all the aero and half of the other great rules
    the people will probably come back to real racing

  6. Avatar

    What is the deal with Wood Bros. Racing getting stuck with faulty engines from Roush? Three blown engines in five attempts. For the first time in years they have had quality performances in every race they have entered!!!! Could there be a little payback for moving to Penske?

  7. Avatar

    Indycar races have consistently been more exciting and entertaining than NASCAR races since the DW12 came out. Indycar has for the most part fixed their product and is prepared to take over the American racing scene. Unlike NASCAR, who is stuck in its self created quagmire.

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    While Earnhardt Jr. has only led 5 laps at the 1.5 mile tracks this season, he also is the only driver to have top 5 finishes at all the 1.5 mile tracks this year (3rd, 4th, 3rd, 3rd, and 3rd). So it is pretty misleading to say Ives has a long way to go to match the level Jr. was at with Letarte.

  9. Avatar

    Silver lining:

    Perhaps folks being weaned from nascrap will turn their attention to local short tracks, ProCup, ARCA, Southern All Stars, etc. ProCup reminds me of what NASCAR used to be. Teams run on a shoestring budget. The racing is much better & the emotions are more raw.

    Gray haired curmudgeon:

    I still have an ax to grind with Indy. For decades the snooty open wheel types looked down their noses at NASCAR (you know, tobacco chewin’ Southern rednecks, ie me sans the tobacco). When their financial ass was in a sling with the IRL/CART fiasco they turned to NASCAR to save their bacon. We’re told it’s a crown jewel. It isn’t. We’re told the racing is fabulous. It ain’t. The only decent track in the area is IRP and the buffoons in Daytona took the GN & Truck series away from it.

  10. Avatar

    That race was strange and of course boring. And what the hell is going on with these “competition cautions”, lame as all hell.

  11. Avatar

    I really wonder if the new TV deals have minimum ratings performance clauses? Based on past performance, I would imagine the minimum acceptable average rating would be at 4.0. Separating out the Daytona 500 (which actually had pretty good ratings this year), it looks like the average for Fox Sports NASCAR Cup broadcast is coming in somewhere between 3.5 and 3.8. If that is the case, will NASCAR and the promoters have to refund some of the rights fees already paid?

    The low, 3.6 rating for the World 600, one of NASCAR’s flagship events, has to be setting off alarm bells in the News Corp (Fox) and Comcast (NBC) boardrooms. If I were running sports programming for NBC Sports, I’d be really nervous. This is because most of the NASCAR races will be on NBCSN, which has been buried on premium sports tiers on some key cable systems. And the “winner-take-all” Chase finale on NBC broadcast will be slap-up against the 4 p.m. NFL games.

    But it seems that at the Daytona HQ, NASCAR is blundering around hoping to convince some major corporation to replace Sprint to the tune of $100 million per year in naming rights AND $100 million per year in activation and TV ad buys – FOR 10 YEARS???

    Not…Going to…Happen…

    • Avatar

      BZF seems to be some sort of Svengali when it comes to convincing these big corporations to part with their $$ over long periods of time. Fox, NBCsports and whoever it is that they are looking for to fill Sprint’s role in Cup.

      Like you, from my perspective, it isn’t a good deal but these CEO’s seem to be all lathered up to join in — at least until the ROI numbers start showing enough issues to make their shareholders unhappy.

      I wonder if there are performance clauses in these tv contracts. Certainly based on the poor way that Fox and even ESPN presented the broadcasts I wondered why NASCAR didn’t have some sort of clauses in the contract, but as you say, theoretically it should go both ways. As far as Homestead, more than likely I’ll be channel surfing and watching football more than I’ll be watching racing and that is a sad commentary on how far I’ve stepped away from NASCAR.

      I know I have NBCsports but it is a channel I look at frequently. Assuming there are any races I actually want to see, I guess I’ll find it. Much like FS1, it is part of my cable lineup but the only time I watch FS1 now is when there is a race on. I watched Racehub when Steve Byrnes was there but since he passed away, I don’t even bother with that show.

  12. Avatar

    I definitely enjoyed watching the Indy 500 a lot more than I did the Coke 600. Yes there were a lot of wrecks in the lead up to the race so I was a bit worried for the drivers and wondered how well the race would work out. The first lap crash made me go uh oh, but they got it sorted out and wow the competition and passing in that race was awesome.

    I could barely stay awake for the 600 and was bored thru the majority of it.

    J.Smith – I think you may be right — I also think there may be more than 20 fans who have done that – otherwise the ratings wouldn’t continue to sink.

    NASCAR’s business model under BZF has always seemed strange to me. Do things that drive off your existing fans, change EVERYTHING and hope that one of your “brilliant” ideas will make for success. Yep, the France family has gotten lots of $ from TV but that is the only gain that’s been made in the Brian France era. I’m betting that historically he’ll be known as the man who took one of the most popular sports in the US and made it into a non-event.

  13. Avatar
    Sandeep Banerjee

    NASCAR needs a better Memorial Day ‘product’ than a 600 mile, 5 hour marathon at a quintessential aero-pushy cookie cutter track.

  14. Avatar

    Its good to see that Indycar is having some success. Whether they can translate the improvement at Indy to their other races remains to be seen.
    As for Nascar, one has to wonder what the long range plan is, or whether they even have one. Certainly the businessmen have taken over, and maybe thats the plan.

    • Avatar

      indy will not translate to their other races. For the same reason as this article, 95% of the indycar schedule is fraught with mind numbing follow the leader road courses. Add to that a wealth of drivers no one knows who they are and it just isn’t a good formula for Americans. They wanted to be the American version of F-1. Well they got it… Americans don’t typically relate to that either. I also cant help thinking all of their problems with aero and flipping over and such come from the fact THEY AREN’T running ANY ovals prior to Indy. there was no way to tell what was going to happen because they had no prior data.

      • Avatar

        You must not be very smart. Indycar puts on GREAT races at both the road and street courses. It’s a shame that NASCAR only has 2. No way to prove they are the best drivers that way.

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        I agree that it will be difficult for them to translate that success to the other races. They have a long way to go to do any good there. But hope springs eternal I suppose.
        As to the flips I disagree with your premise. Remember it was only the Chevy teams having trouble. So it seems whoever did their aero work got the sums wrong.
        The move of penalizing the Honda teams who weren’t having trouble was reminiscent of Nascar, and I for one disagreed with that approach.
        Whether they need more oval races, is an open question. They need to differentiate themselves from the other series. Oval tracks haven’t been good for them in recent years.

  15. Avatar

    i enjoyed the indy 500. those last 10 laps, just having montoya be as far back as 30th at one point, after having part of the car involved in an wreck, repaired and he set his focus on the prize. i didn’t like seeing the wreck on the first lap, and the lead up to the race was all the airborne wrecks. but in general i enjoyed it much more than the 600 in charlotte. the only part of the 500 that seemed staged (besides the pre-race) was when montoya was wanting to get out of the car in victory lane and the orchestra leader made him wait and wait and wait.

    about charlotte, i’m still scratching my head as to why the track would wash certain areas. isn’t the purpose of racing on a track to build up rubber and have a wider racing groove? what, did they get the tide detergent out and scrub away?

    lead changes….sure on double file restarts for a few laps, then the leader takes off. same song different day.

    be interesting to see if weather is an issue this coming weekend at dover.

  16. Avatar

    The Indy 500 cuts at NASCAR in two ways.
    First, the Indy 500 has delivered much more action from start to finish than the Coca Cola 600 the last several years.
    Second, the Indy 500 is run on the same track, that in July, hosts what is usually an unspeakably bad Cup race.
    I would say most of the Indy 500 lead changes occurred during actual race conditions and weren’t mostly confined to restarts and caution periods. Mike Joy proclaimed that there were 14 lead changes in the first 100 laps of the Coca Cola 600 as if to say we would be telling our grandkids about this race. It turns out only two were not right after a restart or during a caution. Heck, four were during a competition caution for something about the track being hosed down. It used to be those were reserved for the most extenuating of circumstances. Now, they are routine. I thought it was April 1st for a minute when they said there would be a CC as Charlotte hadn’t seen rain in a month.
    As I’ve said before, I can’t stand the Chase. However, you can get rid of the Chase and you still have half the schedule on the intermediate tracks that are only made mildly interesting by well-timed debris cautions or the threat of inclement weather. When a race on an intermediate track is described as “not that bad”, and that is seen as high praise, you are in trouble. Charlotte used to put on a decent race. Now it’s on a trajectory to the way we looked at the 500 miler at Fontana that was run the week after the Daytona 500.

    • Avatar

      rg, It’s not the tracks. If open wheel can put on a competitive event at Indy so can NASCAR. It’s the cars and the gimmickry employed to avoid fixing them that plague NASCAR. GWC’s, double file restarts, wave a rounds, lucky dogs, and manipulation cautions are an ineffective way to disguise indistinguishable cars that appear designed NOT to be able to pass. With too much downforce, aero dependence and now engines with a renamed plate to assure sluggish throttle response coupled with fan deafness beyond belief how can anyone be surprised that interest continues to wane.

      • Avatar

        Agreed. It’s the current “package” at these tracks rather than the tracks themselves. I remember when Charlotte, Atlanta, and even Texas had stellar races.
        The Lucky Dog was the first peg in the whole process. I think half its purpose the first few years was to keep Dale Jr. relevant in his later days at DEI.
        And don’t get me started about races that suddenly have 30 cars on the lead lap at the end when there 12 or 15 on it at the halfway point.

        • Avatar

          the cars have been a problem since they went to the wing instead of the spoiler. Those cars were one of THEE dumbest moves they made they need to stop listening to these whing baby drivers screaming about how the races are too long and their car isn’t as aero as the others or their engines don’t have as much HP as the other guys…these drivers are just about as spoiled as the IndyCar Drivers od the F-1 drivers. with all the complaining and whining its no wonder NASCAR has spec cars.

  17. Avatar

    I agree the Indy race was better than the NASCAR race. Every time you think ratings can’t go any lower and that NASCAR has to have bottomed out, they find a way to sink lower. I don’t believe there is any chance of a turn around until someone else is appointed emperor.

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      … and the chances of that happening are, unfortunately, slim to none.

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        Yep, BZF has a lifetime position as emperor so he can continue fiddling while Rome burns.

        that’s OK, after Homestead, I’ll be one less fan in the headcount.

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          Remember BZF’s family can force him ouit at any time they see fit. Obviously they aren’t as unhappy as we are.

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            that’s because BZF brings in the $$ from the TV contracts & sponsorships. If that stops, they’d throw him overboard in a heartbeat.

  18. Avatar

    You missed one demo that contributes to the rise of Indycar. Admittedly there are probably only 20 of us but we are the NASCAR fans that have turned to other forms of racing during the Brian France regime.